Changing the Face of Politics Podcast

Episode 3: Michelle Bachelet interviews Nighat Dad

In the third episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series, Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks with Nighat Dad, Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, about the opportunities and barriers of the digital space for politically-active women, and her experience as an activist fighting for women’s rights in Pakistan.





Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute's Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. After a powerful conversation with climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, former President of Chile and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, now interviews Nighat Dad, Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, in this third episode of Changing the Face of Politics.

Michelle Bachelet: Hello. Welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face Of Politics Podcast Series. My name is Michelle Bachelet, I'm the UN High Commissioner Of Human Rights and Former President. And my guest is Nighat Dad, she is the Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation, working on civil liberties online on Pakistan, but also globally. She's one of the pioneer women's rights activists, especially in the context of defined and the cyberspace narrative from a feminist perspective. Nighat has also been at the forefront of the young feminist movement in the country. She organized with others a great march in March this year for women's rights. I'm looking forward to this conversation because I think she said young leader, she's a young global leader recognized by the World Economic Forum. I think it’s really fantastic to meet women as united young women, enthusiastic, you're a lawyer as well. And for me as a High Commission of Human Rights is also very important, because we are also working on frontier issues like technology, artificial intelligence, and digital space, and human rights. I'm really happy to have this opportunity, we hope we'll have a great conversation, and very nice to meet you online.

Nighat Dad: Thank you so much Madam High Commissioner, it is pleasure to be part of this amazing podcast series.

Michelle Bachelet: Let's start discussing some issues. This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and Platform for Action. What do you think has changed for women in political leadership and decision-making in the last 25 years? And what has stubbornly stayed the same?

Nighat Dad: Every few years we see the arrival of a new generation of politicians. Sometimes we see a younger lot of politicians come in. Each generation represents a new way of thinking and a new outlook, which is always exciting. Worldwide, we have seen this new generation come in and it constitutes more women than before. Of course, we have a long way to go before we can say women are equal in number two men in politics, but at least it is trending upwards. With this inflow we see an overall shift in societies, a shift towards accepting female politicians. Social media also helps to promote them and their causes. We see this with how the world sees New Zealand's Prime Minister, for instance. The generation which is coming up also shows huge promise. The new kids are more aware and vocal. If Malala Yousafzai is just somewhat - it's one of the examples - then we see, we can see Generation Z women really making an impact. Sadly, with this progress comes the patriarchal structures that still stand in the way of women and their participation in politics, especially when it comes to Global South - although we see the patriarchal structure stand in the way of women politicians around the world - but there is more impact of these structures when it comes to Global South and developing countries. 

Initially men would physically stop women, but now they troll them endlessly online. According to our study at The Digital Rights Foundation on female participation in Pakistan's last general elections in 2018, on social media, we found that women politicians were more likely to receive unwelcomed and abusive comments than their male counterparts. We studied 43,372 comments across 43 female politicians’ profiles. We found that 90% comments were neutral, 6% comments were unwelcoming, and 4% were abusive. So we are seeing that the progress is happening, but with the advent of new digital spaces, there is more space for opportunities for women politicians. But at the same time, I think it's very important for us to see what are the challenges and hindrances that they face while reclaiming these online spaces.

Michelle Bachelet: But Nighat, it's interesting what you said, because Pakistan is really a patriarchal society. And it's also men trying to - may put obstacles for women to participate, but also sometime women, they are very conservative, they have sort of bought the patriarchal model and they defend it. So the question is, in your case, what motivated you? Because in my case, for example, my mother was always very active in saying “women can, women can.” Why did you get politically involved in the area that you chose? What are the personal connections to an issue? When you say, correctly, we need more women, even though we are advanced, we have to think of which are the obstacles for those women to be able to get involved. So maybe your experience can be very helpful to look at key issues.

