More survivors of cyber-harassment are now stepping forward and reporting abuse to the FIA
t was not easy for Shaista* to report the excruciating cyber harassment and blackmail she had been enduring for the past six months. The perpetrator was none other than her husband, who lived abroad.
Shaista was aware that if she chose to seek help from law enforcement agencies against her husband, the society would likely turn against her. Moreover, the chances of her husband being caught were minimal, as he held foreign citizenship.
Shaista, a beautician residing in Islamabad, had found herself in a distressing situation after marrying Jalil. Her husband was pressuring her to share explicit images and videos. In the end she complied.
As time passed, Shaista’s resistance to her husband’s demands grew stronger. Her husband then resorted to threatening her with sharing her photographs and videos on social media using fake Facebook IDs and WhatsApp.
“This left Shaista with no choice but to comply with his demands. It seemed that the only way to have the visuals taken down was to share new ones as per his wishes,” Sub-Inspector Hania Khalil, the investigation officer (IO) handling the case, told The News on Sunday.
At first, Shaista felt helpless and believed that she had no other option but to obey her husband. However, the situation eventually became unbearable. She then took the courageous step of registering a complaint with the Cyber Crime Cell of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
Hania says it is not easy for women to come forward and report such cases due to concerns about their dignity. “In many cases, women and girls may be hesitant to inform their families, fearing blame and judgment,” she says.
“They hide some of the information even from us, at least initially. Eventually, they share the details once they realise that they will not be judged and that their privacy will be protected,” the officer says.
After registering the FIR on June 21, the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) team waited for the perpetrator to arrive in Pakistan. Once he entered the country on a regular visit, he was arrested.
On April 8, he was convicted of blackmail and sexually harassing a woman.
The court sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment and imposed a fine of Rs 150,000. It was later revealed that he had a family in the United Kingdom and had also married other women and engaged them in similar exploitative practices.
“In the second week of April, there were six convictions in Islamabad in various cases of cybercrime,” another IO, Sub-Inspector Misbah Batool, tells TNS.
Misbah says that one of the cases she was working on involved an online pir (adept) who would request objectionable photographs of women for purported dum durood (spiritual incantations). Later, he would use these photographs to blackmail the women.
“One of the survivors finally contacted the cybercrime office and registered a complaint. She didn’t want her family to find out about what was happening to her,” said Misbah, adding that most survivors had similar concerns.
Misbah said part of her job was to provide counselling services to the survivors. “The complainants are often hesitant, stressed and afraid when they come to us,” she says. “They are guarded, which is understandable since their trust has been breached and they have been suffering because of that,” she adds.
“Offering counselling services and conducting trust-building exercises helps the survivors feel stronger and helps them make informed choices,” explains the IO. “Once the survivor is cooperative and willing to take a step, we can bridge the trust deficit, find the culprits and hold them accountable,” she adds.
“In the year 2022, 277 FIRs were registered under Section 21. The number of the accused arrested was 245. In 2023, the number of FIRs has already reached 105 and 86 accused have been arrested. Most of these cases were reported by women. “
“In this particular case, the perpetrator was arrested within 24 hours. He has recently been sentenced to 2 years’ imprisonment with a fine of Rs 40, 000,” says Misbah.
“To this day, only the complainant’s mother knows about the incident,” she says. According to Misbah, further investigation by the FIA revealed that the perpetrator had photographs of over 200 women on his phone. He also had some clients from India.
Inspector Iqra Muqaddas shares another case of a fake spiritual guide who fraudulently extracted Rs 150,000 from three sisters by promising to cancel the effects of black magic on them and their family members.
The girls belonged to a strict family. Their privacy was protected until the perpetrator approached their parents to pressure the girls. Iqra had to counsel their father. She explained to him how social media works in today’s age.
After understanding the situation, the family pursued the case and the survivor won. “In its sentence, the court ordered that the survivor be awarded Rs 800,000 in compensation,” noted Ayaz Khan, the FIA additional director for Cyber Crime Cell, Islamabad. “This was a historic judgment since it was the first time a survivor in a cyber-harassment case had been awarded compensation,” he added.
Iqra says women 18 to 25 years old are particularly vulnerable on social media and easy targets for deceitful elements.
Despite the significant gender digital divide in Pakistan, women are particularly vulnerable when it comes to cybercrime. The Mobile Gender Gap Report for 2022 reveals that Pakistan has the widest gender gap in mobile phone ownership among all the countries surveyed, with only half of the women owning a mobile phone.
However, the five-year report by Digital Rights Foundation on the cyber harassment helpline shows that 68 per cent of the calls received were from women and 30 per cent from men.
The Cyber Crime Cell in Islamabad currently has four women investigation officers. IO Hania Khalil says that with the sharp increase in the number of reported cases, they may soon require more women staff. She says that she has dealt with 10 applications during the second week of April alone.
This underscores the need for targeted efforts to bridge the gender digital divide, increase digital literacy among women and strengthen mechanisms for reporting and addressing cybercrimes.
It is imperative to ensure that women have equal access to technology and are equipped with the necessary knowledge and resources to protect themselves from cyber threats. Additionally, promoting gender diversity and inclusivity in law enforcement agencies, such as having more women investigation officers, can also play a crucial role in preventing cybercrimes against women.
Ayaz Khan tell TNS that the number of registered cases has been increasing every year. “In the year 2022, 277 FIRs were registered under Section 21 and the number of the accused arrested was 245. In 2023, the number of FIRs has already reached 105 and 86 of the accused have been arrested,” he says. He says that most of the cases were reported by women.
He urges the survivors not to panic when they are threatened and immediately contact family members, especially close relations - parents and siblings - instead of hiding the incident. The incident can also be reported to the FIA directly.
He says that those dealing with online harassment should not blame themselves. “They (the survivors) are the ones being targeted,” he says.
“As a first step, the survivor should immediately stop communicating with the blackmailer,” he says. He advises social media users not to contact or trust strangers on any platform.
*Name changed to protect identity.
The writer is a reporter for The News International