Sex, Apps And VPN: Pakistan Is Curbing Internet Freedom, But Young People Are Fighting Back

Karachi, PAKISTAN — On 1 September, Pakistan’s telecom regulator announced it was blocking access to five apps, including dating apps Tinder and Grindr. The decision has infuriated young Pakistanis, who say this will deal an even bigger blow to the limited freedom and agency available to women and sexual minorities in the country. 

“Do we need a Sima Taparia just for dick now? The ban is stupid because it is yet another step towards a repressed society where people end up using LinkedIn and Twitter to approach women,” said 30-year-old A*, an Islamabad-based yoga instructor, who said she initially joined Tinder for fun before realising it was a way to meet interesting people. Taparia is a wedding consultant who appeared on the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking.

The ostensible reason given by telecom regulator Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), that they want to check the “immoral/indecent content” on the apps, has also not gone down well with users.

“If the PTA really wants to curtail ‘immoral’ behaviour, maybe they can neuter Pakistani men. That will surely help,” fumed A.

In a country where women, particularly from less privileged backgrounds, find it difficult to meet and interact with men freely, apps such as Tinder offered a way out, even if the aim was merely friendship. The option of getting to know someone away from the excessive interest shown by relatives or matchmakers makes dating apps attractive for young women chafing at restrictions. Homosexuality is banned in the country, making Grindr a go-to option for queer people, especially gay men. While adultery laws were made more lenient in 2006, extramarital relationships can still land participants in trouble. 

Reuters has reported that Tinder was downloaded more than 440,000 times in Pakistan within the past 12 months while Grindr and two other banned dating apps Tagged and SayHi had each been downloaded about 300,000 times in the same period, suggesting widespread adoption of the apps.

While users with resources can circumvent the ban through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or by moving to other apps such as Bumble, some ask why they should be forced to do so.

“How does it matter if women are talking to men or having sex with them? How can that possibly be more important than tackling bigger issues like education or poverty? And they’re stupid if they think that this will stop people from dating or having sex. They won’t, people will always find a way. I’m not concerned that this will make it hard to hook up or date, I’m angry because how dare they?” said Sana, a 30-year-old researcher based in Karachi who joined Tinder two years ago to help deal with heartbreak.  

The app ban, while a blow, wasn’t surprising. The PTA has been accused of overstepping its mandate and being a “moral police” several times. In 2012, The Express Tribune wrote in an editorial that “the agency frequently blocks websites that are considered offensive, usually on grounds of religion or social morality”. 

This was after the PTA asked telecom companies to stop offering packages that would enable customers to make unlimited calls at night—because the advertisements were targeted at “young boys and girls”.  

The same year, YouTube was banned in the country after an anti-Islamic short film was uploaded to the video-sharing website. The ban was lifted only in 2016 after the company launched a local version which, according to Reuters, “allows the government to demand removal of material it considers offensive”. Last year, the regulator told a government panel that it had blocked 900,000 URLs due to blasphemous or pornographic content. Earlier this year, the PTA banned PUBG, claiming it received complaints that the game was “addictive” and “wastage of time”. The ban was lifted in July after PUBG officials held meetings with the government. 

PTA told HuffPost India that the recent ban was because the apps host content that violates the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA), adding that the regulator had taken action in accordance with law. Activists, however, have termed PECA a “draconian” law.

 

Do we need a Sima Taparia just for dick now?
—A*, an Islamabad-based yoga instructor

Dating 101

Reema, a doctor, met her husband Khalil, a banker, on Tinder two years ago. Both of them worked long hours and found it difficult to meet someone the traditional way. While their families were happy with the match, neither of them have confessed to their parents how they met.

Both of them are appalled at the ban.

“In Karachi, social circles tend to be very clique-ish and the same type of available people after a certain age,” said Reema, adding that she had joined Tinder to meet new people “without the entire social circle invested and watching the interaction”.

Munira, a young journalist based in Karachi, said she found it hard to make friends and socialise with men.

“I joined Tinder last year to make friends and obviously, I was looking forward to dating someone in the long run as well. While the app is a good way to get to know people, there are some cons as well. Just before the ban, I matched with a man and he was being creepy… kept asking if he could come over immediately after we started talking. Then he randomly asked me if I lived on X street. I freaked out,” she said.

