I have been a woman for almost 30 years. I have yet to meet one who has not been on the receiving end of disparagement humour. ‘Go back to the kitchen’ or ‘Stop acting like a girl’ is the kind of humour that seems redundant, that one would assume we would have done away with by now. We have not. It has changed forms over the years, but it has stayed. In 2018, a woman at the Aurat March (Women’s March in Pakistan) carried a placard that said ‘Khud khana garam karo’ (warm your own food) which soon sparked a discourse online and offline, resulting in trolling and harassment of marchers on the internet. The mere placard was termed a Pakistani man’s kryptonite. Arguments were presented that men who work outside all day should not have to come home and warm their own food, but those arguments completely missed the point of the placard. I do not necessarily have to explain why that is.
This is just a tiny manifestation of the rigidity of gender roles that are placed on women in Pakistani society. It also points towards another inevitable reality; gender roles offline dictate gender roles online, which becomes apparent in any part of the internet women try to navigate. It is no different for the gaming community. For Pakistani women gamers, disparaging humour is their lived reality.
For Hadiqa, a 24-year-old graduate student of statistics, online gaming began during the pandemic, when she found herself fascinated by a very cinematic trailer of Valorant – a Windows game, on her YouTube feed. It was her first shooter game so naturally, she was not very good at it initially. In her first few months as a gamer, Hadiqa recalls having to pause mid-game if the bullying got too much. The slur that she has had to endure the most throughout is ‘randi’ (slur for sex workers).
One particular instance stands out for Hadiqa which prompted her to uninstall and not play the game for two months. “It is very common for people to write their usernames as puns. I once renamed my username as ‘Mubarak hoe’,” she recalls. Mubarak ho translates to ‘congratulations’ in Urdu. It was taken in good humour the first few weeks but eventually, a group of four boys figured out that she was a woman and asked her in-game via audio chat how much she charged for an hour. The line of questioning became more and more traumatising with every question posed. She muted them but the five minutes of what she heard shook her and made her uninstall the game altogether.
While reflecting on why she thinks she stopped playing the game for those two months, Hadiqa says initially when she would be roasted for playing badly, it felt understandable. “Everyone is putting effort into ranking up and one player can ruin that [for others playing in the same team], so in my head, once I became better at the game, I would not be talked down to. I was carrying my team, I thought that called for some respect,” and when she did not get it, she felt at a loss. Underlying this thought, Hadiqa says, was the jaded notion that it is acceptable to be bullied if you are incompetent but that is not it, is it?
Diya, who currently works at a college counselling firm, echoes Hadiqa’s sentiments. She has been gaming online for almost 5 years now and plays 6-7 hours a day, on most days. She plays Valorant, Counter-Strike, and Grand Theft Auto V, but started with the mobile game PUBGM. On days Diya thinks she is not performing well, she personally feels burdened because of the [self] expectation placed on her to perform well at all times or she feels like the misconception of women being bad and lesser than men at gaming is being justified. “That puts a lot of pressure on me to play well, instead of having fun, which is what gaming is mainly about.”
Of infantilising, male gamertags, and no voices
Mahrukh, a student of architecture, has been gaming online for the past 12 years. She was only 8 years old when she started, and has dabbled in many games but the major chunk goes to League of Legends, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Counter-Strike. She used to game on a daily basis but plays less often now on account of the damage caused to her mental health, over time. In the past decade of being an online gamer, Mahrukh has witnessed a lot; the culture of fetishising, infantilising, and sexualisation of women tops the list.
On days Diya thinks she is not performing well, she personally feels burdened because of the [self] expectation placed on her to perform well at all times or she feels like the misconception of women being bad and lesser than men at gaming is being justified.
“I grew up but unfortunately my voice remained childlike throughout the years, and with that came a lot of unnecessary creepy sexualisation especially from men who are into anime,” says Mahrukh. The high-pitched, squeaky voice of anime girls is an affectation that is meant to sound cute and has become quite the phenomenon. Men have often asked Mahrukh to say Japanese phrases “or voice out ‘uwu’ and continue to lose their marbles over it.” Mahrukh, from there on, rarely speaks while gaming online with strangers. Over the years, the violence in the games and the toxicity of these communities led her to develop extreme anxiety. Even after playing for twelve years, Mahrukh says she is yet to be desensitised to gore, abusive language, and violence. Now, she mostly just plays with her brothers and friends, has changed her tag to a more masculine one, and presents herself as a male. Hadiqa, too, has done this.
