Author: Sabah Bano Malik
One of the first things the Internet taught me is perhaps one of the most dangerous for people who would like to keep the Internet out of everyone’s (particularly girls’ and women’s) hands: I am not alone.
For every question I typed into search, it appeared thousands, if not millions, of others, had the same idea.
There were countless forums from the early days of AOL and MSN group chats to the introduction of Facebook groups built around shared interests that proved the internet was a meeting ground for people who thought alike or, at the very least, thought about the same things at times in different ways.
When questioning something in isolation, someone may feel they are kooky, insane, an outlier to common sense and accepted thought, but when questioning something and seeing that others were doing it too - it fuels the search for more answers, more perspectives, more curiosity – and for some there could be nothing more nefarious.
According to the GSM Association (GSMA), a non-profit industry organisation representing the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, 52% of Pakistan’s female population uses mobile phones. Of them, only 21% have access to mobile internet. In fact, Pakistan has the highest gap between male and female cell phone users globally.
When one Googles “women + killed + cell phone + Pakistan” or “women + killed + social media + Pakistan”, – the results are disturbing.
Brothers killing sisters for having cell phones, husbands killing wives for their internet use, fathers also doing it, even uncles taking lives - any male in proximity with an ego, really. In Pakistan, in 2013, a mother of two, Arifa, was ordered to be stoned to death by a tribal court (Panchayat – made up of all men) for possessing a mobile phone. For simply owning a phone. The ones who cast the stones were her uncles and extended male members of her family.
A confirmed pattern
Perhaps the most infamous honour killing linked with a woman’s use of mobile phones, social media and the internet would be that of Qandeel Baloch.
One of Pakistan’s most recognisable internet celebrities at the time utilised the internet to build her own platform, openly dream, and push the limits of what her family (and Pakistan at large) would deem respectable and acceptable.
Though that’s a limited way of describing it, as no two homes are the same, some families could care less if the women in their homes are perusing the web. Others condemn them to death.
After skyrocketing to the fronts of our screens and making the people of the country who hold onto respectability (almost always at the expense of girls and women) squirm, her brother – whose life (and whose family’s life) was bankrolled by her internet fame and savvy, murdered her. He not only admitted to it but grinned ear to ear as he was taken into custody, boasting that he had ended Qandeel Baloch in honour. He was widely celebrated for doing so.
The holding of a cell phone, the use of a cell phone, and especially dancing with the internet has been made a point of honour for many mentalities, and the question is, “why?”
One of the first things I learned on the internet is that I could talk to my friends away from the eyes and ears of my parents. Long before most people, especially children, were armed with a cell phone we would only get to speak to our friends using one of two ways: in-person meet-ups or over the now mostly defunct landline which anyone could pick up at any time.
It was not uncommon to be giggling with your friend and hear the tell-tale click of someone else picking up the phone and the sharp, straining to be silent breaths of your mom trying to catch what middle schoolers could be gossiping about.
I do not remember the very first time I used the internet, but I have a vague memory of being taught to log on in my school in a computer class as early as the third or fourth grade.
We were introduced to the internet specifically to be taught how to search for information there.
The internet in the early 1990s was still being met with some scepticism over its usefulness, longevity and power, but as we all know now, it completely changed our world, the way we communicate and the ways we move forward (or honestly, backward). My school wanted us in the know, and so we were guided on how to use it – though I will note using the internet “safely” would not become a topic of conversation until many years later.
Soon internet was commonplace in people’s homes, and on our shared desktop computer placed where my parents could walk behind and glance at the screen at any time, I logged into AOL, its free messenger service AIM and MSN messenger (for chatting with cousins living in Pakistan).
It was not that my parents thought I was up to no good; it was more so the no good that they already seemed to understand could come out of the internet. They were not afraid of losing their grip on me; they were afraid of disrupting our youth, of strangers lurking in the shadows – backlit in blue and possibly impossible to ever find if God forbid need be.
I could talk about ANYTHING, and as long as Mom or Dad did not walk behind me, it was free from the eyes of the world!
My crush on a Backstreet Boy, my slumber party plans (to rent movies, to stay up the longest, to try to convince our parents to let us sleep over in the first place), and eventually how I felt about school, what I worried about when it came to the future, and conversations between friends looking for comfort or solidarity were happening online.
I could peruse for information and community privately, intimately and without the fear of being overheard or misunderstood by parents who may find alarm in me seeking guidance or support from others. From my peers. Peers whose thoughts were also shaped by parents, school and outside influences that my parents did not know.
That’s one of the things about the internet that really seems to ruffle people’s feathers, not being able to control what influences are reaching their girls and women.
The internet taught me to how to ingest experiences other than my own.
In a controlling and ideal scenario, parents, family, culture and social rule guide people to adhere to order that is heavily influenced by the aforementioned minds and persons. Women do this, they do not do this. Girls can, girls cannot. Boys will be boys; girls (no matter how young) are all potential brides – those sorts of things.
But the internet opens the door and access to millions of people who may have very different ideas about the same things. That’s one of the most dangerous parts about the internet for those who would like to keep it out of women’s hands. Your world view is challenged because you can now hear, see, interact with the experiences of others.
Experiences that contradict some things, but sometimes everything that you have been told you must believe.
Control thrives in vacuums; some people have figured out how to make internet algorithms support that and keep people in silos where their confirmation biases dance around them plunging them deeper into what they think to be true to be the only truth.
But sometimes, if you are curious enough and if you expand your search – you can find stories, light, culture, laughter, and conversations that challenge your beliefs and welcome you to think about things differently.
Not that you need to completely upend your thought process (though let’s be honest, many times you do) but you can make it more malleable, more open to learning, more open to seeing things from another point of view.