But the ban hasn’t really caused much trouble for Munira, who has just moved on to Bumble. “It’s another dating app and everyone has migrated here or they already had an account there too. Instead of banning apps, the PTA should work towards making these and other apps more secure for users.”

It is unclear why PTA has not yet banned Bumble—which markets itself as a more “feminist” app, with only women able to make the first move. However, HuffPost Indiareported last year that apps such as Tinder and Bumble have a worryingly lax attitude towards sexual harassers on their platforms.

According to Sana, the researcher quoted above, Tinder was a solution for Pakistanis who had relatively less access to opportunities for meeting people, either due to family restrictions or lack of privilege. 

“I don’t have the social capital to be invited to parties other than the occasional birthday once every couple of months but those are small things for friends. How many people do you even meet there to be friends with, let alone date or fuck?” she said. 

B*, a Karachi-based fine artist who has been using Grindr on and off since 2013, said he met many of his close friends through the app. It feels cruel, he said, to have a major chunk of space taken away when there is already so little of it. 

“I kept thinking about their statement and that the ‘inappropriate content’ on Grindr they mention are the queer men themselves,” said this person.

B added that many queer people around him are not too bothered, making him feel like his response is disproportionate. 

“Maybe there is this tacit understanding that we are going to lose space. That the fact that we had access to these apps was already a privilege or a lapse in the workings of the oppressive moral-policing state and it was always a matter of time before they were taken away,” he said.

I kept thinking about their statement and that the ‘inappropriate content’ on Grindr they mention are the queer men themselves
—B*, a Karachi-based fine artist

Ali, a 34-year-old entrepreneur, joined Grindr in 2013 after a scare on another dating app, Manjam, where an alleged serial killer was targeting gay men that he met on the app. 

According to Ali, his current circle of friends are people he met through the app and some of them have become his lifelines, “my rocks in terrible times”. 

“I don’t know how straight people treated Tinder but we thought of it as a dating app while Grindr was always our bootycall/hook-up app. It’s definitely important to have access to dating apps but we, gay people, have turned everything into a dating app. If you have a couple of gay friends you follow, you’ll end up getting gay boys on Instagram or Facebook or, if anonymity is your thing, then there is Twitter,” he said.

However, the ban is definitely a blow as it makes things harder for a community that was already suffering. “It’s silly, it’s 1984. None of this makes sense. I’ll just use my VPN if I want to use the app now. So essentially, the ban hasn’t really stopped me from using the app, just made the route a bit circuitous.”

Unfortunately, the VPN route may also not be available to many people soon. PTA has asked users to register all corporate VPN connections or face an IP blacklist soon.

PTA’s excesses

“We’re seeing a fundamental closing of Pakistan’s digital spaces and if the PTA is allowed to continue unchecked as it has been, the consequences will be dire,” said digital rights activist and lawyer Nighat Dad, who set up the Digital Rights Foundation in 2012. 

Dad said PTA’s tendency to ban apps has been on the rise this year. Several apps such as online game Fornite and live-streaming platform Bigo Live were removed after a PTA order, while warnings have been issued to YouTube and TikTok.

“While it is true that these (the banned apps) were ‘dating’ apps, its use may not have always been so ‘scandalous’ as people may have thought. This was an online platform where people got to meet each other virtually and exist in a way outside of society and its ways and expectations. It gave people some degree of autonomy over themselves and their bodies too,” said Dad, who said the impact was particularly hard on women and sexual minorities.

PECA, she pointed out, was a particularly problematic law.

“Essentially it is a draconian law because under Section 37, the regulator has powers to block or censor content that it sees as immoral, anti-state or religion—not just on the internet but though any device…this allows the PTA to interpret how the exclusions are to be applied,” she said.  

A recent example of how PECA is misused was the case of Karachi-based journalist Bilal Farooqui, who was arrested for alleged “anti-state” tweets. 

The only way to reverse the ban, said Dad, is for young Pakistanis to raise their voices and speak in public spaces: online and offline. 

“They must not let the discourse die. The youth needs to form a unified and united front and opposition to certain government bans and laws.” 

*Names changed to protect privacy

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