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August 3rd, 2015

Pakistan’s ‘digital purdah’: How gender segregation persists in social media

2 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


August 3rd, 2015

Pakistan’s ‘digital purdah’: How gender segregation persists in social media

2 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Emrys SThe narrative around social media consistently claims that mobile internet acts as a tool for empowering women. But Emrys Schoemaker writes that his research in Pakistan shows that mobile internet adoption is following established gender lines and as a result may reinforce, rather than challenge, established family dynamics.

From ISIS recruitment to the Arab Spring, the narrative around social media remains consistently simplistic: it’s a dynamic technology that creates change – both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This is particularly true for claims about the technology’s potential to ‘liberate oppressed women’. A study by the mobile network operators association the GSMA concludes that mobile Internet can ‘empower women in inspiring ways’.

This narrative also applies in Pakistan at a time when Facebook and Telenor have launched free internet services through ‘’ , fast, 3G mobile internet services are being rolled out and affordable smartphones are being rapidly adopted across the country.

However, in-depth research paints a picture that challenges this simplistic narrative of technologically-driven change, especially among women.

In a recent telephone survey of 900 mobile data users in three Punjabi cities, 85% of male respondents reported that they mostly use Facebook, compared to only 47% of female respondents. By contrast, 45% of women say they usually use WhatsApp compared to only 13% of men. In short, men like Facebook and women favor WhatsApp. And that suggests mobile internet adoption patterns are following established gender lines and as a result may reinforce, rather than challenge, established family dynamics.

To understand the story behind these figures, over the last six months I have been interviewing mobile internet users in second and third tier cities in Punjab..

One explanation given for the gendered difference in social media use illustrates how technologies are adopted and domesticated into social contexts. Rather than injecting social norms and behaviors into users, as some technologists and industry experts claim, my research exemplifies how people can also use technologies to maintain social norms–even social norms that most people think perpetuates the very gender inequality that technologies are supposed to change.

Saima, who wears a full-face covering niqab, described WhatsApp as ‘Ghar ki bad’ (‘Of the House’.) She explained that WhatsApp allowed private communication among people who are already allowed ‘in the house.’ Whatsapp design favours communication between known individuals, as its communication hinders connections between unknown users, unlike Facebook which allows  friending those we do not know. For Saima, Whatsapp enables the privacy of the home to be maintained in a manner that reflects the social norms codified in the seclusion of women from public and the practice of purdah.

This practice has been described by sociologists and anthropologists as a way of protecting female honor, a protection particularly important when marriages are commonly a form of economic and social contract between two families as much as a declaration of love between two individuals. According to sociologist Hamza Alavi, for many in Pakistan women embody a family’s status and as such are the currency in which marriage contracts between families are conducted. Protecting female honor protects the status of the family and maintains its ability to protect and accumulate wealth and power.

It’s not just women’s use that maintains gender differences. Many of the young men I’ve spoken to also describe how their use of Facebook serves to maintain established social norms. For example, many tell me they have multiple Facebook accounts, and while there are multiple reasons for this, from ‘practice’ accounts to fake profiles where they pose as women, many describe how their use of multiple Facebook accounts is used to perpetuate gender segregation through a practice I call ‘Digital Purdah.’

Many of the young men I’ve spoken to tell me they have a Facebook profile for their male friends (and in most cases nearly all their friends are male) and another account for their family. Although slightly hesitant, when pressed, many explain that this is to avoid their male friends being able to see family pictures–particularly pictures of women in their family. “This is our culture,” Waseem said, when he explained why it was important to keep other men from seeing his sister. Having two separate accounts allows Waseem and others to keep female family members hidden from the eyes of male friends.

Of course, some women also have multiple Facebook accounts, and use these to contact and communicate with men outside their families. Nevertheless, the overwhelming pattern suggests that Facebook is used to maintain gender segregation–thus showing how how technology designed in one cultural context is used in complex ways in other contexts, with other cultural values. 

These ways of using Facebook are necessary because of the particularities of Facebook’s design– particularly of the singular timeline which creates what is essentially a single room in which friends from all aspects of our lives are brought together. This is a phenomena known as ‘context collapse.’ This is not a phenomena that is uniquely problematic in Pakistan. In fact, it explains the declining adoption rate among American teenagers. After all, few teenagers want to permanently live in the same room as their parents, under the watchful eyes of their guardians. 

And, there are real concerns about the impact of Facebook on a user’s ability to manage privacy. A recent report by internet rights NGO bytes4all documented 170 cases of cybercrime against women in Pakistan’s Punjab province alone. Men have been arrested for creating fake female accounts and blackmailing women. One young women told me how her laptop had been stolen, and her pictures photoshopped onto pictures of naked women and used to blackmail her. 

But while the practice of digital purdah serves to protect women from the shame of contact with unknown men, it also results in a further seclusion of women from the digital public sphere. One young female teacher told me she thought it was unfair that her brother could be in touch with anyone but she was not allowed.

There has been a lot of research that suggests women report feeling empowered when they have access to mobile phones and the internet. But my own research suggests that these findings are not universal. Against the liberating promise of Facebook are examples that suggest the technology can be used to maintain social norms that reflect values in which women are secluded from public life. My research suggests the practice of digital purdah may indeed serve to protect women, but at the cost of maintaining their seclusion within a domestic space that excludes their voices from the public sphere.

My research looks at how technologies are used in everyday life, and how the two interact. The adoption of mobile phones and social media can clearly lead to be disruptive, but can also be used to reinforce existing social norms and behaviours. This point is broader than just social media and gender relations – technologies are not universal, leading necessarily to social uprisings or state surveillance. The implications of technologies are unpredictable, and as Pakistan’s adoption of mobile and internet technologies grow, and as many seek to use these tools for planned social change, it may be wise to be mindful of the unanticipated as well as the planned outcomes of development programmes.

This article originally appeared on Tanqeed and is reposted with the author’s permission. It has also appeared on

Cover image credit: flickr/Álvaro Ibáñez CC BY 2.0

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Author

Emrys SEmrys Schoemaker is a strategic analyst, conducting research on the use and implications of mobile and internet technologies in resource constrained environments. He has been visiting Pakistan for over ten years, and is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. He tweets at @emrys_s

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