“I really lack the imagining of a virtual world that feels safe to me,” says Nofil*, a queer-identifying Twitter user currently studying abroad, whose identity has been pseudonymised to protect identity. In Nofil’s Twitter-world, the rainbow flag flits in and out of their bio, depending on how safe they feel. When they are not in Pakistan, it feels like a matter-of-fact addition and proclamation on their profile. When they are in Pakistan, however, it is a different story. They have to think long and hard about whether they can make this decision without risking their safety: “It took me more than a year of being in physical spaces where queerness was not ‘illegitimate’ to feel safe enough to add the rainbow flag to my bio.”
These decisions may be seemingly ‘small’, but there is certainly a lot at stake in the fashioning of a social media profile for queer-identifying social media users in Pakistan. There are constant decisions to be made about physical well-being and engagement with content. Nofil says, “I really have to be careful about the tweets that I [click] ‘like’ [on]. Because they can show up on other people’s newsfeeds.” Like many queer people in Pakistan, Nofil is in the double-internet-life business as well: while public profiles are sites where markers of queerness must be vague at best, private spaces such as ‘finstas’ can provide some refuge. Nofil says, “I have many, many alternate accounts.” They feel the need to create multiple alternate spaces on their social media, because over time, and across changing spaces, there are different levels of safety they need to keep in mind. Who they need to be wary of, and how, can change across time and space, and therefore the logistics of private, alternate spaces need to shift as well.
This need for alternate spaces in order to procure some level of safety points to the unequal relationships that marginalized communities can have with consuming and creating online content. When looking through the risk and danger that seemingly small decisions about online social media profiles can pose to queer-identifying individuals, the utopic narrative of the “levelling field” that the internet creates begins to fall apart.
When looking through the risk and danger that seemingly small decisions about online social media profiles can pose to queer-identifying individuals, the utopic narrative of the “levelling field” that the internet creates begins to fall apart.
Looking, as bell hooks reminds us in “The Oppositional Gaze”, is not a neutral act. It is particularly important to examine the act of looking and engaging with visual and textual narratives from the perspective of marginalized communities as the dehumanization of racialized, gendered and sexually ‘othered’ bodies determines “the scope and texture of their looking relations”. In other words, social marginalization maps onto visual and textual media, and the relations of ‘looking’ they structure, in a number of ways; the experience of looking, consuming, creating can change drastically from one subjectivity to another.
hooks writes about the experiences of marginalized spectators such as Black female spectatorship as, “We have had to develop looking relations within a cinematic context that constructs our presence as absence.” While hooks considers ‘unequal looking relations’ in the context of cinema, these structures of looking can also be examined through the visual and textual content of social media. In Nofil’s experiences, for instance, they have to be constantly and consistently aware of not accessing the part of the internet and consuming online content that could be marked or read as queer around or in the company of other people. “I’m very wary of where I am and who is able to look into my phone or screen when I’m watching a movie or TV show that might contain queer characters or language.”
The phrase “presence as absence” is particularly striking in relation to Nofil’s experiences. It is not that the queer content, queer content creators, or queer-identifying content consumers are ‘missing’ from Pakistan’s internet – it is just that this presence must always be accompanied by an absence: of safety, of fullness, of a normalized existence in a heteronormative social order.
As Nofil’s points out the ‘roots’ of the unequal relations on the internet for Pakistan’s queer community lie in the physical and psychological risk posed to queer individuals in a society where any deviation from the cisgendered, heteronormative body is considered taboo. They say, “My ideal safety situation on the internet is not possible without my ideal safety situation in the physical world. I lack so much imagination about what can be safe, what safe looks like.”
“My ideal safety situation on the internet is not possible without my ideal safety situation in the physical world. I lack so much imagination about what can be safe, what safe looks like.”
The Politics of Visibility and Silence
The reality of the physical world that Nofil references is a bleak one. It is the absence of any kind of mainstream conversation about queer rights. It is also the heavy weight of right-wing morality that prevents any such conversation from happening on a meaningful scale. It is also the lack of opportunities and safety because of these legal and moral conventions of a heteronormative social order that prevents queer individuals from coming out to their family without being subject to abuse, violence and/or banishment from places of residence.