Nighat Dad: Thank you, Commissioner. I think it's a very important question. I feel that my personal is political. And the challenges that I have been facing, I feel that I can speak for lots of women who come from a lower middle class background. The biggest challenge has always been the patriarchal setup of the society for us. And, to be very honest, for me, it was different levels of battles that you fight, first in your home, then when you get permission for education, or to be able to work outside, or be part of the world's workforce. At every step, you have to get a permission from your male elders or your male family members - not necessarily, you know the father is the elder, it's like your brother, and your male cousins, and your brother-in-law - it's the whole set up around patriarchy, and the male domination in the society. But like you said, your father was supportive. My father, although he was an illiterate person, but for some reason he was such a progressive man. He was someone who actually supported me a lot in fighting back with people. You know, he actually cleared the path for me while fighting on the other end with the society and mostly with the extended family and providing them rationale that why he is allowing his daughters to get an education, or going to the universities, or for that matter studying with the male students. And honestly, people in our societies are not used to seeing a woman asking for her rights and freedoms. And there is a huge struggle where I'm standing today over the course of years. But there is one example that I would like to mention is the women's marches that are happening all over the world, we also have a women march, which is called Aurat March, aurat means woman. These marches were started three years ago. These marches challenge the stereotypes, and status quo, and taboos in Pakistan. And thousands of women came out on roads, and reclaim their rights, and talked about the freedoms, and talked about the personal freedoms, and demanded them, which the society were never used to have hearing those from women. And that's why the women who have participated the marches, who basically started these marches, the type of hate they get, no one has ever seen this kind of hate online. As time has passed, I have been able to interact with male allies who help, and I think it's very important for us to identify those male allies. However, the fight against patriarchy and its effects is one that is only won with time. And secondly, since I work in digital rights, my one challenge has always been censorship and internet control, which is always against the state, against the social media companies, like big giants. Generally in the Global South, I have seen that the countries believing that they can control the media and they can attack the internet quite often. On top of that, I speak openly about things like right to privacy encryption, which always gets a lot of pushback and backlash. And when a woman is talking about all these things, that's something that people are like, "Oh, why this woman is talking about internet freedom and digital rights?" Because the technology has - people always relate technology with men or masculinity, but when women talks about this, it's like, "Oh, why she's talking about this? She doesn't belong to this sector." So this is the kind of backlash that I faced in the past, but to be very honest, I feel that now we have made a huge space for women who are reclaiming the sector, internet freedom, digital rights, and they are in the leadership positions.

Michelle Bachelet: Well, the fact of saying that digital and technology is more linked to women is because, unfortunately, in many parts of the world it's like that. But when I went to Silicon Valley, I mean, I don't remember which one of them, 80% of the developers of platforms and systems were white, male. 4% were Latinos, of them only 2% were developers, probably the other were the people people who are doing administrative work or cleaning. Afro-descendent was only 2%, and of that only 1% was, I mean, so, if we don't include more women, all the things that will come up will be so biased, isn't it? But let me go back to the march, because I read about the Aurat March, and I found that the agenda of the last one on March 2020, it was so incredibly interesting. Because it was about women's rights, it was about environmental rights. Really, I felt that it was great, great, great. Because I think also really, so congratulations. So let me go to look with this and the following question. Do you think that it's important that women and girls are engaged in politics? Do you think that it's important, why? I just already gave an example of the march, but if you have any other example you want to share with me as well?

Nighat Dad: Yeah, I mean, politics and politicians are the backbone of a lot of discussions around public policy and legislation. Often in the world this discussion is dominated by men, which means they bring their point of view and perspective into the conversation, shunning those who are different from them, be it women and people of trans experiences. And for this basic reason, it is important to have women in politics and be part of those discussions and discourses. If politics remained a male space, legislations and laws would have further protected and supported men and patriarchal systems. One example that I would like to talk from Pakistan comes from the time of General Zia-ul-Haq regime, which is a dictator's regime. He had written into law that women who are raped must produce three witnesses in court, otherwise she'll be punished for sex outside of marriage. And of course, this is an extreme example, but it goes to show how exclusionary and unequal legislation can be when other point of views and voices are not allowed to exist and be part of the discussion. Not too many years later, when our former, late Prime Minister, the first woman Prime Minister of Pakistan, and also of the Muslim countries, Benazir Bhutto, took over in Pakistan, we established female police stations to accommodate common woman who need to go to the police station. So traditionally in Pakistan, police stations have always been male dominated spaces and women would not feel comfortable registering complaints there. This seemingly simple act by the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, gave a lot of women access to law enforcement and enacted women-friendly laws. I mean, this is one example that goes to show how men legislate and when women come into the leadership position, how they look for diverse voices.

