It was Eid-e-Ghadeer. Pakistani social media, especially Twitter lit up with poetry and religious anecdotes and posts of celebrations, as it does around any occasions of Shia Muslims.
Held a week after Eid-ul-Azha, Eid-e-Ghadeer is a highly significant day for the Shia Muslims all over the world as it marks the succession of Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, as the caliph of Islam. The day has of course caused differences between Shias and the majoritarian Sunnis who have different views pertaining to the occasion, but is nevertheless an important historical event in the Islamic history. These differences lead to ugly conversations that attack the belief system of almost 20% of the country’s population.
But it is a time of celebration for Shias, so they celebrate. Just like my fellow Shias, I went on Twitter to share celebrations only to find a hashtag #BoycottEidGhadeer trending in Pakistan.
If this had happened a few years ago, I would have been surprised and angry about it, perhaps would have also been willing to do the labour of engaging with those promoting the hashtag to explain that the campaign was hate speech. But this time round, I was more cautious and scared than I was angry. After all, alleging blasphemy in Pakistan is a matter of one accusation that leads to unending public trial resulting in mob violence killing the accused. So this time around, I decided to not put in the labour of educating the ignorants, and hoping the storm would die out on its own.
The Shia community in Pakistan has been targeted for its religious belief since the late 1960s and the bigotry towards them has only increased as the years passed with most recent attack being earlier in March 2022 in Peshawar when a suicide bomber attacked a Shia mosque during Friday prayers killing more than 50 attendees. The fear witnessed by the community gets translated onto social media as well, and while it impacts the entire community alike, the repercussions are severer for non- cisgendered and non-heterosexual members because they are already vulnerable on the internet.
Just the risk of potential violence is enough to always be scared of what you write and how you write online.
As a Shia woman, I face an added layer of violence, the first one targeting my gender and second my religious beliefs. Ranging from rape threats, doxxing, continuous harassment, and tying all up with a death threat to both us and our family, the violence constantly lurks from some corner. The reality remains that while there may not be as many examples of us non-men being killed or physically harassed due to our sect, the looming threat is enough to remind us that it can be a possibility at all times. An upsetting tweet, a quarrel in Facebook comments or a banter can anger someone who would be capable of harming us. The anxiety of that violence stems from the decades long oppression where the places of worship have been attacked through bomb blasts and people have been killed in targeted sectarian attacks. Knowing that, it is not very difficult to translate the abuse that the community members face on the internet into offline, physical violence. Just the risk of potential violence is enough to always be scared of what you write and how you write online.
I have been very vocal about my religious beliefs, so much so that in order to stress on my identity as a Shia woman, I decided to put my family name “Naqvi” on my Facebook profile in 2008. The newfound freedom to own my identity when I first got access to the internet felt good, and I preferred this freedom over my safety. Despite being a very apparent Shia growing up, it just so happened that my first name was very neutral and no one could gauge my sect from my name, a practice which perhaps became popular when Shias were often harmed by the virtue of their last names denoting the sect. This last name also became a reason for the violence many Shias faced in the country, like the 2012 incident in Chillas when Shias were taken off from a bus and killed after their ID cards were checked for identity.
Since then, the family name which was there on my documents became an inherent part of my online identity as well.
“Can I ask you a question?”
My Instagram has always been private, and although I am guilty of adding people I might not trust, it is still a safer place for me to navigate as opposed to Twitter or Facebook that are more open to the public.
Being a journalist, I often receive messages from strangers on social media, and I routinely check these requests. This time around, I received a message on Instagram from a man that read, “Can I ask you a question?” This is a usual tactic from men to try to get an answer from women they do not know in order to explore opportunities to connect. But given my work, I often respond to these messages, and so I responded to him as well. He replied, “Shias are kafir (infidel).” There was no question, but an assumption that he unloaded in my inbox.
I fear for the repercussions of engaging and arguing with such people more because they would not just attack me as a Shia, but also as a woman – an identity that already carries a lot of individual and shared trauma of various kinds of abuse that we are blamed for.
I wasn’t unfamiliar with these words for they were written on multiple walls in Karachi, so much so that it became a running dark joke in the community with Shias putting ‘Kafir’ in their social media handles to mock others, in an attempt to take power away from the oppressors.
