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At a time when the Internet has thrown open a myriad of possibilities to connect, communicate, and collaborate to create both lucrative and meaningful associations, it is hard to believe that a young woman would deliberately block all her email and social media accounts and obliterate her presence from the virtual world. But this is what a student at Lahore’s University of Engineering and Technology was compelled to do.

An innocuous friend request on Facebook turned into a stalking campaign. The man took a photo of the student and her sisters, superimposed their faces on the bodies of nude women, and posted these photographs on the Internet. Then he threatened her saying that he would send the links to her family.

Nighat Dad, a 34-year-old Pakistani criminal and family lawyer, knows many more stories like this. Online harassment is a global menace, and young women are particularly vulnerable. According to a survey by Pew in 2014, 26 percent of all female Internet users aged between 18 and 24 years have reported being stalked and 25 percent have been subjected to online sexual harassment.

The Federal Investigation Agency in Pakistan reports that they investigate hundreds of such cases every year and admit that countless more are not reported. In a conservative Islamic country like Pakistan, it is not hard to understand why women choose to stay silent rather than report a case of online harassment that would invite attention to themselves and their families and possibly a more violent backlash from the perpetrator.

So Nighat Dad has taken it upon herself to improve the situation for Pakistani women, so they can continue to reap the advantages of using the Internet without being harassed. With this mission in mind, Nighat founded the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in 2012.

This not-for-profit organization is dedicated to educate people, mostly women, on how to respond or react when they face harassment on the Internet. Nighat strives to spread information like how to tweak privacy controls and assess if Internet connections are secure. She educates people on forming good habits like changing passwords frequently and being stringent and vigilant about with whom they share personal information and how much they give out.

With knowledge comes power, but Nighat is also on a mission to change mindsets. She counsels women and tries to help them shrug off inhibitions, so they are encouraged to reach out and seek help when they face online harassment.

Through her organization, Nighat takes on the powers that be. She campaigns against legislations that authorize the government to snoop on Internet users and curb online freedom of speech. Incidentally, the government of Pakistan has banned YouTube in the country after an anti-Islamic film, Innocence of Muslims, was released and went viral on the site. The government also frequently censors content on WordPress and prohibits encryption of data without state approval.

Nighat has also launched protests against telecom companies that routinely share personal information about their customers with domestic and foreign businesses and other agencies.

She has been lobbying for a Cybercrime Bill since 2009 that would protect users’ rights on the Internet. Although the government is toying with the idea and has created a draft, the DRF, the Human Rights Watch, and other organizations feel that it is too patchy and offers paltry protections. On the other hand, the plan seems to be overly biased towards entities who want to abuse their surveillance and blocking powers.

Clearly, Nighat Dad has a long battle in front of her. But she has support from both domestic and international quarters.

Gus Hosein is the co-founder of Privacy International, an NGO in London, which advocates for increased privacy protection laws and helps NGOs around the world watch over surveillance practices and raise a flag if they discover overreach. Gus admires Nighat’s ambition and recognizes her as one of the top global leaders in her niche.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai had attended Nighat’s training workshops before she was shot and injured by the Taliban in 2012.

Mohammad Farooq, technology columnist for the Pakistani national daily, Dawn, also trains young people on digital security features. He sums up Nighat’s achievements and mission aptly. In a country where a woman is raped every two hours and more than 1,000 are killed every year in “honor killing” incidents, Nighat is a “symbol of hope.” She is striving to empower women, so they can reap the benefits of technology and realize their full potential.

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