In late March 2023, Zainab Durrani, a young woman who works in the development sector and digital rights in Lahore, Pakistan, took to Twitter to share her recent interaction with NADRA, Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority. Durrani had used the Pak Identity App, NADRA’s application for online identity card services, to acquire a computerized national identity card (also called CNIC) and found out later in the day that her husband had received a message alerting him to the change. According to the authorities, her husband had been informed because he’d been listed, by default, as the head of her family. Durrani, who’d also gotten a new card made using a similar process in 2021, said her father, who would have been the head of the family at the time, received no such message.
But what appears to be a new NADRA policy wasn’t communicated to Durrani, who had no idea her husband would be made aware. “At no point in the whole process or any of the papers I signed did I sign up to the fact that my husband would be my head of family or that he would be notified,” she said. In a series of now-deleted tweets — which she removed after realizing the tweets could reveal personal information — Durrani pointed out the dangers of sharing ID card renewals and other personal activities with partners, especially for women.
Who’s The Head Of Family?
Muhammad Abubakr, who runs a software house in Sargodha and provides cybersecurity and web development services to clients like hospitals and tech firms, has seen the offline impact a lack of privacy can have on women.
“If a woman has an abusive husband and he’s her head of family, and she’s hiding and taking a khula (divorce) — if she tries following legal procedure at NADRA her husband will be notified, and that will put her life in danger,” he says.
In response, NADRA’s chairman Tariq Malik took to Twitter. He said that many women are designated as the “head of family” and that NADRA’s policy doesn’t dictate that only men should assume the role. He also mentioned that the policy is meant to serve as a deterrent to those who might register as part of a family that is not their own, a previously-recurring problem.
But for many activists who work around gender and digital rights, NADRA’s response seemed defensive and short-sighted.
NADRA’s policy may seem like it only impacts one area of women’s lives, but it is actually situated in a much broader system that aims to police women online and offline.
Digital rights expert Hija Kamran believes that the way the policy plays out says a lot about the overall approach to women’s security and control in Pakistani society. “The policy itself is paternalistic. You can tell by way of how the entire NADRA system recognizes the man of the house as the head of family, which is a default in the system, so if you don’t specify, the man becomes head of family.” To Kamran, the new NADRA policy, and the chairman’s response, indicate a bigger problem rooted in consent. Users have taken to Twitter in the aftermath of Durrani’s story to share how their husbands were also made head of family without either partner being informed. As more stories are shared, it becomes clearer that an approach that could seriously harm women is not even being considered worthy of being discussed by NADRA.
Similar to NADRA’s stance, the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act was established to protect women and vulnerable groups from online crimes. But many believe it’s done the opposite. “It talks about protecting women from online harassment, but implementation is tricky. When women go to file complaints, the first question they’re asked is why were you online in this space or why were you talking to this man so it strips women of any agency in their life,” Kamran tells Inkstick.
As a citizen, Durrani shares Kamran’s concern about the state of women’s online privacy in Pakistan: “If you and I were sitting at the table, we would have this concern, so this gendered perspective is not at the decision-making table,” she told Inkstick, explaining why she thinks policies like this exist.
It’s clear that the impact of such policies isn’t just limited to online spaces. Not only can policies that take away women’s independence online further endanger victims of violence, but their impact on women’s everyday freedoms is also evident. Abubakr has seen how hospitals’ dependence on a head of family for certain decisions can leave them unable to treat women, or have those women make decisions for themselves.
A Lack Of Autonomy
The assumption that women exist in safe spaces and that they don’t need to be asked or even informed about a new policy that impacts their privacy has far-reaching consequences. But understanding this policy can only happen within the context of a broader conversation about women’s autonomy. This is why Kamran points out that women’s cybersecurity must be discussed as an important subset of online safety because general conversations around the issue don’t include women’s perspectives or their specific lived experiences. “One of the main ways to prioritize women’s cybersecurity is to recognize that women have the right to privacy, whatever you see on the internet is a reflection of how this society is,” Kamran tells Inkstick.
NADRA’s policy may seem like it only impacts one area of women’s lives, but it is actually situated in a much broader system that aims to police women online and offline. In a country where violence against women is often used as a tool to silence dissent, such as through targeted attacks on women journalists online, women’s free use of online spaces is being drastically impacted. “I see all attacks on women online, such as gendered moral policing — as part of a bigger system to not want women in public spaces,” Durrani says.