The threat is real

July 16, 2023

Women are discouraged to put up at hostels because of serious safety and privacy concerns

The threat is real

When Rabia Junaid enrolled at a private university in Lahore for a master’s degree in English, she had no choice but to put up at a dormitory. Barely two months later, she had decided to return to her hometown. Her reason: a very palpable threat of data breach.

Junaid tells TNS that the ‘threat’ existed in the form of the use of smartphones in shared rooms, especially to make video calls.

According to a report published by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in March this year, over 2,600 complaints related to cyber harassment were received and registered in 2022. The report states that individuals between the ages of 18 and 30 constituted approximately 52 percent of the total complainants; women accounted for around 58.6 percent registered complaints. A majority of the complaints pertained to blackmailing and non-consensual use of information. The highest number of cases was reported from the Punjab, a total of 1,712 cases.

Shumayla Hassan, who experienced hostel life for a major part of her university life and has now set up her own facility for girls in Lahore, says that she wanted to afford the women a safe and secure space. Currently, 15-odd working women are residing at the hostel.

Lahore is a cosmopolitan city which attracts people from other parts of the country for work as well as higher education. The female students and working women have to face numerous challenges living away from home. Hassan believes that hostel managements should establish close relationships with their residents and empower them with knowledge about their safety and privacy. “By fostering such connections, we can ensure that the girls feel secure and they aren’t compelled to give up on their career goals,” she adds.

Here, it may be relevant to recall a recent incident of harassment at King Edward Medical University (KEMU), Lahore, involving a janitor who (allegedly) attempted to film a female student in the washroom. According to media reports, the student immediately grabbed hold of the janitor’s phone and complained to the university management. The case was dropped as the victim’s parents didn’t let her name be included in the report. However, the accused is currently in police custody on separate charges.

In response to the incident, the KEMU issued two notices. The first one pertains to the prescribed uniform for security guards at the university; the second addresses the security measures for women’s lavatory and common room.

Sana Noreen, who hails from Burewala and completed her master’s degree at a university in Lahore, is of the view that privacy/ safety concerns in hostels are often to do with one’s roommates rather than the varsity management. “Having to share room with four or five other girls, often without knowing who is actively engaged in a video call and with whom, can be highly disturbing,” she says. “In such spaces, no one really bothers to ask for your permission to capture an image of you on their phones.”

About three years ago, a mobile app was introduced for women’s safety. It sought to address the issue and provide assistance to the women. The app has yielded positive results, according to Tauseef Sabih Gondal, the director of media and communication in the Safe City Project.

Gondal says that the app has been instrumental in handling critical situations promptly, leading to success stories. “It is noteworthy that nearly 300,000 women in the Punjab have downloaded the app,” he adds. “This shows their trust in the police force.”

Gondal says that the objective of the app is to reach out to as many women as possible and inform them that the app serves as a tool for their assistance whether they encounter harassment on the road, in public transport, hostels, or public restrooms.

Asad Baig, the Media Matters for Democracy (MMD) director, points towards an important aspect of the issue. He says that Article 14(1) of the constitution guarantees the inviolability of the dignity of individuals and, subject to the law, the privacy of their homes.

He says that although laws and government departments exist to address such matters, many women remain unaware of their rights or hesitate to approach the relevant authorities to register complaints.

Baig notes that many women in Pakistan face numerous pressures from their families and communities. Therefore, it is crucial to build their confidence and empower them. Citing a case that was reported in 2018 and concerned hidden cameras at a readymade clothes’ outlet, Baig says that while punishments for such offenses exist, the crucial issue lies in the societal pressure placed on women when reporting such cases. This fear and pressure often discourage many women from coming forward and reporting such incidents.

Usama Khawar Ghumman, a Lahore-based advocate, says that Pakistan does not require additional legislation as it already has comprehensive laws in place. He believes that the problem lies in the lack of awareness and empowerment of the general public regarding their legal rights. He mentions the power granted to women under the PECA (Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act), which allows them to take legal action if they experience cyber stalking, defamation or data breaches.

The writer is an investigative journalist working with national and international news organisations. She tweets @saddiamazhar

The threat is real