Moral policing on the internet is rooted in patriarchal ideas of controlling women’s bodies

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

There came a point when a lot of millennials stopped posting on Facebook, our accounts an archive of teenage years, disturbed only by the occasional shout out or birthday wish. We joked that it’s because our parents infiltrated our feed with false news, sensational videos, comments and anything else deemed uncool. Their entry onto the Facebook scene was conveniently met with the arrival of Instagram and Snapchat, more engaging ways of staying in touch, and curating our lives. And so the move was easy. But buried deep within our escape from Facebook was an all too familiar recognition of surveillance, and breaches of privacy. We did not stop posting on Facebook because it was unpopular, but because it was now dangerous. It meant a merging of our offline world with the online. The limits of one superimposed on the other. 

Now a graduate student in the United States, Anum* comes from a conservative family in Pakistan. She recalls that in 2013 when she was in A Levels, her cousin called her father to complain about a picture she had posted of herself on Facebook, that too without a dupatta. Her parents were furious. On speaking about the post being seen as a moral transgression, Anum* thinks, “In my father’s case the issue of morality was that my picture was online and everyone could see it. It’s based on this social and religious belief that you are a woman and your body should not be out there in public.” The incident rattled Anum* enough to make her deactivate her Facebook account after the incident, only to reactivate it years later with a host of privacy settings in place to make sure her family, immediate and extended, could not view most of her posts. 

Burden and bearer of honour

As women, we move through the world with caution, knowing that our words, clothes, or where our gaze rests can land us into trouble. We are all too familiar with the dual yet contradictory burden of maintaining but also threatening the country’s honour and integrity. Fahash is a word the cadences of which fall naturally to our ears. So, when the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) banned Tinder, Grindr, and other dating apps, as well as the content creation app Bigo Live, for ‘negatively affecting society’ and ‘spreading indecency, vulgarity, and obscenity’, I was not surprised for the online space was never separate from patriarchal forms of surveillance and control. The hyper-visibility of women in the public sphere, as well as any expressions of sexuality has been known to cause anxiety amongst society and the many governments that have ruled the country, resulting in a whole host of content regulations. We have witnessed this with television shows, where PTA regularly directs channels to air content that mirrors the “society’s norms”. Perhaps owing to a growth in online video consumption, we have now seen this more recently with censorship and banning of apps, and notices to TikTok and YouTube to “put in place a comprehensive mechanism to control obscenity, vulgarity and immorality through its social media application.” 

On the surface, these bans come across as mere inconveniences. However, a look at our history of declaring anything, from persons to writing to images,  obscene, or its accompanying words, vulgar and indecent, reveals a more sinister discomfort with the feminine being visible in the public sphere. As the drive to purge Pakistani society of immoral elements is directed towards the internet, it is worth looking at what counts as obscene, and what bans on the basis of it can mean for women’s online activity and privacy. 

But first, what does obscenity/vulgarity/indecency even mean?

The terms obscenity, vulgarity and indecency entered the subcontinent’s legal lexicon with the arrival of British colonialism. Its power rests on the  elusive nature of its meaning and use, and in Pakistan, this is tied very closely to ideas of national honour and integrity, and well as ‘Islamic principles’, making obscenity both a violation of the country’s moral as well as Islamic religious belief system. On searching for definitions of the word as understood by the Pakistani state, I only hit dead-ends, but it is instructive to look at PEMRA’s understanding of it from 2012, where it says, “any content which is unacceptable while viewing with the family transpires obscenity”. The vague definition and understanding testifies to the highly subjective nature of the word, for it rests on assumed moral standards. 

Government bodies on multiple occasions have expressed dissatisfaction against content on television and the internet for being obscene. As recently as September 26th, it was reported that the Prime Minister has “directed PTA to cleanse the internet, social media and various apps of vulgarity for users in Pakistan.” It was added that “PM Imran Khan is worried about the destruction caused to the social, cultural and religious values of society by vulgarity.” 

When applied to the internet, or even television, the possibilities of what can be deemed obscene are endless, and threaten the removal of, as compared to critical engagement with, content that offends the moral sensibilities of the country’s patriarchs. 

Director Research and Policy at Digital Rights Foundation, Shmyla Khan says, “These terms [vulgarity, obscenity, and indecency] as legal concepts are often used as tools of control and accord unlimited discretion to bodies such as the PTA in controlling the internet. Our courts, police and regulatory bodies have no legal standard with which to define these terms, [and] they seem to be using the same male-centered standard that former [United States] Supreme Court Justice Stewart used when he defined obscene content as ‘I know it when I see it.’” 

Thus, obscenity is anything that the state wants it to be, and our experience shows that it is almost always patriarchal in nature. 

