Nighat Dad Early Life.
Nighat Dad was born 1981, in the small town of Ratta Matta, in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Nighat Dad is an accomplished lawyer and a human rights activist. She is one of the pioneers who have been campaigning around access to open internet in Pakistan and globally. She is the only Pakistani fellow for Young Global Leaders 2018 supported by World Economic Forum and TEDGlobal Fellows for 2017. She has been listed as a Next Generation Leader by TIME and is the recipient of Atlantic Council Freedom Award and Human Rights Tulip Award. Dad has been fighting against online gender-based violence, making the internet safe and inclusive for everyone to use. She’s been referred to as the “Pakistani lawyer trolling the trolls” by BBC for her valor in calling out the harassers online. She has been actively advocating for increased participation of women in public spaces through national and international platforms. Nighat Dad is the Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation (DRF).
“Before DRF I was practicing law. It is not that the concept of digital rights suddenly parachuted itself into my life one day and I thought, ‘Yes! I must do something about it!’ It was a process. It began from my own personal experience… the experience of being violated every day. As a woman, you don’t even realize that you have rights and that your rights are protected by the constitution. We are told that men are the ultimate guardians, the ones who earn money and protect the home. We begin to internalize and accept that women are violated. In my case, my husband was cheating on me. People would tell me that this is just what men do – they cheat. I was told that I wouldn’t be able to survive without a man. So, I took on the challenge, left home, and went through with the divorce.”
Nighat Dad Biography and Profile
Nighat Dad, born 1981, is a Pakistani lawyer and Internet activist who runs the not-for-profit organisation Digital Rights Foundation. Her work in the field of IT security has earned her many international awards. Nighat Dad fought many battles to become a lawyer in Pakistan. But it was the custody battle for her own son that really got her thinking about the rights of women in her country. It wasn’t just attitudes in the real world that annoyed Nighat, she was furious about the abuse that women got online too, and as a result set up the Digital Rights Foundation and Pakistan’s first cyber harassment helpline.
Nighat Dad Education
When she was 20, Nighat Dad began studying law at the University of the Punjab in Lahore, where she estimates only 20 percent of her classmates were women. As a student, she was forbidden by her family from carrying a cell phone.
“I wasn’t allowed by my brother because of lack of trust in me,” she says. “Back then, it was the common perception that only men need mobile phones and women have nothing to do with information and communication technologies.”
Nighat Dad founded the Digital Rights Foundation
Nighat Dad studies online harassment, especially as it relates to patriarchal cultures, including that of her small village in Pakistan, “where a woman is expected to stay at home,” as she says. Far from offering a digital window into a world of freedom, the internet and mobile phones can often be used to reinforce that same systematic misogyny.
As Nighat Dad practiced criminal and family law in Lahore, she realized there was a vital and unmet need to protect women’s digital rights in Pakistan. “For offline spaces, there were several individuals and organizations working on the violation of traditional human rights, but I noticed no attention was happening in the online space,” she remembers.
“When I used to go to hearings, I would see women just sitting in the court corridors waiting for their case to be heard. I could see the hopelessness in their eyes – they were just sitting, not knowing what will happen next and not even knowing what the law says. They were entirely dependent on the lawyer, or their father, brother, or whatever male counterpart was accompanying them. Sometimes women are not even allowed to go to court for their own case! This broke my heart, and that’s when I realized how important it is to make women aware of their legal rights.”
After successfully fighting her case in court, Nighat continued working on legal issues around women’s rights and became an integral part of the consultations for drafting new laws. During this time, she had daily access to a computer and the internet in her office. Orkut, the social media platform used in Pakistan at the time, was becoming a popular platform for women to explore the online world. As more women began approaching her with stories of harassment, Nighat’s work began to take a new direction.
In 2012, she founded the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, and set up Pakistan’s first cyber harassment helpline in 2016. “Knowledge is freedom. When I fight for a woman’s digital rights, I am fighting for equality.”
Digital Rights Foundation aims
Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) aims to strengthen protections for human rights defenders (HRDs), with a focus on women’s rights, in digital spaces through policy advocacy & digital security awareness-raising. In addition, one of our aims at the Foundation is also to protect women from work and cyber-harassment that they have to deal with through out their lives. We make them aware of their rights.
“I wanted to create a platform that addresses the issues of digital rights, internet governance, and online violence against women. The main objective of DRF was not to just establish another NGO, but to really start a movement on digital rights and internet freedom issues. I live in a country where you never know when or why the government will ban something on the internet. Another objective of DRF was to give a platform to women leaders so they can reclaim the leadership space in the internet freedom community as well. These ideas were in my head and I wanted to give life to them.”