It is a direct consequence of these societal barriers that social media content consumption and creation becomes far from a straightforward task for queer-identifying users in Pakistan. It is because of these barriers that Nofil cannot imagine safe virtual spaces, or ones in which they would not have to be constantly wary of what they look at, how they look at it, and who is watching.
Nofil’s experiences help us to think about which experiences, which markers and which stories seem to be ‘missing’ on the internet. “Some bodies are conspicuously missing in action,” writes Monica Casper in Missing Bodies: The Politics of Visibility.1 What does it mean for some bodies to be ‘missing’ on the internet? What does absence mean within media of constant generation – of Instagram posts, tweets, blogs, statuses?
What does it mean for some bodies to be ‘missing’ on the internet? What does absence mean within media of constant generation – of Instagram posts, tweets, blogs, statuses?
Suraj*, an artist running a public Instagram account showcasing her work, can attest to the persistent presence of absence in the content creation process as well. Suraj finds it hard to engage or collaborate with queer content creators in other parts of the world, where there is more space for queer expression on the internet. She says, “Sometimes I don’t engage with content that is ‘openly’ queer because there’s this sad envy and frustration. It’s not like I have a dearth of ideas, or I lack critical thinking skills, or I can’t write and form coherent sentences, or I can’t do what they are doing. But I can only do it with ten thousand layers of filters. The bad kind. The one that doesn’t make you feel good.”
Self-censorship is a natural resort for queer content creators such as Suraj, since there is too much at stake in inviting engagement with content that is clearly marked as queer. Suraj also mentions the exhaustion that comes with performing mental gymnastics in order to code her content in certain ways, such that it can find a way to exist on the internet without the risk of getting ‘caught’. Suraj says, “Sometimes I feel very exhausted and trapped, because I have to do an additional layer of work to get my point across.” The additional layer of work that Suraj points to is the labour that she has to engage in order to ‘proof’ her content to escape the invisible yet ubiquitous censorium of a heteronormative social order. This proofing involves making sure that she does not share any resources, art or writing that could be identified as queer. Suraj mentions that she has so much to offer – for instance, she has been working on creating an elaborate spreadsheet of authors who identify as LGBTQ+, a resource that could be extremely valuable for other readers in Pakistan, but which she cannot share because of the risk it would pose to her.
Such censorship also puts queer content creators at a disadvantage in maintaining a social media presence. In recent years, the maintenance and expansion of social media profiles has proved lucrative to numerous ‘influencers’ across Pakistan, especially on Instagram. It is also interesting to note that there are numerous Instagram blogs dedicated to weddings, the lives of young couples, and lifestyle blogging that places heteronormative relations at the centre. For example, the Instagram page undefined, described in its bio as “Pakistan’s premium wedding blog” currently has 1.3 million followers, indicating the high engagement that exists with content featuring and catering to heteronormative relationships. On the flip side, for queer-identifying Instagram content creators, the numbers are not so exciting. Because there is so much self-censorship and risk involved in content that could be marked or read as queer, it is not always possible to create online content for and with the queer community in Pakistan. Suraj says, “The fear gets in my way. My account is not very active because so much of what I want to do has this possibility of threat and violence.”
Because there is so much self-censorship and risk involved in content that could be marked or read as queer, it is not always possible to create online content for and with the queer community in Pakistan.
For Suraj, the fear manifests in a number of ways: she has to limit not only her words, but also the visual cues on her public Instagram account. She recounts: “A while ago, I wanted to do a masculine-presenting photoshoot. I looked good and wanted to post it on my public account. I just never got around to doing it. I wanted to post it on my account, but I thought: is this too far? The fear was very real.” As Suraj’s experiences exemplify, the ‘unequal looking relations’ persist not simply in the act of looking at social media content, but also in the act of controlling what is being looked at. Not everyone and everything can be looked at without risking safety, without thinking about the violence that could potentially come their way.