Michelle Bachelet: Yeah. That's completely true, and the experience in many countries as well. It's very important that women can be part of all the decision-making and of course legislation. And in that sense of course, when we're talking about participation, we're talking about democracy. What's the relationship that you see between gender equality and democracy, for example? Because for me, it's clear, but I would love to hear your thoughts, like a young leader, a feminist women - please?

Nighat Dad: To boil it down, it's about all people within a country, having an equal voice and having an equal vote. Equality is therefore inbuilt in democracy. For democracy to survive, we need equality. A democracy without equality is bound to fail and also it is bound to anger people. Equality also needs to be in all sectors of society - gender, wealth, education, and most recently digital spaces. If all people have the same access to education, healthcare, economic opportunities, news, and the internet, then each person is able to make a rational choice about their country, its leaders, and its policies. They're also able to stand up for themselves, they are also able to ask for their rights, and they are also able to ensure equality. If there is no equality in either one of these sectors, then people are being silenced and oppressed. Gender equality in Pakistan has always translated to women being deprived of education and economic growth. They are made to feel weak and thus cannot raise their voices for their rights and freedoms. If half the population is weak, then how we can have a democracy? The same goes for digital equality. During COVID-19, when the world moved on to digital spaces, we have seen regions in our country being deprived of education because they are deprived of internet. These people are unaware of the changes around them and unaware of the world and its rapid changes. How are these people expected to raise their voices and gain support? They have been cut off and there is no communication in the region. And men still finds and catches mobile network signals while walking up to the mountains because they are allowed to go out, and they can reclaim public spaces. Women in those far flung areas are not allowed to reclaim public spaces, hence they are completely deprived of communication. I believe this too, weakens a democracy, especially in the digital era.

Michelle Bachelet: Yeah. It's very important when you mentioned that, also linked to how, because what COVID-19 has laid bare is inequalities, lots of inequality in terms of access to education, access to health, access to clean water. We tell people, wash your hands, but they don't have clean water. So a lot of inequalities that shows that we were not prepared for a pandemic like this. And that if we need to come after, we need to build back better. One clear issue is education, of course, you have mentioned a couple of times, and I think it's key, key. But the other thing of course is access to digital spaces, but also to internet. Access to internet for all should be - because for example, I think there is a billion children out of schools, and for them they will not be able to continue their education. So there will be a generation that will lose a lot if we cannot work harder on this. So, you have spoken to me about challenges that you have faced, obstacles, harassment, threats. What have you seen work to increase the number of women in political leadership and advocacy? What do you think is working? First you said education, is there any other thing, recommendation that you would give to a women's organization, how you can include more women participating?

