Telling HERstory in Pakistan

Farieha Aziz, co-founder and director of the Internet freedom group Bolo Bhi, cancelled our first meeting.

It turns out she had a very good reason.

Last April, the Pakistani government’s National Standing Committee on IT and Telecom introduced a “draconian” cybercrime bill that would grant the government significant online surveillance powers and violate basic human rights.

The proposed law gives the government free reign to clamp down on free speech and enables broad powers of censorship, including blocking or removing online content.

Farieha Aziz stands in front of a room speaking in a mic with a projector screen
Farieha Aziz explains the Cybercrime Bill. Photo credit: Bolo Bhi

As soon as the bill was introduced, Bolo Bhi, which means “speak up” in Urdu, sprang into action, joining forces with other civil society organizations to draft comments on the bill and engage the legislature and the private sector in constructive conversation. In May, the legislative committee overseeing the bill was instructed to host multi-stakeholder conversations to review comments and get input.

Four months later, no meetings had been scheduled to review the bill and entertain comments.

Then the night before I was due to speak with Farieha, she appeared on a national news program to discuss the bill. One of the other guests, a member of parliament and the IT committee overseeing the bill, mentioned that the committee would be meeting the next day, on August 6, to finalize the cybercrime bill.

On the live show, Aziz confronted the minister, saying, “Major Iqbal, a member of your committee and the adviser to the prime minister, was on a TV show with me last week and said that you will be reaching out for a meeting in two or three weeks. And now you are saying that you are finalizing the bill tomorrow?”

Screenshot of Farieha speaking on a TV program
Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi appears on Islamabad Tonight With Rehman Azhar, August 5, 2015

Her bold confrontations spurred more activity. Another member of parliament, Shazia Marri, understood the urgency and flew to Islamabad to confront the committee, instructing them to listen to the people. A meeting was scheduled for 10 am on August 13, one week after the fateful live TV show. Despite requesting a meeting and submitting a legal redraft of the bill, no industry or civil society group was notified or asked to attend. A second meeting of the sub-committee was held on August 19.

Still no outside groups were invited to attend.

Playing the long game

In 2010, when Facebook was banned in Pakistan for two weeks for “blasphemous” content, Farieha was working as a journalist for a major magazine in Pakistan, Newsline. Her coverage of the story led her to interview activists, the tech community and religious leaders. The work ended as a highly-lauded cover story. After the story, the contacts Farieha made in the activist and tech communities continued to deepen, and in 2012 she and her colleague Sana Saleem founded Bolo Bhi. The organization is not-for-profit focused on advocacy, policy and research in the areas of gender rights, government transparency, internet access, digital security and privacy.

The challenges of dealing with the good and the bad of social media and online content is particularly acute when there are no basic laws protecting free speech. As Farieha explained, social media is widely embraced in Pakistan. Politicians use it. The activist and civil society communities rely on it. At the same time, there is an increase in online bullying, harassment and disputes.

“There are no effective mechanisms to provide relief to people. You have to understand that there is technology and then there is also the role of a parent, a teacher, and society, and they need to go hand in hand,” Farieha said. “We don’t want governments interfering to the extent that they start censoring other material.”

Paying it forward

“Change is always going to be slow and it has to be a consistent effort. I have had the opportunity to work with people in their 60s and I have seen so much optimism from them. They have been through so much and they are not giving up. I have been fortunate enough to see others around me struggle and I respect that. And I have seen things change. That is what motivates me.”

Screenshot of a website called Gender-Based Media Watch
Bolo Bhi Gender Media Watch Project.

Farieha speaks eloquently to the complexity of being a female in today’s Pakistan, and work of Bolo Bhi reflects this complexity. On one hand, the organization’s Gender Media Watch project is packed with difficult stories of child marriage, rape and abuse. On the other hand, Bolo Bhi co-founder Sana Saleem and Ghausia Rashid have created HERstory, a platform that celebrates the sacrifices and successes of the previous generation of women pioneers.

Bolo Bhi is an all-female organization. Both directors are women and the organization has an all-female board. I ask Farieha about the experience of being a professional women in Pakistan.

Screenshot of a website - HERstory
The HERstory project from Bolo Bhi.

“Not once ever in my career, not then and not now, has gender been an obstacle for me. Professional working women are a norm where I live. I want people to understand that,” she said. “I have seen so many professional women around me and there are so many success stories. I feel that people need to see that there is also another side of being a woman and working in this country that is often overlooked.”

“A lot of people in our generation take things for granted. When I say I do not feel discriminated against, it’s a result of the struggles of the previous generation. They were instrumental in getting laws changed, they were instrumental in getting basic freedoms for women. They fought for what we have now. That is what we want young people to understand. You shouldn’t take your freedoms and liberties for granted. We had them taken away before and you never know when it can happen again.”

Internews partners with Bolo Bhi as part of its Internet Policy Programs, which support the creation of strong policy enabling environments to support internet freedoms in selected countries by providing direct legal, policy, advocacy, and financial support to leading human rights defenders and civil society organizations (CSOs).

Learn more about the women journalists that Internews works with around the world and Internews’ new five-year initiative, Women’s Voices, Powering Change.

Banner photo: Farieha Aziz as the lone woman at a press conference in Pakistan. Photo credit: Bolo Bhi.

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)