Shmyla adds, “The categories of “indecent” and “vulgar” frequently used by our courts and authorities that govern the internet are not surprising because they are an attempt for the state to assert control over sexuality and women’s bodies. In a country that balks at the mention of the word “jism”, any avenues used by women, and gender and sexual minorities to express themselves are inherently seen as vulgar and obscene.” 

She shares that this was seen with the constitutional challenges raised in the Lahore and Islamabad High Court with regards to the Aurat March. Several days before the Aurat March 2020 was to take place, a petition was filed in the Lahore High Court (LHC) by Judicial Activism Council Chairman Azhar Siddique against the holding of the March. Amongst other things, the petition termed the March “against the norms of Islam” with a hidden agenda to spread “vulgarity and hatred”. The LHC Chief Justice, Mamoon Rashid Sheikh ruled that the March cannot be stopped under Pakistani law and constitution. A petition against the holding of Aurat March 2020 in Islamabad was also submitted in the Islamabad High Court (IHC), where petitioners urged the court to regulate activities such as Aurat March, “subject to law, norms, decency and public morality in the best interest of justice”. This petition was also dismissed.

Shmyla adds that, “[The] resistance to the March was framed [in courts] within the language of indecency–having women’s bodies in the streets enmasse, having their self-expression plastered across public spaces, both online and offline, would irreparably damage the fabric of society. The underlying assumption being that the current fabric of society is desirable, the status quo where women’s bodies and speech are controlled is the natural order of things.”

Human rights defender Tahira Abdullah went so far as to say, “The terms “morality” and “indecency” are so subjective, so vague, so emotive, so loaded, so sexist, so misused and abused – that it is impossible to have a serious, sober, meaningful discussion on them – thus, feminists should simply refuse to be provoked into a futile debate on these passé semantics.” 

Thus, a discussion on this is important only so far as it provides an insight into the kind of online content one can expect to see regulatory action against, especially now that the PTA has been encouraging citizens to report content they deem “fahash”. It is worth remembering that the government’s efforts to crackdown on such content is backed by the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 which gives authorities far reaching powers to remove content under s.37: Unlawful Content, and punish offenders under various other sections of the Act.

Digital Rights lawyer Jannat Kalyar states, “PTA uses section 37 of PECA as the legal basis for the removal or blocking of online content that it considers “unlawful”. In the absence of a prescribed standard, it arbitrarily interprets vague terms such as “immorality”, “indecency”, “vulgarity” and “obscenity” to block or remove online content, as it deems fit.”

Furthermore, section 294 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) deals with obscenity, and states: 

“Obscene acts and songs:
Whoever, to the annoyance of others, 
(a) does any obscene act in any public place, or
(b) sings, recites or utters any obscene songs, ballad or words, in or near any public place,
shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both.”

With this section of PPC coupled with PECA and cultural norms of Pakistani society, it is most concerning that if the regulation of obscene content seeks to surveil and control women, we can expect the online space to grow even more hostile for them. The moral policing women have experienced offline will likely intensify online, with a panic about the online space being created by the government. 

Panic at the Internet

It is obvious that the PTA’s ban of dating and live-streaming apps is an exaggerated reaction to a perceived threat to the society’s collective morality. It is not unusual for the media, policymakers, or the community to have over the top reactions to events or instances that threaten the supposed morality of the group at large. This phenomenon, theorised by Stanley Cohen – a sociologist and criminologist, is called a moral panic and can be understood as, “…a panic or overreaction to forms of deviance or wrong doing believed to be threats to the moral order.” There are several reasons for why a panic about the country’s supposedly degrading moral standards has emerged, but what is worrying is that it is turning towards a control and regulation of cyberspace, particularly women’s visibility in it. The assault on women’s visibility due to this moral panic is made even more clear from recent remarks by the Information Minister, Shibli Faraz, who responding to the PTV “controversy” of showing a woman working out said, “What I wouldn’t want my own daughter to do, I will not allow to be done by someone else’s daughter and sister.” 

Jannat reminds us that, “For eons, terms such as morality and decency have been used to constrain women’s agency to control their bodies and choices, and these online curbs are a continuum of the offline harassment and discrimination they face every day.” The online patrol of the moral police is particularly harmful for women because to those who were able to access it, the internet gave an opportunity to evade issues of mobility and societal restrictions that stood in their way of interacting with people, and expressing their beliefs and sexuality. We only have to look at all women Facebook groups such as Soul Sisters, and Soul Bitches, or smaller more restricted ones such as WIN- Women in Numbers or Girl Power at LUMS, where women discuss marital and health issues, take career and other advice from each other, and even out harassers. 

