On March 9, the day after Pakistan’s annual Women’s Day protest this year, Saima received a concerned message from an acquaintance about a video making the rounds on Twitter. Saima instantly recognized the video; it was from an event she helped organize. It showed women chanting slogans as a tabla played in the background. The audio had been lowered, the drum’s sound increased, making it hard to understand what the women were saying. The post was overlayed with false subtitles that made it seem like instead of chanting the feminist slogans the women had chanted in real life, they were chanting slogans against the Prophet Muhammad — a crime punishable by death in Pakistan.
“[When] I logged on, it had only 10 views,” Saima said, “and I began reporting it [to Twitter] and started working to make sure the real video” — the one where the women were chanting feminist slogans — “was also able to get out there.”
Saima, who asked to change her name for her safety in the country, helped organize Aurat March (Women’s March), which has been held on International Women’s Day in Pakistan every year since 2018. (Rest of World spoke with three other marchers and organizers, who all requested anonymity for their safety.) Though it began in the country’s largest cities, since last year, the protests — run by an inclusive collective that campaigns for the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and minorities across Pakistan — have grown larger. With its increased popularity, the march has also seen an increase in backlash. This year, however, the backlash has taken on a far more sinister tone.
In the days after the event, a coordinated disinformation campaign against the organizers quickly spread on social media on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. In Lahore, a woman’s poster that alleged a member of the clergy had sexually assaulted her was labeled as blasphemous. A picture of someone holding a flag for a local feminist group was shared with false information that it was a French flag, further “proof” that the feminist movement is foreign-funded. And in Karachi, attacks centered around the altered video of chanting protesters alleged the women said “Prophet Muhammad will give us freedom,” a dangerous claim in Pakistan, where even a suggestion of blasphemy can incite mob violence.
False information about the marchers was picked up by Pakistani journalists with major platforms, like TV hosts Orya Maqbool Jan, Ansar Abbasi, and Ovais Mangalwala, many of whom have a long history of disparaging the Women’s Day event. Even the Pakistani Taliban, a group that has largely receded after the war on terror but remains influential in parts of the country, released a statement condemning Aurat March and its organizers, warning them that their behavior wouldn’t be tolerated.
It’s unclear where the fake videos came from, but the Twitter campaign that spread the false images and videos appears to be coordinated. In the past several years, large-scale troll armies have employed Twitter to wage propaganda against India, to target vulnerable religious minorities in Pakistan, and to intimidate, endanger, and abuse journalists and activists who step out of line.
“I do believe this was very deliberate,” said Farieha Aziz, co-founder of a civil advocacy group called Bolo Bhi. “This time it took on a more dangerous dimension,” she said, because of “the assertion that anti-Islam and blasphemous activities have taken place.” And in Pakistan, online attacks do translate into offline aggression — after a video of two girls dancing in the rain went viral, they were murdered by an angry mob.
Blasphemy in particular is a serious offense in Pakistan, one that results in the death penalty for anyone convicted of the crime. Often, mob violence takes justice outside of the court system altogether. In 2019, a student in Pakistan’s Punjab province killed his professor after mistaking some of the professor’s comments as anti-Islamic. In 2017, a mob of students lynched a student for Facebook posts they believed were blasphemous.
Saima, and others who were attacked online, knew that the consequences of these videos were serious, the equivalent of putting a target on their backs. Women who’ve been accused of blasphemy in the past because of their involvement with Aurat March still live with fatwas over their heads; some told Rest of World that they’ve spent months after the fact terrified for their lives. A few months ago, a woman organizing with Aurat March in a smaller city north of Karachi was forced to leave Pakistan after threats against her escalated to an angry mob gathering outside her home.
Organizers of the Aurat Marches across Pakistan scrambled to correct the narrative online, releasing a statement, videos, and explainers clarifying the disinformation; calling up journalists in Pakistan’s media; and begging others to delete their posts and apologize.
Within four years of its founding, Aurat March has quickly become a seminal event for Pakistani women fighting against the deep-seated patriarchal beliefs that permeate the country’s culture. The march and its organizers— who include trans and non-binary people— take an intersectional lens towards feminist work, arguing that climate change, access to healthcare, and labor rights are all feminist issues. But in the media, the march largely reflects women who are increasingly connected with global trends, entering the workforce, and more willing to address societal changes head on.
Prior feminist movements in Pakistan have also faced considerable backlash. During military rule in the 1980s, feminists protested to end feudalism, patriarchy, and for the restoration of democracy, facing violent crackdowns by state actors.
As the latest iteration of women’s movements in the country, many in Pakistan’s conservative society are rankled by Aurat March’s slogans and posters. In previous marches, posters proclaiming “my body, my choice” or “don’t send me dick pics” incited public backlash. “It’s not pretty,” said one member of the Aurat March organizing committee. “But the thing is, the controversy allows people to speak to their parents, or their cousins. The posters can be a proxy for some very real conversations.”
One woman, who’d gone to Aurat March for the first time this year, explained that the the collective experience of yelling out feminist slogans with authority made her feel like she was part of a bigger cause. “We are not asking for our freedom,” she explained. “We are saying, we will get our freedom.” Another woman who has attended protests in multiple cities over the years said, “In so many ways, women in Pakistan have to diminish their voices, make themselves smaller. We are silenced over and over again. And on one day every year, we stand together and say that we will be free.”
For her and marchers like her, the fact that these very slogans were weaponized against them has been traumatizing. Though some journalists who’d retweeted the false content deleted their posts, and others took to the evening news to fact-check some of the claims, it’s unlikely that Pakistan’s justice system will find the perpetrators of the false information, let alone punish those in media who presented the unsubstantiated rumors as fact.
The targeted disinformation campaign, along with the Taliban’s threats, have made Aurat March organizers fearful for the safety of their future events. “We will have to worry about bomb threats, about strategy, about everyone’s safety. This really puts us on the back foot,” said Saima. The annual march seeks to include a diverse group of people: organizers work for months in underserved communities, encouraging women from poor villages that surround Karachi to attend. When disinformation like this goes viral, it puts the organizers in those more vulnerable communities under greater threat too.
“I haven’t left my house in five days. I’ve deleted all my social media accounts. I’m spending my time scrubbing photographs of everyone who could be affected,” said Saima. “But not everyone has the luxury of laying low, of hiding themselves, and we have to make sure that those people are going to be safe, especially because they are more vulnerable.” For now, Saima’s hopeful that things will blow over soon, taking consolation from the fact that, at least, no one’s filed a complaint naming specific marchers for blaspheming. But, she said, “It’s a lot of trauma that will haunt us for a very long time.”