Similarly, Ghania, who has been gaming since 2017 and is part of an all-women team for playing in tournaments held by Riot Games (makers of Valorant), also uses a male-gamertag when playing online with strangers. Most of these choices are made out of women’s inherent fear of harassment. Iqra, a research analyst at a growth advisory firm, has also been gaming since she was eight years old. She prefers playing solo but if she plays with random men online, she tends to not disclose her gender, not because she is concerned about their opinion of her as a gamer, she just does not feel comfortable doing so. “I would keep my mic off and respond in the game chat to stay anonymous. I believe this choice was stimulated by my fear of being harassed or flirted with,” she clarifies.
Sai, an avid player of PUBG and Minecraft, mostly plays with her cousins and relatives. She always chooses male skin and a non-gendered ID when playing with strangers. Rarely, if ever, opening her mic is another way she protects herself online. If it is open, men get unnecessarily chatty and even hateful, she says. Sai has had her cousins tell her to simply mute all the men playing with her every time, regardless of what they do/do not do, but she does not always go ahead with it simply because it affects her gameplay and why should that be an expectation to begin with? The onus of protection from harassment should never have to be on Sai, rather the onus of basic human decency should be on the men occupying these gaming spaces.
The politics of gaming Discord servers
Discord, an instant messaging social platform, provides users with the ability to text message, video, and voice call through private chats or through communities called servers. On these servers, the one setting it up acts as a moderator and also sets the community standards for those joining them.
Discord is famous among online gamers who use the app for coordination, and it also allows them to use Discord overlay to chat with other players when gaming. In July 2022, after a glitch in Valorant that bugged the in-game voice chat, a number of gamers moved to Discord, including Pakistani women gamers. However, the sexist slang in local servers has kept women at bay and has forced them to make their own servers to keep the ‘toxicity’ away. Ghania and Mahrukh have their own servers.
It is also imperative to note here that Discord allows anonymity which, in theory, sounds promising for women gamers. However, anonymity does not do much when they have to use voice chat while playing. Ghania mentions that men have purposefully lost the game on a number of occasions when she chose to use her mic which revealed to co-players that she’s a woman. Sometimes, they just refuse to listen to her and make sexist jokes such as ’go back to the kitchen’. Other times, they go as far as threatening rape and abusing her family.
Mahrukh says that her own server has been a much safer space but she joined a few local servers that revolved around streaming and watching gaming tournaments together on voice chats. In her 12 years of being a gamer, she has seen the downfall of these communities very closely. Something that had been a common occurrence for her was the initial shock from men that a girl games online. The shock would then “evolve into sinister objectification” where they would accuse her of playing to get attention. If she played well, she would be accused of using hacks and smurfs to get her level up. If she played badly, they would mansplain, treat her like a child or just let her win to get with her. Her identity as a woman trumped her gaming skills, and there was no escaping that.
Diya, the college counsellor, has similar stories. She says the local servers tend to have elements of casual sexism, in the form of memes or comments such as ‘Why are you crying/acting/whining like a little girl’ and so on. Once, on one of the gaming servers she was in, a guy was talking about excuses people in the server make to not play the game, and when it came to her, he said, “Well your excuses must be along the lines of “bartan dhonay hein, khana banana hay” (I have to do the dishes, I have to make food). When Diya called him out on being sexist, he asked her what the word ‘sexist’ meant.
Sexist slang in local servers [on Discord] has kept women at bay and has forced them to make their own servers to keep the ‘toxicity’ away.
In another instance, she had a stalker on Discord, who kept wanting Diya to see his pictures and went to extreme lengths to live stream his pictures for her. Since this was happening in a group setting, she did not feel like she could leave or had the option to shut him down. There were constant messages asking for her Instagram information and when she declined on the basis of not knowing him well enough, he asked how he could speed up the process of them becoming friends, as if there was a shortcut to it. She eventually got creeped out enough to realise she could just block him, and so she did.
If the gamers get comfortable with each other, they just move to WhatsApp chat but it is only for “select people”, says Diya.
No hope for justice for Pakistani women gamers
On occasions when online harassment traverses online spaces to have more real-life consequences, women gamers have been denied justice. This is not a novel notion and exists all around the world. One of the most infamous instances of harassment against women in the gaming world is Gamergate, a coordinated campaign in 2014-2015 targeting women gamers, academics, and developers, and was a right-wing backlash against diversity within the gaming spaces. The harassment campaign included rape threats, doxing, and even death threats towards women gamers around the world, with initial victims including Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian, and others. Sai says while she was not an active gamer when Gamergate was happening, she began to be active in fan spaces in 2016. Sai, herself, has felt the consequences of Gamergate linger in the said spaces. “It certainly felt like every time girls posted about their favourite games or complained about them, they would get unnecessarily hateful comments. I also remember seeing posts encouraging others to watch streams of women who were affected by the hate,” she recalls. Many online gamers live stream themselves playing the game which attracts the attention and views of both gamers and non-gamers online.