The first campaign of DRF, Hamara Internet, was launched in 2014 to provide women and girls with knowledge and tools to protect their online freedom of expression. Hamara Internet was a project funded by Making All Voices Count – a five-year international program co-implemented by Hivos that funded new ideas to amplify the voices of citizens. In 2016, Nighat won the Human Rights Tulip award, an annual prize awarded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The prize money allowed Nighat to start a cyber harassment helpline. Hivos’ Digital Defenders Partnership (DDP) has supported the helpline since its inception.
Dad and her team at DRF imagine a future where the Internet is equal for all — sometimes referred to as the “feminist” Internet. “To me, a ‘feminist’ Internet is an Internet which is accessible to everyone, where everyone has agency over their expression and their right to access information,” Dad says. “At the same time, it is compassionate and empathetic to the people sitting behind the screens. It also provides access to economic opportunities.”
most common form of online threat
According to Nighat, the most common form of online threat is the nonconsensual use of intimate images by partners or former partners, husbands, fiancées, ex-fiancées, and even by strangers. Intimate images are those exchanged consensually, but also photoshopped images. This sexualized and gendered form of violence is common throughout the world, but in some regions the consequences are greater.
“Pakistan,” she explains, “is a very repressive and conservative culture, and this is the vulnerability that the perpetrator uses. They don’t even need to put the photo online because just sharing it with the girl’s family can pose a greater risk. So many women have been killed in the name of honor because men think they have control over our bodies.”
She adds, “Also for women human rights defenders, activists, feminists, outspoken women, those who are challenging patriarchy, and women like me who are living in Pakistan on their own terms, this sexualized nature of violence discredits their work, and the public stops listening to them because they think they are women of bad character. There is the common perception that these women are ruining Islamic culture and Pakistan’s image. These forms of threats and violence simply invalidate what they are trying to do to make change in society.”
How Nighat Dad Entered the world of digital rights
“Women started reaching out to me to tell me they felt they were being stalked on Orkut and via mobile devices, or that they were receiving unwanted messages or content. Despite telling them it is a form of harassment, they believed it was just part of using the internet or a mobile device. When I discovered there were no legal remedies for this in Pakistan, I asked myself: ‘There are so many activists and women’s organizations working in offline spaces, but what about women’s rights in online spaces?’ So, I studied internet governance for a year and I learned so much; not only about gender and technology and how women can reclaim these spaces, but also about other vulnerable communities that are not recognized in our culture. I then formally started working on digital rights to at least get a discourse started. I wanted to make people realize these are their human rights and these spaces are as important as our offline spaces. This is especially the case for vulnerable communities who don’t have access to many offline spaces: the online world is very precious for them.”
Nighat Dad Wins Human Rights Tulip Award
“Good evening everyone,
It is a different kind of feeling being here. Let me begin by conveying my warmest thanks to the Dutch Government for honouring me with the Human Rights Tulip Award. I accept this award with great humility on behalf of the people of Pakistan.
I’ve thought a lot about what I wanted to say when I finally held this award in my hands, for this was no simple journey for me. I stand before you today thanks to the support and the votes of thousands of my fellow Pakistanis. This award that I hold in my hands is, and will continue to be, a reminder that my country, my people, rallied behind me.
To speak of the votes, however, is to only tell half the story. I am only able to stand here before because of the hard work that my Digital Rights Foundation family, my little team back home do, and the strength and support that my own family gives me.
Maya Angelou once said, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
When I founded Digital Rights Foundation in 2012, it consisted of just two people. We did not have an office, and everything was online. As the workload that we took on expanded over time, so too has my team. I have been privileged to watch Digital Rights Foundation grow and change into something new, and I have been changed in turn.
By every metric, we’re still a pretty small outfit, but thanks to this award that we are able to put more into our latest project: Pakistan’s first cyber-harassment helpline and I am so proud to say that this is regions first cyber harassment helpline.
Sounds very surreal when I introduce the helpline as a reality, because just a few months ago it was a far-sighted dream, the dream that I and my friend Shauna saw together (who is sitting in that corner and flew all the way long from US just to be with me today) It’s not just another project for me, this is something I wanted to do since I familiarized myself with the threats to women in the online sphere that have strong repercussions in the offline world.
