12/01/2021

Expediting Justice: On Social Media Campaigns for Victims

On 25th July, 2021, I received a Direct Message (DM) over Twitter. It read, “A woman in Tando jam district Hyderabad, from where I belong, has been burnt alive by her husband.” The text continued with “you have decent reach, can you share the story so more and more people can raise their voice for her? This may bring her husband to justice.” 

Just four days prior to this message, another girl Noor Mukadam was brutally murdered and beheaded in F-7 Islamabad. The incident that took the forefront in national news for weeks after an outpour of disbelief, anger and grief across social media occurred, all under the hashtag #JusticeforNoor. The collectivisation for Noor online seemed to solidify citizens’ hope in social media being one of the sole avenues through which they could expedite the process of justice.

It was that hope that prompted the request in my DMs – hope that if enough people began talking about the woman in Tando Jam, perhaps her tragedy would not be destined to remain invisible from the public eye, perhaps her case would not remain backlogged for years at a district court, and perhaps she would not have to be memorialised solely in a small corner on page 4 of a local newspaper. Underneath this hope though, there is a distinct presence of helplessness. Why should a citizen have to turn to the Internet about grotesque crimes or injustices, and what does this indicate about the structures that are meant to protect these citizens? 

In Pakistan, conviction rates for crimes involving gender based violence are significantly low. For instance, less than 3 percent of rape or sexual assault cases result in a conviction. In contrast, the rates of experiencing gender based violence are alarmingly high. According to statistical information sourced from UNODC’s “Gender and the Pandemic” Advocacy Brief 4, 90 percent of Pakistani women experience some form of domestic violence by their spouse or families, whereas 47 percent of married women face sexual abuse including marital rape. However, only 0.4 percent of women pursue legal action by taking their cases to court. There seems to be a clear indication towards the idea that while crimes against women are rampant, there is an inherent distrust towards approaching figures of authority or law enforcement agencies that are meant to administer justice. This reflects in both the low figures of reporting gender based violence and the conviction rates for these crimes. When citizens begin to feel that due procedure will be a disservice to their cases due to inefficient bureaucracies, backlogs, a judiciary that does not have favorable precedents, and perhaps simply a lack of care, this will feed into a cycle of underreporting, and consequently low convictions too. In order to mitigate this, hence, the use of hashtags seeking justice or taking cases public with the hope of becoming viral has become endemic to social media spaces and the discourses generated online. Most notably, the hashtag prefixed with #JusticeFor is utilised widely for individual cases, and it works due to its simplicity, brevity and ability to replicate by catching people’s attention.

There seems to be a clear indication towards the idea that while crimes against women are rampant, there is an inherent distrust towards approaching figures of authority or law enforcement agencies that are meant to administer justice. 

In order to further understand this phenomenon, three women were interviewed with their experiences with cases of gendered violence, and how social media helped their circumstances.  

One student from Bahria College Islamabad recounted her experience with a biology examiner, Saadat Bashir, in 2018. Several female students complained about their experiences of sexual harassment by Saadat, and the students approached the issue procedurally by first taking up the complaint at an administrative level. However, the response given by the Head of Department (HOD) was lacking. The HOD reportedly laughed off the incidents recounted, making the students feel their grievances being dismissed despite them reaching out with hopes of the institution acting to protect their women. It was then, states the student, that one of the girls decided to post about it online – in her words, “We all campaigned to get it some media attention to put pressure on our school to do something about it.” 

When asked about the effectiveness of this method, the student felt that the media attention garnered after it was posted online was wholly positive, and the results of this were tangible. It was revealed through following social media testimonies that the examiner had been sexually harassing students for years, including at various other schools and private academies where previous complaints were quashed. Moreover, members of three different parties spoke about the Bahria College issue in the National Assembly, and the matter eventually went to the federal board and federal ombudsman where a committee sat to review Bashir’s behaviour.

While the case never became a police investigation due to the victims’ families discouraging their further involvement, Saadat Bashir was fired from his job. While the eventual outcome for the students at Bahria College was favourable, it is imperative to note that the victims felt the need to resort to social media after their complaints through official channels were not addressed. The response of the college administration can be seen as a microcosm of how law enforcement structures in general operate with victims.