The internet grants women the luxury to partake in a public conversation, and occupy the public square, so to say, without leaving the confines of a chaar diwari. It creates a semi-alternate dimension where despite being present in an acceptable physical space, a woman can have her voice heard or her face seen by those who otherwise she would never have the permission to interact with. Beyond visibility, the internet also provides women the opportunity to make communes, and discuss aspects of their lives that they otherwise cannot. These are all feminist acts threatened by the panic that has chosen the internet as its next victim. In a country where women already face challenges to access the internet, the government’s crackdown on content in the context of indecency threatens to further invisibilise women online.

A defining feature of moral panics is that it is almost always sensationalised by the media, thus impacting public opinion. Given the plethora of issues plaguing the country, it is unlikely that this issue will completely take up talk time on television, however, because the narrative of a society regressing towards immorality is peddled by the populist ruling government, we can expect public sentiments to sway in its favour. 

Anum* reactivated her Facebook account several years later when she needed it to stay up to date with conversations taking place on her university’s Facebook group. “After I activated my account again, I was more careful about adding relatives. Those I did add, I blocked from seeing anything that I posted. But this obviously meant that I could not post everything in a public setting, because then they too would see my posts, and might complain to my parents again.” A panic about controlling the internet that is emerging from the dual pressures from societal norms and government regulations can likely result in women censoring themselves online, and posting through aliases.

Good Girls Don’t Go Online

Women around the world face a variety of constraints in accessing the internet, and these are only exacerbated by structural and cultural barriers. In low and middle income countries, one of which is Pakistan, 300 million less women can access mobile internet than men. To add to this, South Asia has the largest mobile gender gap in the entire world coming down to 51%. In Pakistan, family disapproval is the main factor preventing 29% of sample female non-users of mobile internet from getting online, compared to only 2% men; this reflects a larger cultural bias against women using technological tools of communication and expression. Many women are also discouraged from using the internet for it is perceived to be irrelevant for them. 

Men also tend to think that women who use the internet are feminists, and are often “too feminist”, a word many in the country do not want themselves or women they know to be associated with. Zainab*, an undergraduate student at Lahore University of Management Sciences reveals that, “I attended the Aurat March, and work on interfath harmony at the university, but I try not to post a lot of feminist content online, especially on Facebook where I have family added because then they do not take my views seriously. They have dismissed others as an angry feminist, and I do not want that for myself. I think it’s unfair, but at least people are more willing to hear my point of view when they don’t know how feminist I am. This label is tricky and I have to always calculate before I associate myself with it in front of more conservative people.” 

The social media landscape in Pakistan is already dominated by men, who constitute 77% of Facebook users as compared to a meagre 23% who declare themselves female. Jannat is of the view that, “PTA’s recent blocking of dating and live-streaming applications under the pretext of ‘immoral and indecent content’ is one of the many examples that shows the arbitrary manner in which it stifles users’ – in particular womens’ – freedom of expression and access to information. Such measures only add to the barriers that women already face in their online participation.” 

When the government begins to imagine the internet as a safe haven for all things obscene, we can expect family approval of women’s access to the internet to also decrease as it will be seen as irrelevant for women and girls, and unsafe because of the supposed immoral content lurking around. A study titled “The Internet As We See It” by Media Matters for Democracy, revealed that women have said that their families would prevent them from sharing images on the Internet, especially on social media for fear of misuse. As fears about an unsafe and immoral internet mount, security, safety, and protection of women’s honour will likely be added to the arsenal of excuses women hear against their online participation. 

Restricting women’s access to the internet for fear of their safety is unfortunate precisely because it is mis-directed. Mariam Mirza, a user on Facebook says that she frequently gets attacked for posting content that advocates women’s rights, and receives responses that call her an indecent/vulgar feminist. On asking what these responses are, Mariam said, “I usually get attacked for posting certain comments on social media, like if you talk about women’s rights, guys attack with comments such as ‘han, tum feminists toh sab nanga ghoomna chahti ho. (You feminists just want to roam around naked everywhere.)” 

Aimun Faisal who regularly tweets about feminist issues at @bluemagicboxes says that she also receives abuse online for posting feminist content. Speaking about her experience online, Aimun says, “My posts with feminist content are discredited for being immoral all the time, especially on Twitter. Men often also weaponise religion to enforce compliance with South Asian tradition. It goes from holier than thou, ‘I will pray you find the right path,’ to straight out abuse.” She adds that, “I was anonymous on Twitter for quite a few years, and at one point decided to change my avi to a picture of Misbah-ul-Haq. People assumed I’m a man, and the online abuse I received for my posts significantly reduced!” Thus, even for the same opinions, women tend to face more abuse than their male counterparts, simply because women’s opinions are intolerable more so because of the gender associated with them.  