Nighat Dad: I personally feel that a woman stepping out as civil society has definitely helped the cause for women in politics. And the biggest motivator for a woman to gain the public arena is to see other women to be there too. A societal mindset does not change overnight, it changes with time. I personally feel that women supporting other women, especially the woman in a powerful position, the women who are in a privileged position, if they can make a way and space for other women to be there in the same position, I think it's a way to go. It's a very small example and a little flattering to talk about my own organization, but one small example, because I had to hear a lot that technology doesn't belong to women, back in late 2009, 2010. And I think I had this difficulty to reclaim this space of digital rights, because there were so many men and it was more male dominated. And my first aim was to create a space where I can bring more women instead of just myself. And I'm so proud to say that my organization, it's a small organization, but working on digital rights, we have 70% women in the organization and all those women are in the leadership position.  They actually go and speak in different international, national conferences, they talk about the work that we do. But at the same time, they are also the ones who sit in the parliamentary committees and talk with the policymakers, it's not just always me. And I think it's important to give this space to the other women and share the mic, share the space, and I think that's more important. When you are in a powerful position, sometimes you forget that you have to bring other people into the space as well. And I think this is very important that when you have this privilege, you share this privilege with other women and help them reclaiming the space as well. No matter what space it is, be it politics, any specialized field, for me it's digital rights, and this will always work. I think the sisterhood and solidarity within our feminist movements, our collectives, our women's rights organization, it should translate into an action. We shouldn't just keep talking about sisterhood, and in Urdu we call it behen shara. The solidarity that we show to each other, I think we should show it in our actions as well.

Michelle Bachelet: It's fantastic because I come from Latin America, you come from Pakistan, and I could not agree more with you. And I think you're mentioning very, very important issue. On one hand, role models, because those women who are already in high positions, they can be a role model for younger ones, they can mentor younger ones as well. Like in business as well, it's small businesses that can help each other. Solidarity, great concept of course. And one of the things that I've always said, maybe I'm wrong, but until now I still believe it, is that we women - I've met very competitive women that exclude others, but the majority include, because they have been excluded and discriminated for so long. We all understand that it's better altogether to, as you say, share the mic, because I think that's very important, and for us it's easier sometimes. And the other thing that I think is great when you mentioned is that, bringing more women in an area that has been traditionally, your country and in many others, a male issue, it's also important because it's also linked to this idea of putting women, not only in the care society, but also on those areas, like the STEM, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, digital. Because on the other hand, women who only work on the other areas usually have worst paid jobs and less opportunity, so it empowers them in all ways. So really I think your work is fantastic. I'm really proud of having being able to interview you. I'm a techno-dinosaur because I'm old, but I try to learn a lot, the technology as possible. What are you more optimistic about, looking forward?

Nighat Dad: Living in a country where every day is a challenge, every day brings threats to the seen and bold voices, especially when they are women, and they are bold, and they have opinions. But I'm optimistic because I'm seeing this new generation of women who are strong, who are bold, who see that the tide of this society is against them at the moment. But at the same time, they are just ready to take up all these challenges. They are ready to fight back, no matter how much hate they receive online and offline, they are just ready to reclaim that space. I see that is the stark difference that I see when I was a young and I was studying in university and college, I haven't seen that space. I haven't seen kind of spark and that kind of passion. I mean, of course we were passionate, but in more, what should I call it, in more conservative and traditional way. But now women are just challenging stereotypes, and status quo, and taboos. The way they fight back in different fields, I feel this is something that shows me the light at the end of the tunnel. And no matter how much, I see the societies have become more pluralist, and the right-wing has become more extreme and bring more threats and challenges in the ways of progressive women voices. At the same time, I see that the fighting back is also becoming extreme. The more they fight, the more they find power. And that's why I see these small little movements that we are seeing growing in our society, the woman marches, the Aurat Marches, the feminist collective, the Women Action Forum, these are all bringing these amazing voices out there. I mean, that's basically something that encourages me and I feel that the younger generation is just getting ready to reclaim this society, to reclaim the place in the politics, to reclaim the digital rights - I mean, whatever the fields that we talk about, and that excites me so much. So I'm very excited for these younger women, these young feminists who are actually taking up a lot of space in a lot of untraditional non-formal areas that we have never thought in our young age that we will do something like this, in a conservative patriarchal society.

