Mohtarma Reham Khan & Hina Butt slam misogynistic social media smear campaigns

By Meerum Awan.

While the country is already facing a rise in instances of violence against women (VAW), the Prime Minister’s recent remarks on motherhood- in an interview with Hamza Ali Abbasi- and previously about the women’s rights movement- Aurat March- created solely by the empowered women in Pakistan, the online abuse also started to rise.

The parties continue to fight and pass on remarks containing obscene language for each other, and female candidates of their parties suffer.

Two days ago, a few offensive hashtags were trending on Twitter, targeting two extremely dynamic and powerful figures in Pakistani politics right now.

You would think that only domestically oppressed women face such derogatory abuse but Twitter has proven otherwise.

Hina Pervez Butt is a member of the Provincial Assembly and is associated with PML-N. This alone has made her the target of PTI supporters who are using their anti-PMLN narrative as a justification to hurl personal abuses at her on social media.

They attacked her gender along with her character but you don’t see them doing that to any male politician. The most trending hashtag on Twitter on 10 Jan was so unspeakable that it will offend anyone to the core. Yet, Hina refuses to budge.

When approached for comment on these particular trends, the MPA said, “Such trends only go to show that while social media is indeed a very powerful tool for self-expression in the modern world, it can very easily descend into a platform for social abuse if the crucial element of responsibility is lacking in its users.

“That is because at the end of the day it only amplifies pre-existing dominant social behaviour. I’m not surprised at all by the kind of abuse some of PTI’s more blind followers have made a habit of heaping on me every now and then. Clearly I touch a raw nerve here and there when I put the spotlight on their government’s policies, or defend my party’s leaders on television and social media, and then I become the prime target for all the time, money and planning they put into their facebook and twitter campaigns.”

These twitter trends which are turned into campaigns are solely there to malign the opponents. But the ruling party seems to be taking it too far. And where is PECA now?

When asked whether she thinks Pakistan Electronic Crimes Prevention Act (PECA) (2016) has done anything to make the internet a safer place for women, this is what the MPA had to say, “The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 was, of course, a very important step in the right direction. But it worries me that its implementation is very selective, and depends for some reason completely on the whims of the government of the day. That is why you’ll see very serious warnings, and also very quick action, whenever someone has something to say about ‘state institutions’ that they draw their strength from. But everybody very conveniently just looks the other way when a bunch of online hounds is deliberately let loose on promising young female politicians.

“Now you can be sure that I will draw a lot of criticism for saying all this also, but that is the new frontier and perhaps it is going to be the tenacity of exactly those of us who are young, female, and have decided to dedicate our lives to a political struggle that is going to break this ugly trend.”

Hina has not only studied at Lums but also at Harvard and Oxford apart from being a Young Global Leader in the World Economic Forum in 2016. Perhaps her credibility has indeed touched the nerve of these blind supporters of an inefficient and tyrannical government who have nothing to claim for themselves in terms of professionalism, politically knowledgeable capabilities, or even the most basic sense of ethics.

This trend of being as disrespectful as possible and posting sexually derogatory remarks about women who represent the civil society had always existed. However, a huge upswing is visibly seen after PTI came to power.

PM’s use of foul language for the opposition party encouraged his supporters to use any means possible to defame and target the opposition party even if that meant attacking our young and honorable female politicians who are representing the public in one of the most patriarchal societies in the world.

While we can all pledge to make Hina the last female politician to face such online abuse, she is not the first one at all. Many senior female politicians have also faced such sexually explicit and derogatory comments on social media including Sherry Rehman.

A few other trends that reigned supreme on Twitter two days ago were about the resilient Reham Khan. And of course, they were. If there is one person that PTI supporters hate the most, it’s Reham Khan. It won’t be too far-fetched to say she has been the absolute depiction of the “personal is political” narrative since 2018.

When asked about how she takes the online abuse and whether PECA (2016) is effective in making the internet safer for women, Reham said, “The Peca has not made any difference to the abuse suffered by women on SM. I had pointed out in 2015 when around the time of my high profile divorce everyone from British tabloids to Pakistani mainstream media jumped on to the bandwagon of attacking a woman with no resources for a marriage breakdown. The targeted abuse was brutal & from all fronts. I stated at the time that although my daughters & I would survive it many others would struggle to cope with such attacks.”

She also recalled the response she was  met with after trying to bring attention to the consequences of the online abuse that PTI supporters had initiated against her on social media at the time of the divorce.

She says, “My advice was sincere but fell on deaf ears. Now the PM’s wife to Maryam Nawaz Sharif are not spared in this rather atrocious SM hashtag trending. While the trolling I endured was of a way more extreme nature I realise that many Pakistani women especially younger girls will be far more affected by even the odd tweet here & there. It is a deeply disturbing trend that must be denounced by all political parties & SM loosely associated with the ISPR. We must take a zero tolerance attitude as a society.”

Agree with her on that.

She also recalled an interview with CNN anchor Hannah Vaughan Jones in 2018 who tweeted about what she faced as a result of just interviewing Reham Khan.

The anchor is seen trying to defend herself further if you scroll down.

While she has been an important subject in Pakistani politics and the “hate Reham Khan for the love of Imran Khan” narrative is constantly being fed to PTI supporters along with a storm of abusive trends, Reham still won’t shy away from criticizing the government.

She is also well aware of the harassment that young girls face on social media. She says, “I am encouraged that since the summer of 2020 we have seen Twitter respond immediately to abuse or to reported accounts. This is a step in the right direction but I still feel there needs to be more independent regulatory checks on who posts on SM & fake accounts must not be allowed. My advice to those struggling with cyber bullying is to not look at abuse messages. Report all abuse & above all remember that the opinion of those who do not know you should be disregarded.”

A study conducted by the Digital Rights Foundation in 2018 concluded that while male politicians get criticized over their political opinion, female politicians get criticized over their gender on all social media platforms.

This comes after the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (Peca) is enacted in the face of warnings and heated criticism. Its basic purpose was to protect women from electronic crimes but about the time it was all ready to be released, it had turned into something else entirely. Before it was approved, human rights activist and lawyers in Pakistan brought attention to how Peca was being made to seem like it was “checking extremist content”, “prosecuting hate speech” and “curbing online harassment of women”, but in reality, the act incorporated provisions to criminalize speech and give unbridled power to the authorities.

One of the harshest things about PECA is how it gives unchecked authority to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). In the current system of Pakistan, only one office has complete control over the kind of content that can be shown to the public. This office is directly controlled by the most authoritative office (PM) in the government and receives all directions from that authority. This illuminates how a select few have the privilege to silence those that they oppose. While rampant online verbal abuse against women in power goes unchecked.

Since 2018, many female politicians have fallen victim to despicable comments directed towards their character on social media.

While these women should be lauded for the way they have struggled in the face of tyranny and patriarchy, they are treated in exactly the opposite way.

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