Add Pakistan’s ultra-conservatism to the mix and you have what Maryam Mirza had to face after she was doxed for refusing to play Scrims with a YouTuber from Sialkot, Pakistan. Maryam has been gaming for three years and is a content creator and a live streamer on Facebook and YouTube. She declined the invitation because she refrains from using abusive language or any kind of slang in her content but the said Youtuber’s content was full of it. Despite Maryam’s refusal, however, they did not back down. They intruded on her live stream and began spewing nonsensical comments which prompted her to block them. The Youtuber’s reaction does not seem very unusual for a man who faces rejection and starts being erratic.
However, blocking did not help Maryam, instead, the situation escalated when they proceeded to publicly showcase Maryam’s pictures and videos - taken from her Facebook and YouTube - on their own live stream and used inappropriate and vulgar language to attack her character. They also acquired Maryam’s contact number, which she had mentioned during her live streams for donations and such. Since YouTube Super Chat is not available in Pakistan yet, it is a common practice in the Pakistani gaming community to share their number on digital wallets like JazzCash or Easypaisa for donations.
The YouTuber used it to extract further information about Maryam illegally and even displayed her husband’s ID card since Maryam’s SIM card was registered under his name. In Pakistan, it is not difficult to get access to someone’s details linked with their phone number which is also linked to their national ID card number. People have used connections within telecom companies to get access to this information, but there are also Facebook groups dedicated to selling these details for less than a dollar. In addition, owing to the multiple unauthorised data access and breaches that Pakistan National Database Authority, NADRA, has been subjected to in the past years, the sensitive information of 220 million people is available in plain text on random websites to be accessed by anyone.
For Pakistan, there are underlying cultural issues that precede the events of Gamergate which can make gaming a very hostile space for women. Very rigid gender boundaries guide the existence of women in real life which then translate to these online spaces as well.
Maryam decided to file a complaint with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). Her case was filed under Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, which criminalises defamation. The case was dismissed after Islamabad High Court declared section 20 unconstitutional in April 2022. However, it is important to note here that Maryam was essentially harassed, intimidated, and stalked online, despite her clear disinterest. This falls more under the ambit of Section 24, which pertains to cyberstalking and addresses issues such as; attempting to contact a person against their disinterest, watching/spying on the person that results in fear of alarm or distress, and so on. All of the above was inflicted on Maryam.
In the end, no effective legal course was available for Maryam to pursue, and she was left hoping that the issue would eventually resolve on its own.
Striving for a safer gaming space online
A common theme that I pulled from all answers to how a safer space could be created and curated for women gamers online, premised on only a paradigm shift in society’s mindset making it possible. As Diya explains, “For Pakistan, there are underlying cultural issues that precede the events of Gamergate which can make gaming a very hostile space for women. Very rigid gender boundaries guide the existence of women in real life which then translate to these online spaces as well.” Hadiqa agrees. She says you can block and report all you want but “at the end of the day, the real problem lies with the mentality of the guys playing.” What disappoints Hadiqa, even more, is whenever she has told her male friends about the harassment she faced, their responses revolve around ‘yeh toh hota hai’ (this happens). Their acceptance of the situation indicates to her that they would do the same if some other woman was playing with them. This way of conversing is so “ingrained in their minds that they no longer see the disgustingness of it and if they do, they are not affected by it,” mostly because they do not have to.
Iqra believes that creating a more inclusive and diverse environment could go a long way in making these spaces welcoming for everyone. She says it “deeply troubles her that some men attempt to assert dominance in an activity that does not even require physical strength. Gaming skills are not gender dependent.”
Mahrukh recommends background checks for moderators on Discord servers, stricter age restrictions, and the elimination of pornography channels from gaming and Discord spaces. Maryam, who struggled to seek legal recourse when faced with harassment, says it is important to have proper laws in place and enforce them effectively. Moreover, by setting examples and taking strong actions against perpetrators of violence, similar situations can be prevented from happening again. “Making these individuals face the consequences, helps discourage them from repeating the same harmful behaviour towards others. I consider it my duty,” Maryam reiterates.