Michelle Bachelet: Please don't say again, in my young ages, because I feel like I'm dead already. But you know what? It's very interesting also because young people are really enthusiastic about digital issues. I mean, people at schools, young people love to study computer science and so on. So it's something that brings together - because one of the things that I've been thinking on, how do I include more people on the human rights causes? I think that technology, digital issues, environment rights, and technological rights are in a very interesting way as well. First because they are important because there are some key issues we need to deal with. But also because I think they are things that moves people, and of course to women. But may ask you something that might not be in the guidelines? My question is, we need to advance women, to put up a very strong movement of women, but we also need some men on board because we need allies. I guess you were telling me that in your foundation, 70% are women. I mean, I'll tell you this, even though I've been always more involved in women's rights, I realized that if you push, push, push, but you're alone in this, it might be complicated, we could have a backlash. That's more difficult in your society because it's a very patriarchal society, very conservative in terms of the roles of men and women. But I guess, I don't know if in your movements, when you do this march, because one of the interesting thing in my country, for example, when there was these marches on, Me Too, for example, against harassment, sexual harassment, there were always young guys also demonstrating. I mean, there were also men and women are against sexual harassment. I know you have a very interesting campaign against sexual violence on women on internet as well, so could you share with me, what are you, I mean, if you have some initiatives from that regard or what are your thought?

Nighat Dad: Coming to your first question about male allyship, I mean, we are all for allies. But I think it's also important for me to carefully see how much space these allies also reclaim, and how much is this a performative allyship. And I think like for me, it's very important to create the space first for women, where they feel that they are comfortable raising issues, they feel that this space belongs to them. To be very honest, I feel as much as we need diverse allies in our movements, I also feel it's also important for us to make those spaces safer and comfortable for women first, and also trans voices, and also queer people. But at the same time, the men are allowed in the women marches in Pakistan, but not to hijack their space. And I think that's very important, that they leave that space, stay silent, and hear what women are saying. I think that's the first thing that we really need to ask men, to quietly listen what women are saying. They can come to these spaces, but they can also not to hijack those spaces because we are already male dominated society. And the second thing is that there are initiators around combating sexual harassment issues. It's interesting that how the Me Too emerged in Pakistan. But at the same time, as I mentioned, the draconian laws that were enacted during the era of dictators, but at the same time, different democracies enacted really problematic laws for women and one of them is criminal defamation in Pakistan were anyone who says anything, especially women, talking about the sexual harassment experiences online, the first thing that they have to face is the criminal defamation and the civil defamation. And I think these are the challenges that the women are facing. At the same time, we initiated one volunteer campaign, it's called Time's Up, and in Pakistan, it's called [Urdu] . And the initiative was meant to call all male and women lawyers who can give pro bono legal support to the women's victims of gender-based violence. These are the kind of initiatives that I'm seeing emerging in Pakistan, but also setting really good precedent where you don't always need donation and funding, but you know the young people coming with passion really want to support victims and survivors, and want to provide the space, safe space where they can raise their voice, and their voices are not being shunned.

Michelle Bachelet: I understand you completely, because even though theoretically, we need men on board, of course, because we need the whole society to evolve, not only women evolving and fighting. But you're right, because I remember when I was in Egypt after the so-called, the Spring Revolution. Then I had meetings with girls because I was the director of UN Women, so I had meetings with women, with girls. And the complaint of the girls were in Tahrir Square, they were all together. After that ended, when they had to write the constitution, and they wanted to put women's rights, the answer, will say, "It's not your time now, now it's time for democracy, not for women's rights." So it's true, on one hand they tend to lead the movement and then put its own concerns. But anyway, we need to build partnerships, not to lead the movement, but to build partnership in terms of other people in parliament, for example, pushing on the same direction, in political parties, that can be more open-minded in the same direction. But I understand that the risk of someone to try to put its own agenda and forget the agenda of women, of course, you have to be careful of that. Also, because as you say, also in a patriarchal society like yours, probably some women don't feel safe in a place where they don't know if those men will be really allies or not and they'd prefer to be among people they can really speak out and so on and feel comfortable. But in the long term we need everyone to ensure gender equality, women's empowerment, because that's the only way, but of course, I understand what you say. Is there any other thing, Nighat, that you want to share with us on your experience? For example, it's not easy to do this. It brings great joys when we have good outcomes, but there are moments that are difficult, that can be sad. So what have you - are the pluses and the misuses been for you and for your family, if you want to share that with us?