While Suraj is aware of the measures she must take in order to preserve her safety, she is also aware of the fruits of visibility in online spaces that are relatively safer than public accounts that all internet users may have access to. “Visibility really helps you to survive, it’s important to see people who are like you,” she says. Like Nofil, she mentions the alternate accounts she has, or the private online groups she is part of that restrict access in order to maintain a level of safety for their members. Suraj further states: “I’m eternally grateful for the spaces that exist on the Internet that are on the down-low, that are more private, but sometimes, that doesn’t really feel enough.”
Limits of private online spaces
Why does it not feel enough? Khushi*, an active Facebook user, explains that even alternate, more ‘private’ collective spaces can pose a level of risk and threat. “Social media has helped me a lot in connecting with safe queer people from Pakistan but of course there are some individuals out there who violate the privacy of desi queer community and put them in danger.” Facebook users such as Khushi may seek out private groups in order to find a form of expression and community, but even then, the unequal relations prevail, as even the smallest breaches of trust, leaked screenshots, or carelessness on part of members of private groups can endanger physical and emotional safety of other queer social media users. This is why Khushi states, “No matter how safe any queer space is in Pakistan, you have to remain cautious at all times in terms of sharing personal details on social media as you can never fully trust everyone.”
“I’m eternally grateful for the spaces that exist on the Internet that are on the down-low, that are more private, but sometimes, that doesn’t really feel enough.”
The feeling of private, online spaces not being enough also stems from the fact that increased visibility on social media can translate into accumulation of social capital, of expanding social circles and connections, and advancing careers and networks as a creative. For instance, in order to run a public account successfully, content generation has to be consistent and ‘on brand’. For those who run public blogs, one of the tools of marketing available is to attend in-person events in order to meet other bloggers and build connections. However, if in order to protect their identity and safety, queer-identifying users choose anonymity, they may miss out on these opportunities that could otherwise be socially and financially beneficial. Therefore, heavy-duty privacy settings, rigorous checks and regulation of private online spaces and alternate accounts, might provide a level of safety on one hand, but on the other hand, limit the opportunities that increased visibility on social media may provide.
Visibility has always been a double-edged sword for the queer community, especially in Pakistan. This was particularly exemplified in the Aurat March of 2020 and 2021, when objections were raised against the LGBT content generated by participants of the march, branding it as part of the “liberal agenda” of the feminist movement. On the one hand, as Suraj mentions, markers of queerness and their visibility can be important for survival and world-making, while on the other hand, they can invite unwarranted backlash and threat to safety of the bodies associated with these markers of queerness. This is why Nofil, Khushi and Suraj all talk about the limits of private online spaces – spaces for expression can and do exist, but always through precarity. It is therefore essential to address the forms of precarity that continue to exist on and through social media content creation and consumption patterns.
…spaces for expression can and do exist, but always through precarity.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to restructure our lives such that virtual spaces become increasingly essential to how we work, think, entertain and express ourselves, it is important more than ever to think through the experiences of social media users such as Nofil, Suraj and Khushi. Digital Commerce 360, a U.S. based media company, reports that according to a survey they conducted in September 2020, social media consumption has increased considerably since March 2020, and writes, “The majority of respondents agreed that their social media consumption (72%) and posting (43%) have increased during the pandemic.” As we think about the increase in social media usage, and the increasing centrality it has in our lives currently, we must think about the communities that may not be at ease with social media consumption and content creation.
New communication technologies and social media are often heralded as having a democratizing effect, as engendering universal access to transnational connectivity. However, as this exploration of the unequal looking relations that persist on the internet has shown, inequalities are inherent in the very structures of these technologies and mediascapes. The questions of who gets to participate and on what terms in these mediascapes are important to ask, since this can bring to light the tensions and inequalities that exist in the socio-economic, political and technological processes that bring the ‘world’ together.
The way forward for queer safety on the internet in Pakistan lies in first addressing the unequal, marginal social and legal relations that structure the lives of queer bodies. The precarity created ‘on-ground’ clearly impacts how queer individuals navigate their social media lives. In thinking about freedom, we must be cognizant of the freedom of looking: the right to see, the right to look, and the right to be looked at, without risk or danger.
*Names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of interviewees.