In the span of only a few years, the people of Pakistan have awoken to the power of social media, of their own voices. Through the internet, people have been able to carve out safe spaces for themselves in cyberspace. Religious and ethnic minorities, the sexual minority community, and women from all walks of life have been able to find freedom and safety in spaces online that would not normally be available offline, not without danger to themselves and their loved ones.
However, there is a dark side, which these same groups are only too familiar with. It is a dark side that women and minority groups across the world, including some in this room, will recognise. That an online presence, the ability to express oneself without fear, can nonetheless lead to harassment offline, and worse. Name calling. Photoshopped images. Doxxing. Death threats, rape threats. One amazing woman, Sabeen Mahmood, died last year to help people reclaim their spaces, to voice their opinions without any fear or judgement – in a space that she had built. She was killed because she dared to have a conversation about a conflicted issue. Then earlier this year, Qandeel Baloch, a feminist, a rebel and a social media celebrity defining online spaces on her on her own terms killed in the name of honor, not because of who she was offline but who she chose to be online. She died because her personal information was leaked, because some people could not stand to let her be strong and free to express herself. Her self-expression, her reclamation of her space, her assertion of her sexuality, is what led to her murder. Now when I think about it, I wonder how hard it must have been for these wonderful women to take in all that hate in the absence of any help. Women who have come under peril for doing much less on the internet – some targeted simply because they choose to be online in the same manner as men. In Pakistan, there are many Sabeens and Qandeels. Across the world, there are many Sabeens and Qandeels.
Arundhati Roy once said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Her words constantly remind me of the state in Pakistan where the digital rights framework is repressive.
In this light, it was not surprising – but no less disheartening – for me to discover that close to half of the cyber-harassment cases that Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency dealt with between 2014-2015 related to the harassment of women on social media. And these are only the cases that we know of, women that were brave enough to come forward and report these case. Now our helpline is geared toward women because they need to know that there is support, that there are people that are there to hear them.
I’ll use this opportunity to talk a bit about other challenges that await global digital rights community. The challenges that the governments around the world throw at us by bringing draconian laws to regulate the internet, or just by supporting a stance against human rights – like increased mass surveillance, censorship, zero rating, to name a few. I want to extend my support to my colleagues in the US, in the wake of recent elections and the new president-elect’s stance to shut the internet down if given the chance. I want you all to know that we are with you, and will keep fighting together all to save the internet.
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge my fellow human right defenders from around the world who fight for humanity and for freedom – both in online and in offline spaces. My colleagues at Electronic Frontier Foundation, Community Red, Privacy International, Article 19, Access Now, Bolo Bhi, Tactical Technology Collective, Free Press Unlimited, Open Tech Fund, and of course Justice and Peace and many more. They are not just fighting to preserve digital human rights but have always supported each other like one big happy family.
They say that when you want something done right, you should do it yourself. I don’t want to passively sit and wait for some magnanimous, idealistic structural change that will address the inequalities found in digital spaces. I will take these issues head on, and this award is going to help me do it. And with the help of the global digital rights community and with this award, my little family at DRF hopes to make a change, not just for women but all vulnerable communities in Pakistan.
Here’s to human rights. Here’s to Pakistan!
Nighat Dad Marriage and Divorce
After law school, Dad married, and her then-husband gave her access to a cell phone — but, she says, “I had no privacy with my mobile device. I was not allowed to have a password. He looked at the messages and the call log. Instead of comforting me as a means of communication, the phone became a surveillance device.” Six months after the birth of their first son, they divorced.
Nighat Dad Believes
Nighat Dad believes that the Internet has the potential to be a space that empowers women, helping them connect to each other and to new outlets of expression.
“Women should have equal access to technology, especially in conservative cultures like ours, because we do not find the same free spaces in the public sphere,” she says. “Not every woman can go outside of their house. Not every woman can enjoy the right to free speech or access to information — but technology can give them that freedom.”
Women in Pakistan with Internet access could start small businesses from home, earning incomes and gaining autonomy.
Nighat Dad’s online safety tips
- When you face online harassment do not leave the space. Do not shut down your accounts. You should stay there. Sometimes we feel alone and we are hesitant to reach for help, but there are so many people out there who can help you. Don’t leave that space. It is your space and you belong there.
- Make very informed decisions about your data – once it is out of your device it can land anywhere and it can stay on the cloud forever.
- Passwords should be different for every account, and changed every month. Security always comes with a little bit of struggle and effort; you have to forgo your convenience. Passwords are the foundation of digital security so keep focusing on that.
Nighat Dad Biography and Profile