Surveillance as a Feminist Issue

This guest piece was written by Shmyla Khan of the Digital Rights Foundation.

Digital Rights Foundation is advocating for corresponding legislation that develops a digital rights regime based on principles of privacy, free speech and equality.

News & Analysis

Surveillance in digital spaces is the policing and monitoring of activity of those occupying these spaces. Surveillance affects free speech, privacy and behaviour of digital users. Feminism and a feminist approach to surveillance puts marginalised communities, those that are victims of class discrimination, racial and patriarchal structures, at the centre of discourse around privacy and surveillance.

Surveillance in Pakistan is often seen as an issue of national security. With the National Action Plan (NAP) [1] forming the primary framework for discourse around surveillance and human rights, it comes as no surprise that those defending or opposing surveillance by the state are often focused on the imperatives of the security state and counter-terrorism. Implicit in this discourse is the conceptualisation of surveillance as uniform and the ‘surveiled’ subject as exclusively male. Thus, while the current critiques of surveillance and the augmented powers of the state in the present discourse have been extremely important, they would benefit from taking a feminist approach to surveillance and state control. A feminist approach to surveillance will expand the very definition of surveillance to include both state and private surveillance by showing the disparate impact of surveillance and the connection between the technologies of state surveillance and harassment of women.

The spectre of 1984-esque critiques simply do not account for the disproportionate impact of surveillance on the oppressed groups in society and the complex intersectionalities that inform that oppression. The feminist project, built on many feminist concepts such as the male gaze and self-regulation of gendered stereotypes has been applied to the surveillance and control by technology (see: “Feminist Surveillance Studies”, edited by Rachel  E. Dubrofsky, Shoshana  Amielle Magnet), mounts a damning critique of our increasingly “watched” world by emphasising the differentiated impact of surveillance technologies based on racism, genders, sexualities, LBGT-identities, consequently deepening our understanding of surveillance. [2]

Online harassment and surveillance directed largely at marginalised groups, such as religious minorities, women and young people, is slowly being recognised in the mainstream as a problem that needs legislative intervention. For instance, the newly passed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 contains sections on hate speech (section 11) and sexual cyber harassment (section 21 and section 24). However, the gendered use of technology and surveillance is not a new phenomenon as there is a clear line of continuity in the forms of oppression, control and surveillance from the past and in offline spaces. Existing forms of violence are replicated online in many of the same ways as they are present offline; the same patriarchal norms, exclusions and violence form a link into the digital age. In Pakistan this continuity is all the more glaring in light of evidence that the presence of women online, or transgressions from societal norms in the cyber realm, has direct and immediate repercussions offline and has resulted in instances of honour killings, violence, social ostracism and application of discriminatory laws to regulate speech of marginalised communities.

Furthermore, while the NAP and terror framework might seem contemporary in its language and posturing, there is another trend of continuity inherited from the British Raj. The regulatory and surveillance mechanisms in place to control the colonial subject in the form of documentation, classification and criminalization of certain races and tribes was constitutive of the colonial surveillance state. [3] The impact of surveillance was also differentiated, as the colonial apparatus targeted and controlled certain communities [4], while patronising others. The colonial state applied different legal regimes to some groups, while applying a wholly different set of laws and logics of control to others. This history of surveillance is an important one when contextualising privacy and state surveillance in the Pakistani context as the state machinery has a legacy of differentiated and discriminatory control and oppression.

The Male Gaze

DRF’s “Hamara Internet” (“our internet”) project reaches out to young women in colleges across Pakistan. These women open up about the fear of constantly being monitored online by their partners or family members, or fear of having their online presence and activities being ‘outed’. Two layers of surveillance experienced by young women thus emerge: one stems from the realisation that the information they put on the internet can be used against them and will have repercussions according to gender norms; and the other layer comes in the form of state surveillance of their online activities. It is important to recognise that women’s experiences of technologies and surveillance is vastly different than the dominant, cis, male experience. This experience however does not simply add on to the examples of the effects that surveillance has, it fundamentally changes the concept of surveillance: not only is state surveillance a non-uniform experience, it should also be expanded to give equal importance to surveillance of women as given to traditional forms of political surveillance.

