My close friend, 19-year-old Nazira, came by to show me her outfit one day before she went out to see someone ‘special.’ Three hours later, she returned devastated. She could hardly speak. She wore a burqa on top of what was left of her dress. Her rosy cheeks looked pale and her eyes were sore. Nazira was gang raped by the person she went to meet and his friends.
Nazira had started a ‘relationship’ with this complete stranger after a few casual chats via mobile phone, and he successfully pressured her into seeing him.
Increased mobile connectivity in Pakistan has come with consequences. The behavior of young people has changed significantly over the past decade with the advent of modern communication tools. Pakistan is ranked among the top 10 users of mobile phones in the world. By December 2010, the country had reached 102,777,387 cellular subscribers, or 61.7% of the population, according to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.
Spammers frequently send random contact numbers to mobile phone inboxes with messages like “available to chat.” Today it is as common to request ‘friendship’ through text messaging as through instant messaging on the Internet. And most Pakistani youth have not realized the repercussions of making personal phone numbers public.
The responsibility doesn’t just lie with the technology itself. Social and cultural norms that prevent young people from interacting freely with the opposite sex have taken a toll on Pakistani society. With no opportunities for casual socializing, it seems inevitable that these so called ‘friendships’ will be intimate ones. And young women like Nazira are put in danger of exploitation and violence.
Most people fail to realize the speed at which the modern communication tools have accelerated change. The youth seem to have a more emancipated approach to building new relationships with people they do not necessarily know. Free social interaction with the opposite sex is still a taboo in Pakistani society. Before the introduction of mobile telephones and the Internet, there were always girls who broke this taboo and eloped with the person they loved. But methods of communication have become so much easier and faster. There is now a sharp contrast between the empowerment modern technology has granted women and the rights our male-dominated society allows them to enjoy. The more time we take as a society 'in transition' to come to terms with the new developments of the social landscape, the more difficult it will become to minimize the harm done to young lives.
Social norms and local traditions often decide the fate of women. If steps are not taken to allow more interaction within the existing set of social, cultural, and religious norms of Pakistani society, a violent change might be imminent—and nothing will be able to stop it. The least that can be done is to help these young women make informed decisions.
The government has already banned all unregistered SIM cards, which has, to some extent, assisted in tracking people who prey on unsuspecting women. But this needs to be combined with education. No one educated Nazira about the pros and cons of interacting with strangers via the new technologies. We need a countrywide privacy campaign to minimize threats.