The internet taught me that not everyone lived like me. Not everyone that looked like me lived like me. There was not one way to be a girl. There was not one way to be a Pakistani. There was not one way to be a daughter. And there was not one way to be a good daughter and Pakistani girl.
The internet taught me that not every family lived like mine.
Looked like mine.
Thought like mine.
And that was okay.
The internet taught me that you can be so many things while being a woman and so many of those things were things they did not want women to be:
All of these things were women’s things to be. Those things including:
In search of oneself outside of community, society, and cultural expectation.
The internet taught me that there is more to being a girl or a woman than to being a good one or a bad one. That goodness was not tied to obedience. That goodness was not conforming to one school of thought, one way of dress, or one type of language, or one type of outlook, or one type of future.
The internet taught me how colourful the human experience can be, how one can make mistakes, how one can be forgiven, how today does not set tomorrow in stone and how tomorrow can be embraced with excitement and not just fear.
In 2021, I attended a party in Islamabad where my friend asked me to give access to a playlist I had curated for the night using the DJ’s phone. The DJ handed it over, and as I opened his browser to type in “Spotify”, as soon as I hit “S”, the drop-down search results were overflowing with every possible SEO term one could use to find porn. I mean SO much porn - on the very phone I was holding with my very hand, which I promptly dropped and rushed to the washroom to scrub very clean.
I am not faulting him for watching porn – in that regard, I feel very “do you” as his cellular porn watching would have never had an impact on me had I not palmed it in my hands, but when talking about access to the internet, it’s a branch of the equation that can’t be ignored.
When boys and men do not want Pakistani girls and women of their families (or the general public) using cell phones or the internet, I chalk it up to a few things.
Control, of course, the fear of the evils of the world swaying them out of control, but there is also, I believe, a level of gatekeeping.
Gatekeeping access to their desires. Shame over how they use the internet. Fear of the women in their lives not only learning about what could be out there in terms of titillating content but also of them finding out that they themselves are frequent, regular, enthusiastic consumers of that content.
Pakistan has, over the years, topped numerous lists of the most porn-watching country in the world! Go us!
Who would have thought that the same country that censors showing married characters in television shows sitting on the same bed fully clothed with all the lights on would channel that sexual repression into streaming the living hell out of some pornography?
A conservative and patriarchal social structure means sex is never talked about, and when it is, it’s a duty between married people only. Leave it up to the husbands! The mechanics of it all is virtually absent from any and all dialogue.
Sexual education? Scoff. No place in our nation with a population of 228 million and counting.
Consent? Nonexistent in marriages, what else are you married for? Talk about marital rape on Twitter, and the boys will come for you! They want to know how you can dare say no to sex when they go to work! Consent is not respected as a topic, let alone as a boundary.
Sexual pleasure for women? I can’t even make a biting comment on this because the conversation literally does not fucking exist.
I remember seeing this independent Indian film called ‘Parched,’ where a bride is given the advice to grin and bear sex with her husband, and even though it will be terrible, once she is pregnant, he will “leave her alone.”
Another friend of mine asked her cousin what sex-ed talk she got before her wedding; her cousin said, “Whatever your husband says, just do it.”
Boys and men “learn” a lot from the internet, most quickly on how to find and access pornography. Numerous studies have declared that first-time children (at least in the West) are exposed to pornographic content they are as young as 11 years old.
Pornography, like any genre, can be diverse. Violent, hardcore, or soft and romantic. Though women’s pleasure is rarely at the forefront, it is there loud and visible on their screens – and I have a theory under my gatekeeping umbrella theory that they don’t want women seeing that.
Though they are fans of the women on their screens who they devour, they also hate them. Yes, they hate them! They hate them for inaccessibility, and they hate them for perceived ownership of their sexuality. And they also could not stomach the women they own (those in their lives) behaving like or seeing what these no-good women were up to. So, we got to keep them off the Internet.
Also, what if the women they own (their sisters, mothers, wives, daughters, in laws, cousins – (you get it) go seeking pleasure themselves? What if, with the internet, they get the wrong idea that autonomy and pleasure could be something for them?
Now maybe you’re thinking this is meant to be a personal essay about what someone learned on the internet, and it’s devolved into sex talk, but so much of it is about sex because so much of the control of women is about that.
Cell phones and the internet that they channel are a threat to the purity, and that is a threat to the man who, even if he owns nothing, still believes he owns women who share his name, his blood or his space.
The internet taught me that purity and the culture around it and what it means is suspicious, being that a lot of it is steeped in control that disproportionality bares down upon prepubescent shoulders of girls.
How could it be that so many of the women I looked up to and was searching for on the internet, like tennis pro-Serena Williams who I was constantly keeping tabs on long before the days of Instagram and Tik Tok, could, on one hand, be a role model and on the other hand wear short skirts. Short skirts!
My little brain was getting confused.
As I got older and more and more people got on the internet and more and more people could make connections on there, I got to see more and more girls and women like me across the United States (where I grew up) and across the world. What they wore, where they went, how they interacted with their families, how they were raising their own.
I talked to women candidly in my own family, many for the first time, about how life and culture and restrictions had impacted them and how they hoped the future would be different.
The internet made me think in ways I hadn’t before. The internet made me ask questions I had not previously answered.
The internet is far from perfect, but in this day and age, it is a human right. It is everyone’s right.
You cannot move forward without it by your side, and though for many, it is as accessible as air, for millions of others, it is kept out of their grips.
The internet taught me many, many things; it continues to do so. The internet connected me to many, many people, and it continues to do so. The internet is fun, it is education, it is a community, it is release, it is escape, it is many, many important things to so many people, and that is exactly why it is being kept out of the hands of girls and women.