Many women experience, and are conscious of, the ‘male gaze’ when they enter physical spaces that are traditionally male-dominated, such as public streets. Feminist perspectives on surveillance connect being “leered” to that of being “watched” by surveillance state. [5] This perspective posits that the feeling of being watched, an experience shared by many in online spaces, is an essentially female experience. The male gaze, lurking on the female body, is not dissimilar to online users feeling like they have to modify their behaviour under the gaze of surveillance. [6] There is a strong nexus between the surveillance technologies used by the state and those used to ‘monitor’ women online. Online harassment is not a separate concern from surveillance, the two are deeply interconnected in both their logic and the techniques they employ.

Since the passage of the PECA in August 2016, there has been some concern about the state policing online spaces. The combined glare of the male gaze and state surveillance is feared to result in disproportionate chilling effect leading to self-censorship by members of less dominant groups in both cyber and offline spaces and force them to police their behaviours according to expected ‘normal’ online behaviour. Problematic provisions in PECA allow for expansive and arbitrary surveillance, including through data retention (section 32 of PECA makes it necessary for the data retention of traffic data for a minimum period of one year by service providers) and increased powers of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to remove content. The gaze of the state, using its power to remove material it deems objectionable, has similar effects on online spaces as the male gaze offline. [7] Arbitrary and expansive interpretations of what constitutes obscene and objectionable content will disproportionately capture those groups that deviate from gender norms e.g. LGBT groups. Political censorship and removal of content on the basis of vague criteria like “glory of Islam” and “integrity, security or defence of Pakistan” will silence voices of religious minorities and disenfranchised ethnic populations who do not conform to the narrative of the nation-state and NAP.

Applications for Women: Friend or Foe?

“Placing marginalized, stigmatized and often criminalized women at the centre of feminist surveillance studies reveals that technologies aimed at the protection from individual abusers, and the arrest of perpetrators, does not work for all cases of violent practices”. [Source: Mason, C. and Shoshana Magnet. 2012. Surveillance Studies and Violence Against Women. Surveillance & Society 10(2): 105-118. | ISSN: 1477-7487. P. 115.]

It is the experience of women in many countries, including Pakistan, that the same technologies associated with generalised surveillance are employed to harass or silence them. Tracking devices used to locate individuals have been used by families and abusive partners to monitor women and perpetuate violence against them. Apart from seemingly benign technologies used to control women, the history of some technologies themselves are often problematic to begin with. As Mason and Magnot point out, “SpyWare and other types of computer monitoring programs were developed for the purposes of consumer surveillance, their extension to other types of stalking are unsurprising.” [8] With the passage of the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2015, DRF has found in its analysis that the provision requiring perpetrators to wear ‘ankle or wrist bracelet GPS trackers’ runs into issues of privacy as it uses broad language to grant surveillance powers to the government without any corresponding measures to ensure that it achieves its objective of stopping violence.

This begs the question, is the solution to surveillance and the subsequent insecurity even more surveillance? There is an entire industry of applications and services that promises to keep us safe and protect our data, with a niche of applications emerging that cater particularly to women. These apps often involve women having to provide extensive amounts of personal information, such as real-time location and contacts of friends and family, and forego some of their privacy for increased protection. That protection is ceded to tech-based systems that have the potential to replicate the same oppressions that gave rise to the need for applications in the first place. Many of the concessions women get from these services are dependent on a ‘benefactor’ company to use their information for ‘good’. Furthermore, in the absence of data protection laws in Pakistan, even privacy policies ring hollow and are voluntary gestures on part of tech companies and application developers. In recent months, Pakistan has seen the launch of Uber and Careem, mobile application-based taxi services, which were initially welcomed by women as ‘safe’ options given the option to track their rides and have drivers connected to a company that could hold them accountable. However, there have been instances of personal data of customers, phone numbers and names, remaining with the drivers after the ride is over. Furthermore, despite assurances by these companies that their drivers receive anti-harassment training, several cases are emerging where the phone numbers shared in the apps are used to harass women. 