I blocked the person immediately because engaging would mean getting attacked by people who are capable of starting a hashtag campaign against me and the Shia community. But I wondered how easy it is for someone to drop a message to a stranger and question – rather attack – their religious beliefs and get away with it. As a Shia woman, I fear for the repercussions of engaging and arguing with such people more because they would not just attack me as a Shia, but also as a woman – an identity that already carries a lot of individual and shared trauma of various kinds of abuse that we are blamed for.
“You seemed normal to us”
These experiences aren’t limited to just myself, rather it is a strange sense of togetherness when other women and queer folk come forward with their stories of abuse and trauma as well. A queer friend who belongs to Bohra community, a sub-group of Shia Islam, received a lot of hate on his Instagram account for being critical of female genital mutilation, a regular practice observed by some in their community. His experience was unique because while some people from within the community felt angered by his criticism, others welcomed it as a way to let go of preposterous customs. But some outside of the community downright took it as a way to insult the Shias, indirectly equating the sect’s beliefs as false. He felt very visible and unsafe after this especially within the community and given his identity as a trans man, and decided to take down his story from Instagram highlights because the stalking of the profile was not ending. He feared it would lead to him being attacked personally.
The idea that a Shia woman is no longer sane because she chose to have a voice on a public platform shows that we are safe until we are censored, and if God forbid, we do speak up, that becomes a reason to attack us, our sanity and our belief system.
Similarly, another friend started feeling unsafe because of the differing views she expressed on both Twitter and Facebook which led to criticism and hateful comments directed towards her. As a result, she started censoring herself, especially more so after moving to a Gulf state where surveillance of the Shia community was stricter than in Pakistan. The criticism because of her views was so intense that her sanity was in question, so much so that even her mother’s doctor pointed out that her daughter seemed “normal” to them otherwise. The idea that a Shia woman is no longer sane because she chose to have a voice on a public platform shows that we are safe until we are censored, and if God forbid, we do speak up, that becomes a reason to attack us, our sanity and our belief system.
Backspace, my best friend
In 2021, the annual women’s march held on March 8 in multiple cities in Pakistan, received a lot of backlash on the internet as it has done so since its inception in 2017. However, this time round all those who got offended by women and queer folk occupying public space and rallying for their cause stooped lower and used a doctored video to accuse the organisers of blasphemy. Although it was proven that the allegation was fake, organisers had to deactivate their social media accounts and remain off the grid for a while to ensure they are not subjected to violence online and offline, because blasphemy charges in Pakistan, real or fake, can lead to a mob erupting to kill the accused. Pakistan’s blasphemy law has been repeatedly used to target religious minorities or even those with differing opinions, creating a sense of fear amongst masses towards this law and the allegations that not just puts the law into action but also the mob that takes it upon itself to deal with the accused through the worst and brutal forms of violence. Shias have also been subjected to these accusations repeatedly, so much so that in 2020, blasphemy cases were filed against 40 Shias regarding their views which left a chilling precedent for anyone who may have different beliefs than the status quo that adheres to the Sunni Islam.
The smart move always seems to be to edit and re-edit anything you post on the internet, more so if you represent already marginalised communities like I do being a Shia woman.
On the internet, these accusations can and have materialised by weaponizing innocuous conversations against individuals and using their words to accuse them of blasphemy. For instance, in mid 2020, Pakistan Twitter got into action in the middle of the night to bar a hashtag from trending that alleged a young boy of committing blasphemy based on something that he had posted on his profile. Hashtags are regularly used to mobilise violence against a person or a community, and given the seriousness of blasphemy allegations, the aim of people trying to stop the accusatory hashtag from trending was to trend other irrelevant hashtags so the violent one doesn’t trend that would have led to more people contributing to it. In an environment like this, the smart move always seems to be to edit and re-edit anything you post on the internet, more so if you represent already marginalised communities like I do being a Shia woman.
I think many times before I type out my tweets, even words that seem harmless to me suddenly start to ring alarm bells forcing me to erase all of it. If sometimes I feel a little gutsy, I would let them take a nice rest in the drafts where tweets from two years ago are now getting mouldy, with my words fallen prey to self-censorship.
