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From Afghanistan to Pakistan, meet the women owning the internet

Honoree and founder/CEO of Code to Inspire Fereshteh Forough speaks during the Marie Claire Young Women's Honors in Marina del Rey, California, 19 November 2016
Honoree and founder/CEO of Code to Inspire Fereshteh Forough speaks during the Marie Claire Young Women's Honors in Marina del Rey, California, 19 November 2016

Rich Polk/Getty Images for Young Women's Honors

This statement was originally published on indexoncensorship.org on 3 July 2018.

Cultural stereotyping, extremism, a patriarchal society, a deficit of safe and secure educational environments, verbal and sexual harassment. These are the terms that Fereshteh Forough, founder of Afghanistan's first ever coding school for girls, uses to describe what women face in her country every day.

This repression continued after the fall of the Taliban in 2011, the Code to Inspire CEO told Index on Censorship, and still "prevents women from participating in many social activities outside of their hometown".

Forough is working to open up online spaces for women and hopes that in doing so these digital freedoms will break down social and economic barriers in Afghanistan. Code to Inspire's first school opened in Afghanistan in 2015 and teaches girls how to programme. By empowering young women Forough hopes to carve a way through the digital space, which mirrors the male-dominated spaces of their lives, so they can participate in the economic market in Afghanistan and gain independence. "Knowledge is power and technology is the tool for empowerment," she said.

Harnessing technology is a way, Forough believes, of liberating women in all aspects of their lives. It is a way of using progress to combat regression. "Looking at the technology and how it enables people to cross borders without geographical boundaries and share their stories is such an empowering tool," she explains.

"For an Afghan woman who can not commute due to family restrictions or safety reasons to other cities or outside, it can help her to explore the world virtually, get connected to the people outside of Afghanistan and feel more confident."


Connecting

Internet use in Pakistan and Afghanistan is far from straightforward and being a woman makes it even harder.

Internet access in Afghanistan has much improved since the fall of the Taliban. Yet despite the current government's recognition of the tool as important for the country's development, problems remain. The CIA factbook reported in 2016 that only an estimated 10.6% of the country's population had access to the internet. The National Unity Government is working to end gender inequality and there are more women holding positions of power than at any other time in history. 27.7% of seats in parliament are held by women. But according to a Global Rights Study, 87% of women experience physical, sexual or psychological violence in their lives. Stigma still surrounds female education despite rising numbers in school attendance.

Freedom House concluded in their 2017 Freedom of the Net report that Pakistan's internet is "not free". Starting in June 2016, Pakistan's mobile internet service was shut off for more than a year in Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The internet has been shut down several other times at politically divisive moments. As the country comes up to an election this year, Freedom House predicts internet shutdowns and for political speech to be restricted online.

The country's first comprehensive cybercrime act was passed in 2016 by the National Assembly and Senate, enabling censorship and surveillance. Alongside infrastructure limitations, taxes on the internet are high and prevent the majority of the population from connecting. Many rural areas remain offline due to ongoing conflict or underdevelopment.


"Women are being excluded from the digital revolution"

While progress may be slow and the internet unstable, going online presents fresh possibilities and challenges for women in these neighbouring countries. As new technologies clash with historically patriarchal cultures, being connected means being seen. Being plugged in provides greater scope for education and potential participation in an ever-expanding jobs market. Online spaces, ideally, enable democratic discussion and freedom of expression. But in societies where independent women can be regarded as shameful, prejudice inevitably follows them into online spaces.

Mats Granryd, director general of the UN's Working Group on the Gender Digital Divide said in their 2017 report: "Mobile is the dominant platform for internet access in many parts of the world. The issue is that while mobile connectivity is spreading quickly, it is not spreading equally." Oliver Rowntree reported from GSMA's Connected Women's Study 2018: "Women are being excluded from the digital revolution. Only 10% of women in Pakistan use mobile internet compared to 26% of men."

Access to technology and autonomy online are difficult, however. Access is often monitored by male family members or connections. Some women are fatally endangered through online activity.

In 2016 Qandeel Baloch died after being strangled by her brother for her social media presence. In his confession, he said: "Girls are born only to stay at home and to bring honour to the family by following family traditions." Online harassment is rife and further discourages women from accessing information communication technologies, especially with social support in such situations unlikely.

"The digital divide between men and women in Pakistan is among the highest in the world as a result of religious, social, and cultural restrictions on women owning devices," Freedom House's report outlines. Militant Islamic attacks have also been carried out on internet cafes for encouraging moral corruption.

Professor Deborah Wheeler has lectured throughout the Middle East and Europe about her research into the internet's impacts on women. She currently works in the United States Naval Academy's Political Science Department. Wheeler is passionate about the potential for technology to empower women everywhere.

She tells Index on Censorship: "Given social constraints on women's movement, participation in public life, dress, expectations and voice in the Muslim world, digital communication gives women tools with which to create change on issues which directly affect their lives."

"While censorship and punishment for violating media laws by directly opposing the government online do occur, what I find more interesting and more promising as a force for change in women's lives, are the kinds of widespread experimentation with voice and agency taking place in everyday life."


Time for change

Like Forough, Nighat Dad, who runs Pakistan's Digital Rights Foundation, is trying to enable just that. A digital rights lawyer and activist in Pakistan, she is fighting against women's exclusion from online spaces and working to ensure safety online. She told TED: "It's how patriarchal norms treat women in offline spaces, and the same mindset is true in online spaces."

Dad explains that her family forbade her from having a phone as a young woman. Her husband, from whom she is divorced, allowed her to have a phone but it was so strictly monitored she says it felt more like a surveillance device. She founded the Digital Rights Foundation, which like Code to Inspire was shortlisted for a 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Fellowship, in 2012 to defend women's rights online. They recently established a helpline for women experiencing harassment online.

Women, who make up only 20-25% of internet users in the country, are regularly subjected to revenge porn, harassment, blackmail, privacy violations and more. As a result, they retreat from online spaces. Dad wants to prevent this silencing of women's voices.

The DRF said: "Digital Rights Foundation envisions a place where all people, and especially women, are able to exercise their right of expression without being threatened."


Hope

Thanks to the courage and persistence of women like Forough and Dad, things are changing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Forough is not letting a lack of resources hold her back. "Sometimes you don't have the available resources to succeed," she said. "As a refugee born, I learned to be scrappy and resourceful. Change is possible, no matter who or where you are!"

Over email, she quotes Rumi. "'Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.' From the ruins of a shattered nation and shattered lives of refugees can come treasure, if we know where to find it. We hope to empower this generation of young women in Afghanistan with technology so that the next generation will be peacebuilders and not war makers."

Women like Nighat and Fereshteh are forging a new future for women, both online and off. Nighat tells Index on Censorship she hopes for "A future where women don't have to fight for the rights they were born with, a future that is without discrimination and is safe, inclusive and free for everyone."


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