Ultimately, there is always a distinct lack of empathy, efficiency and care attached to cases. Feminist activist Wardah Noor faced similar circumstances when she got involved in a case of violence against transgender folks in her home town, Layyah. The incident took place during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, and entailed a group of boys who trespassed into the homes of the local trans community members and beat them. An FIR was lodged, and despite the community protesting outside of the police station demanding prompt arrests of the culprits, no action was taken. It was then when Wardah decided to take the incident public on behalf of the trans community by tweeting about it to her followers on Twitter. 

Ultimately, there is always a distinct lack of empathy, efficiency and care attached to cases.

When asked about the outcomes of the social media campaigning as compared to the physical protest, Wardah felt that the collectivisation online had a much greater impact. There are caveats attached to online mobilisation, however. “On Twitter, tweets make no difference either. What creates an impact is when somebody of influence sees your campaign and gets involved and makes calls,” says Wardah, emphasizing that the success of her efforts was attached to getting the right people to see it. This parallels the experiences of the Bahria College students too, who also received help and support after their plight went viral and members of the National Assembly took notice. Resultantly, arrests were made after a senior police officer noticed the tweets and made a call to the police station, urging them to take action.

Though the efficacy of social media campaigns can be tangibly seen, it still requires immense vulnerability from victims. Bringing their circumstances in front of the public eye is something that not all victims wish to partake in, and the consequences of that can bring significant harm in terms of mental stability, peace and privacy. To understand this, I reached out to Zehra Baloch, a student and the younger sister of Quratulain – a mother of three young children who was brutally murdered by her husband Umer Memon in Hyderabad, Sindh on 15th July, 2021. The family of the bereaved found themselves in an unimaginably horrific situation when they went to the police station after the burial of Quratulain. Zehra stated that they had high hopes and expectations from the police and had faith in the idea of justice prevailing, only to be let down with a refusal to lodge an FIR. According to her the culprit, Umer Baloch, hailed from a powerful and wealthy family that had political influence, and this created a significant impediment to the case. Zehra says, “Usually, criminals get detained by the police and face even torture and forced confessions, but Umer’s influence protected him from every consequence.” After being turned down from the police, Zehra and her family had to turn towards social media. 

On 16th July, 2021, one day after the murder, an Instagram page run by the family titled “justiceforquratulainainy” appeared and posted its first post. It contained a picture of the victim’s dead body, with details from the postmortem report added in the caption. Quratulain suffered torture for hours until she was hit on the head, and strangled. Her body was full of bruises, her nose was bleeding till the very end, her neck was swollen and her jawbone was broken. All of this information was posted for public consumption. It had to be, for the family to raise awareness about what happened to her. It is daunting to imagine that in a time of unquantifiable shock and trauma, a victim’s grieving family needs to be pushed towards sharing the most private and horrific incident of their lives online. Shortly afterwards, #JusticeforQuratulain appeared over Twitter, garnering thousands of tweets which made it trend for days.

It is daunting to imagine that in a time of unquantifiable shock and trauma, a victim’s grieving family needs to be pushed towards sharing the most private and horrific incident of their lives online.

Zehra says it was not easy. While Facebook, Instagram and Twitter outrage was helpful in the beginning and pushed the police into lodging an FIR so that a case could commence, public reaction was mixed. “Why do we always need Twitter to have the action taken? We shouldn’t need to put pressure on the police,” Zehra lamented. “Ainy was supposed to be there with us on Eid. We were in shock, we needed time to process and mourn and we got none of that. We had to plead on social media to get justice. While we got lots of support, some people were incredibly hurtful. They said we should be punished too. We had to give justifications on why Ainy never got divorced before amongst other things. We wish we never needed social media, but then again we have to turn towards social media to get justice.”

Zehra’s question for why we need social media to place pressure on legal institutions to do their job is one that remains frustratingly unanswered and overlooked. But it is fundamental. With the absence of power and influence, the onus remains upon victims and people close to them to struggle to get their plight heard by turning online, hoping to garner public support. Amidst the fight for bringing cases to justice, we must constantly ask a question that demands an answer: why is justice no longer prevailing in the court of law? Why is there a need to trend a #JusticeFor hashtag every time a crime is committed? And why do laws fail to unconditionally grant justice to victims and their families? It is a reflection of a broken justice system, and questions that must be answered by those who make, implement and uphold these laws. 

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