The Onus of Educating Everyone
Following the ousting of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in April 2022, I took to social media to comment on the support that the Shia community was expressing for Khan and highlighted their forgetfulness regarding the many comments the ousted PM had passed against the community.
I was particularly signalling at a January 2021 event where Khan refused to engage with the families of slain Shia Hazara miners who were protesting with the bodies of the victims with demands that the Prime Minister visit them before they bury their family members. Khan said that he “will not allow the protestors to blackmail” him to show up to the protest.
My tweet reached many people, and I was receiving replies and direct messages from both Shia and Sunni people, with Shias being angry for the criticism directed at them and Sunnis getting defensive about their leader’s position. Even though I also added that cherry picking an identity was done by all governments in the past, it seemed that the people were fixated upon the sarcasm. As much as I’d have been interested in engaging with people to attempt to educate them about my point of view, my friends advised me to turn off the notifications, and perhaps that helped me in staying calm.
However, in this case, the emotions were running high due to the political climate. More recently though, I wrote a tweet commenting on inter-sectarian marriages in PakistanIslam has quite a lot of sects, however, the Sunni majority sect, despite its sub-sects, feels queasy about accepting other Islamic sects as Muslims, rather anyone who is not Sunni, is as good as a kafir, more specifically the Shia and Ahmaddiya community. Unlike Shias, Ahmadis have been declared kafir under the Constitution of Pakistan and can face jail time for merely identifying themselves as Muslims. The oppression they face is also severe than other Muslim sects with their lives always under threat. The Shias, despite sharing a history of persecution with Ahmadis, also choose to be as distant as possible from Ahmadi persecution.
Being a Shia woman means that you need to be a perfect believer in order to be able to criticise except there are no perfect believers.
My tweet, again, received a lot of backlash from both Shia and Sunnis communities, with Shias deeply offended for being put in the same camp as Ahmadis, and Sunnis upset at being called bigots. With my previous tweet about Shia’s support for Imran Khan, I had not limited the replies initially, but with the tweet about marriage and bigotry, I made sure to turn off replies from everyone but those who were incessant about engaging quote-tweeted me to get their message across, making me realise that perhaps I need to be comfortable with the hateful responses irrespective of the options I may choose. It does seem saddening because what appears to be an obvious comment on the existing bias demands a lot of labour, with us explaining our opinion with reasons, lived experiences and a lot of rationale.
Some days,I’m questioned about whether I’m the ‘right’ type of Shia because of certain views or because my appearance doesn’t seem normal. Being a Shia woman means that you need to be a perfect believer in order to be able to criticise except there are no perfect believers, so you just keep wondering about whether you should shrink yourself further while constantly self-censoring, or whether you should keep questioning while putting your safety at risk.
Censoring the Poetic Licence
I know that online censorship isn’t new to Pakistan especially for any group which has seen oppression from state or non-state actors, but the growing fear is being surveilled for your beliefs and opinions every passing day where if you say something which is not in line with a certain narrative, religious or political, it can cost you your sanity, life as well as family. Using irony as a literary device is fairly common in Shia literature like in marsiya (elegy) and noha (sub-part of marsiyas), and sometimes I wonder if those literary pieces could also be charged with blasphemy. So much so that whenever I am about to write a line to appreciate the art of poetry in an elegy, I stop myself because of the same fear of having quote tweets or inbox filled with hate speech and accusations of blasphemy.
The queer folks and women from all walks of life also keep getting harassed by the intolerant lot with threats of violence online and offline, of physical and sexual abuse.
The days of mourning for Shias during both Muharram and Safar –the first two Islamic months, witness all kinds of discourse about the practices and customs of the Shia belief system. There are TikTok videos which try to debunk myths, and there are videos which make fun of the way Shias commemorate these two months. The queer folks and women from all walks of life also keep getting harassed by the intolerant lot with threats of violence online and offline, of physical and sexual abuse. These threats are etched in our minds and are a constant reminder that we are constantly at risk, so we may have learnt to be smart about the words we choose and haven’t submitted to powers that aim to silence community by force.
It is difficult to be a Shia woman with opinions and hope to shape narratives on the internet, yet so many of us continue to do so with inside jokes, laughing away while silently messaging each other to stay safe, by constantly showing up to defend our beliefs by putting ourselves at risk, by supporting each other, and praying that we may always be protected.