Is Social Media Helping or Hindering Women’s Rights in Pakistan?

At the end of September, photos of Mahira Khan, a notable Pakistani actress were released by a celebrity magazine. The images show Khan, who was wearing a backless dress, smoking outside with her co-star Ranbir Kapoor.

Social media went into meltdown as the images began to circulate, some taking aim at the actress by accusing her of betraying and insulting her country. And it wasn’t just her smoking that was ridiculed, people were offended by her outfit choice and the fact that she was with an Indian actor. Online trolls accused her of “destroying Islam” and dared her to “be herself” in her home country.

But many fans jumped to her defence, claiming that the judgement from others was sexist and hypocritical. This includes her co-star Kapoor who released the following statement:

“It is very unfair the way she is being judged and spoken about. What is also sad is the inequality in judgement just because she is a woman. I request you to stop the negativity and move on with your beautiful god gifted lives”

Instagram post by @ali_zafar with the caption ‘@mahirakhan’. The actor defends Mahira in his Instagram post.

Does this sort of public shaming endorse dangerous notions of purity in Pakistan?  And is social media helping to fuel this hatred?

We cannot forget the murder of Qandeel Baloch, the ‘Kim Kardashian’ of Pakistan and social media star who was famous for her provocative selfies and revealing outfits, and, in the last days of her life, a political and social icon. She had left her violent husband and her child back in her traditional hometown in pursuit of becoming a celebrity. Followed by millions, she was both idolised and despised for her fearless expressions of sexuality and challenging comments regarding patriarchy. When the hateful comments turned to death threats, no notice was taken and she was found dead in July 2015 in her family home, murdered by her brother.

There have been calls across the country to ensure the protection of women and their rights, although in general, they are unpopular, and rape, honour killings, and forced marriages remain routine in Pakistan. It is estimated that there are around 1000 honour killings every year. Law allows the family of a victim murder to pardon the murderer to avoid prosecution. Honour killing remains a criminal offence but is poorly enforced by police.

More recently, a video emerged of an older man in Pakistan inappropriately touching a young girl in a shop. The video was shared widely on Pakistani social media, but instead of condemning the act, many were blaming the young girl. People insisted she was not dressed modestly enough as her clothing didn’t cover her arms. However, there were people who condemned the act and the video has since been removed from social media.

Whilst social media is a tool for those who wish to spread their hateful beliefs, there is also a backlash of men and women alike who are fighting back against the sexism and inequality that Pakistani women are faced with every day.


Words: Jessica White

Hashtags: #mahirakhan #qandeelbaloch #pakistan


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