Nighat Dad: Great - power comes with great responsibility. I think the more bold choices you make in your life, especially when you are living in a society that usually do not support those voices, you attract a lot of threats, and challenges, and sort of unexpected situations. So yes, for me, there are several challenges, of course, but I feel that the threats that I face online especially, it has strengthened me in a way that I looked into the strategies and situations that how I can deal with this. And then I saw that it's not just me, any woman who is more bold, and vocal, and has opinions, they are being threatened with the same kind of challenges online. And that sort of helped me thinking the collective solution to this because the online harassment, or online abuse, and hate speech against women or marginalized communities, or diverse voices - I feel there should be a collective thought towards it. Yeah, so that's something that helped me thinking about different strategies, thinking about different solutions, talking to other women, talking to the companies, talking to the policymakers, governments. And although I faced lots of threats, but I think at the same time, those threats sort of worked for me as opportunities as well for the larger good, and larger community. 

But at the same time, I also strongly feel that all of us now really need to look into the digital and online spaces as an integral part of our lives. It shouldn't come as something that is in isolation, it's an intersectional thing. Online liberties are as equal as offline liberties. This is something that our UNSR, David Kaye and others have said multiple times. And all of us have to work together, no matter wherever we are, because the kind of trends that we are seeing, especially coming from the powerful governments, the controlling governments, the repressive regimes, those trends are to control these spaces. Those trends are to control the voices of minorities, the voices of diverse communities, sexual minorities, women. I call women marginalized communities because no matter, even if we are half of this population, Pakistan's population, we are still marginalized because we are treated in the same way, the way people treat minorities, religious minorities, or others. So I think we all really need to work together towards this goal because during COVID, we have seen that the usual inequalities in the society have translated into the online spaces as well. And if we won't look into this now, I don't see we will be working towards more equal societies and democracies, if we'll keep looking into the digital spaces as isolated ones.

Michelle Bachelet: That’s always been important, but after the COVID pandemic, it's more clear that the importance and the role it plays in, well as social media has the good things and the bad things. I mean, you can democratize information, but of course it can be used for hate speech and fake news and so on. But anyway, I think it's a good thing. I think it's a democratic thing, and I think it's a very important role that it can play in also shaping perceptions, ideas, in bringing information to the people that can help. When you are able to advance in an important issue like the ones you are doing, in terms of women's rights, in terms of fighting inequalities and so on. Of course there are people who are the ones who like business as usual, they don't want to change things. They want to maintain certain pieces of power, discrimination, and so on. They're going to threat, but it's not only in Pakistan, did you know that in the European Union, 40% or 45% of the parliamentarians receive terrible threats through online sexual violence, threats of rape, and violence in general? I mean, you would think in Europe, I mean, people will not react that way, but they also react that way. But that's why I'm convinced, because I'm a pediatrician, it's always difficult for us, but we won't give up, Nighat, and I'm sure you're not giving up. An although the threats makes you not only thick as you say, but also to have more interest in continue fighting. Because probably when you read those things that maybe said terrible things, you say things like this, "enough is enough," if I might say. Let me tell you that, thank you Nighat, it's really a great pleasure. Thank you so much. I don't know, you want to say a final thing?

Nighat Dad: I only want to say one thing that, if you are someone who is fighting for equality and you feel that your voice is being shunned, please know that you are actually changing the status quo and that's why people are threatened, and that's why the society is threatened because they don't want to be changed, and you are the changing voice.

Michelle Bachelet: Thank you so much. Maybe we should also tell those women, you are not alone, we are all here for you. Many women try to do their best, isn't it, as you are doing, Nighat. It's a great pleasure. Good luck.

Nighat Dad: Thank you so much, Madam Commissioner.

Closing: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at


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