Jannat points out, “Unfortunately, the discretionary powers under section 37 [of PECA] are rarely used in “real” cases to remove unlawful online which also constitutes flagrant privacy violations such as the leaked CCTV footage of a couple in a cinema, which is still doing the rounds online.” Previously, Section 37 has been used to block Awami Workers Party’s website prior to the general elections in 2018. Authorities also took action against the Khabaristan Times, a satirical news website, invoking article 37, blocking the website on the grounds that it published anti-state content. PECA was passed on the pretext of protecting women from harassment in online spaces, yet another example of using women’s security as a ploy to fullfil ulterior motives. While authorities were initially responsive to requests against gender based harassment online, this quickly fizzled out. 

This view is further supported by 66.7% respondents of a survey conducted by the Digital Rights Foundation, who did not support the regulation of online spaces to make them safer. It is worth asking, who are we really protecting and acceding to by asking women to stay silent, invisible, or outright offline? Who benefits from the kind of “morally upright” society pursued by the government?

“You weren’t supposed to see this.”

“At that time my parents had this view that you shouldn’t put things online because anyone can see it. Privacy was a concern for them but not in the way we see it,” Anum* recalls. What was implicit in Anum’s parent’s anxiety about her online posts reaching their social circles was that her body, the female body, even in the form of a picture was to be guarded, and contained within the private sphere. Women’s visibility online creates so much anxiety because it goes against demarcations between the private and public that had been formed decades ago which dictated that the home, or private sphere is for the woman, and the public sphere out of bounds. Ideas such as this coupled with the need to protect family honour through controlling a woman’s body perhaps result in a desperation to surveil women at all costs, even if it means a tracking of their online activity. 

When it comes to punishing anyone who is believed to have violated certain societal rules of morality, considerations for privacy or safety of the said person are thrown out the window. The moral brigade practices no restraint when it comes to stealing images or information, and widely sharing it online with an aim to ‘expose the deviant’. After the Aurat March in 2019, at least 22 accounts were reported to FIA for online threats faced by organisers and attendees. Pictures of attendees were stolen from private portals and then uploaded on public groups online and shared as memes. The women’s personal identities were revealed; their names and profiles were shared as comments below the pictures. In another instance, a picture of a girl from the march was uploaded, resulting in her receiving death threats, and creating problems for her at home. 

Non-consensual sharing of images remains a major problem for women, but we are seeing that with a desire to instate a certain morality online, this is being done not only in the context of intimate partner violence, but by many others who wish to put women’s online activity up for trial. 

Abeera* was in her early teens in 2009 when she joined Facebook, and decided to add everyone she knew as a friend. “I was very careless with what I posted online at the time, and remember that I was obsessed with sharing music and all sorts of quizzes on my profile. This was until my family got a call from a relative one day, complaining about a celebrity compatibility quiz I had done. They said that it was indecent, and had sexual innuendos! All my posts were under scrutiny. It was really infuriating that a call from a relative meant that my immediate family demanded I show them all my posts because they were not on Facebook at the time,” says Abeera. Even at that time, Abeera says, “I did feel that my privacy was violated in the sense that I was made to show everything I had posted to people who were not online just because someone had sparked a panic about my immorality in the family.” 

Monitoring women’s online activity, in extension to their offline life, is the norm for many. Participants of a focus group discussion conducted by Media Matters for Democracy revealed that, “there was a significant amount of monitoring of digital activity by men.” They added that, “This was not only in the context of their partners or spouses but also in relation to their siblings or children… Another type of restriction that women mentioned was of parental control.” 

It is evident that privacy can be readily compromised if it ensures the protection of morality. Yet another reminder that for women and anyone else who dares to deviate from the confines of Pakistani society’s stifling religio-moral policing, the online and offline space merge into one. 

Societal norms encourage moral policing of this kind, but it is worth asking how this will change with support from the state. Will people be encouraged to make privacy breaches and report content to ensure their ideas of morality are not violated? It unfortunately seems so. 

Save the Cyberspace

Conversations about the Pakistani society’s moral degradation rage on. Prime Minister Imran Khan is convinced that rape cases are increasing in the country because our society is losing its moral compass owing to vulgarity that has spread through Bollywood movies, western entertainment, and availability of mobile phones which enable easier access to adult content. The argument goes that vulgarity must be countered to save the country from a total moral degradation. There is some merit to the argument that transgressors of sexual violence are encouraged by pornography, however, that is neither the only reason nor the major reason of crimes that are primarily based on power and control. Efforts to encourage regulation of the internet and cyberspace find justification in protecting women and children from sexual abuse, but the impact of this will instead be detrimental to women’s online experience.

As we contend with this moment of fervour to institute morality, police indecency, and regulate, regulate, regulate, it’s important to ask ourselves what we want our cyberspace to look like. We only have to look at our neighbour(s) to know that regulating the internet, and criminalising dissent and national sentiments online is very much possible. But do we really want to aspire towards an impoverished space, devoid of any of the diversity of ideas, thoughts, and expressions that the internet allows?

*Names have been changed to protect identity of individuals.

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