There are no clear-cut answers here, but this contradiction of application aimed at and claiming to ‘protect women’ need to be further reassessed as women try to create themselves safer spaces online and offline.


A gendered critique of surveillance is important as advocacy groups and human rights activists are beginning to oppose the PECA and monitor its abuses. Voices of dissent and the focal point of reform should emerge from the most marginalised among us. Surveillance mechanisms proposed by the PECA, and the anticipated rules under the Act, are being justified in the name of national security—however the question of whether these systems conform to human rights needs to take into account the experiences of women and minorities and the impact of state surveillance and privacy regimes on them.

As the conversation around surveillance technologies develops and expands, privacy as a concept itself should be extricated from its articulation of ‘chaar diwari’ (the four walls) that is often used to oppresses and police women. It should be clear that the layer of privacy we are advocating is conceptually distinct from its traditional, regressive manifestation. These intellectual distinctions are not important merely for the sake of conceptual clarity, but can have real consequences as judges pass judgements under the newly drafted PECA. Feminists find themselves in a confusing corner, whether to oppose the PECA and increasing state surveillance when it comes in a package of anti-online harassment laws. Digital Rights Foundation advocated for a gendered critique of the Bill in its amendment stages, and that such a critique should not be confined merely to the harassment specific sections of the Bill, but in fact even to the seemingly ‘gender-neutral’ parts that expanded the reaches of state surveillance. It is important to see surveillance as a feminist concern and to oppose laws that chip away at privacy as part of a holistic gender-sensitive approach to law, regulation and legislation.

As it currently stands, the PECA is handicapped by an executing authority that does not have the resources to respond to complaints around online harassment in a timely manner. Thus, the impact of the law in making online spaces safer for women and minority groups has been negligible. Additionally, the regulatory and surveillance mechanism in place holds the potential of replicating the same inequalities that exist offline. Furthermore, the impact of the law on marginalised communities is being monitored and studied to apply an experience-based as applied challenge to the problematic sections of the PECA. Digital Rights Foundation is advocating for corresponding legislation that develops a digital rights regime based on principles of privacy, free speech and equality.


[1] The National Action Plan (NAP) was established by the government in January, 2015 following the gruesome attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar December, 2014. Formulated in a moment of national crisis and across party support, the NAP framework encompasses the Twenty-first Amendment (establishing military courts), lifting of the seven-year-old moratorium on the executions of prisoners sentenced to death, and the passage of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 (commonly known as the Cyber Crimes Bill).

[2] This emphasis on difference and varied experiences of the surveillance gaze is a hallmark of feminist analysis. See: Abu-Laban, Y, “Gendering Surveillance Studies: The Empirical and Normative Promise of Feminist Methodology”, Surveillance & Society 13(1), 2015., pg. 44-56.

[3] “The categorisation and enumeration of the population [“colonial knowledge”] in pre-colonial India was carried out by local elites, and subsequently modified and implemented by the British for the purpose of ruling and taxation.” Elina Zureik, “Colonial Oversight’, Red Paper, October/November 2013, pg. 46-7.

[4] The Criminal Tribes’ Act, 1871. Act XXVII was passed by the British colonial state and it classified certain marginalised groups as “criminal”. This categorization led to surveillance, geographical segregation and restrictions on movement of members of these “criminal tribes”.

[5] David Lyon argues that “Underlying claims about gender-based surveillance is the unwanted male gaze”, David Lyon, “Surveillance as Social Sorting”, p. 50.

[6] “Surveillance can be understood as the ‘re-embodiment’ of women, as ‘an extension of male gaze’”, Hille Koskela, ‘The gaze without eyes’: video-surveillance and the changing nature of urban space, Progress in Human Geography 24,2 (2000) pp. 243–265, 256.

[7] Section 37 of the PECA allows for the removal of “unlawful content” that is against the “glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement of an offence”.

[8] Mason, C. and Shoshana Magnet. 2012. Surveillance Studies and Violence Against Women. Surveillance & Society 10(2): 105-118.| ISSN: 1477-7487.

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