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After Noor Mukadam’s brutal murder, Pakistani women are demanding action on gendered violence. Will it be enough?

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The killing of a politician's daughter has refocused a spotlight on gender based violence in Pakistan. Is change finally on the horizon?

12 Aug 2021

Mukadam family

In a country where an estimated 1000 women are killed each year, it takes extreme violence to shock. But in Pakistan, the brutal murder of a diplomat’s daughter – allegedly tortured and beheaded by the son of a millionaire business tycoon after she rejected him – has forced Pakistan to confront what women’s rights activists describe as its “femicide time bomb”. 

But will the case finally be the turning point in the country’s poor record on gender-based violence that campaigners hope for, or will Noor Mukadam become yet another forgotten hashtag?

A tragic tipping point?

Noor Mukadam’s disappearance during Eid, one of the holiest occasions in the Muslim calendar, sparked concern from the beginning. The 27-year-old was from Pakistan’s elite, the daughter of the country’s first ever ambassador to Ireland. On 18 July she vanished from her home in Islamabad. Two days later, her mutilated body was discovered in the house of former lover Zahir Zakhir Jaffer, in the city’s wealthy Sector F-7/4 neighbourhood. Noor’s death has led to an outpouring of grief and anger; in Pakistan there is growing outcry over the failure to stem the tide of gender-based violence, despite repeated promises from authorities in recent years.

The details of the case make for harrowing reading. Noor, a talented artist and animal lover, was lured to the apartment of Jaffer, who she had known since her teens. She was then allegedly held captive after the pair began arguing. 

In a preliminary hearing, police described how CCTV footage showed Noor jumping from a first-storey window in an attempt to escape, before allegedly being dragged back into the apartment by Jaffer. A postmortem revealed her body showed signs of torture and sexual assault. 

Jaffer a dual US-Pakistani citizen was arrested at the scene of the crime on suspicion of the pre-meditated murder. While the motive for the killing has not been confirmed, the police have alleged that Jaffer told his parents Noor had refused to marry him.

The case – which has received extensive publicity thanks in part to the elite social standing of the victim – has sparked mass protests, with renewed calls for stronger action on gender-based violence. Noor’s family now hope the case will force the country to address it’s poor record on the issue.

“It’s not just our battle now, it’s our whole country’s battle,” Noor’s sister Sara tells gal-dem

“Everyone feels this could have been their sister or someone they love. This is a massive turning point in Pakistan,” she says, “The only thing that is keeping us going is that Noor’s death could be a catalyst to change the violence that women have been suffering for years. That this is the reason, this is the cause that she died for. If things change as a result of this, my sister’s death will not have been in vain. 

“This should never have happened to her or to anyone. As a family, we will never be ok. We want justice for her. Noor always spoke up for others, now it’s our turn to speak for her.”

“Women’s rights activists have accused the government of failing to crack down on gender-based violence after the landmark Domestic Violence Bill was put on hold”

Pakistan has been a tinderbox waiting to erupt after a series of high profile femicide cases in the last few months, including the June murder of Mayra Zulfiqar, a Hounslow law graduate shot by a man who wanted to marry her. 

Many in Pakistan blame a dangerous cocktail of toxic masculinity allowed to thrive in a patriarchal society which is increasingly embracing a misogynistic flavour of religious conservatism. Pandemic restrictions have also fuelled the issue, creating a breeding ground for gender-based violence. According to Human Rights Watch, domestic violence helplines reported a 200% rise in cases between January and March last year and those figures worsened during the Covid-19 lockdown. 

Women’s rights activists have accused the government of failing to crack down on gender-based violence after the landmark Domestic Violence Bill was put on hold. This was following religious conservatives raising objections, despite the Bill being passed by Pakistan’s National Assembly just weeks before Noor was killed. 

Prime Minister Imran Khan also faced a backlash in June after he suggested that they way women dress was responsible for the growth in sexual violence in the country. He later backtracked on his comments, claiming they were taken out of context. 

A mountain to climb

While women have been fighting back, the #MeToo movement has struggled to turn the tide under the sheer force of decades of patriarchal dominance. 

Pakistan’s iteration of the global anti-sexual harassment #MeToo movement was ignited in 2018, when one of the country’s biggest pop stars, Meesha Shafi, spoke out about being sexually harassed by fellow singer Ali Zafar. Other women also came out and said they had been targeted by the singer and actor. Yet, as a result of the uproar, Shafi was forced to move abroad while Ali Zafar was presented with a Pride of Performance Award this year for his contributions to music.  

The Aurat March (Women’s March) which was inspired by the case has been a key target for anger by Pakistan’s religious conservatives, whose dominance is being threatened by the country’s increasingly vocal youth population, particularly women who have been demanding more action against violence and abuse. Noor Mukadam herself was pictured attending an Aurat March earlier this year, holding a sign reading, “We won’t stay home so they can grow! No more!”. 

Organisers of the Aurat March have faced death threats and charges under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law which carries a death sentence. Protestors, many of whom were young students, faced abuse and rape threats and had their images doctored and spread online. 

“Are we supposed to wait until somebody is beheaded before we talk about it and do something? I don’t want any woman to die and become a poster girl for this crisis for us to change”

Leena Ghani

In recent weeks, activists from the Aurat March in the city of Faisalabad were forced to cancel a peaceful protest for Noor after the Assistant Commissioner threatened to arrest organisers. A mural in memory of Noor in the city of Sialkot was vandalised within a few hours of being erected. 

“if you look at the Noor case, it is not an isolated event,” says Leena Ghani, one of the organisers of the Faisalabad  Aurat March. “It has been happening for a long time, and so many women’s names don’t get a hashtag. There are women who are raped and abused every day. We have been screaming about these issues for so long, but nobody listened.”

She continues, “Now they are talking about it, but are we supposed to wait until somebody is beheaded before we talk about it and do something? I don’t want any woman to die and become a poster girl for this crisis for us to change.”

Resistant to change 

However, Noor’s death has further exposed divisions in Pakistan when it comes to gender-based violence. The aftermath of her murder has seen a ‘trial by social media’ with her lifestyle dissected and debated.

While the details of how Noor she ended up in Jaffer’s apartment on that fateful day remain unclear, online platforms have seen instances of slut-shaming and more condemnation about Noor being in the apartment of a man she wasn’t married to than the fact that he stands accused of brutally murdering her. 

For the Pakistani diaspora, Noor’s murder has prompted fury, at both wider society and “complicit” families. Teacher Naveen Rizvi attended a candlelit vigil for Noor in London. She tells gal-dem that the issue of gender-based violence is all too familiar. 

“When I see Noor, I see the countless women who have been victims of violence including family members and it’s never ending,” she explains. “I attended [the vigil] for Noor, but also to protest against the unjust system in Pakistan.

“My closest cousin has an abusive husband and I paid her rent for six months to keep her safe from him,” she says, “But she saw how awfully he was treating the kids and went back. My family was [of] zero use. They are complicit in my cousin being harmed.”

While the candles for Noor still burned, news surfaced that the body of another woman had been found, dumped on a roadside just a stone’s throw from where Noor died. 

Whether Noor’s case becomes the catalyst for change that her family and supporters hope for remains to be seen, but the death shows gender-based violence knows no boundaries of age, class or family background. And neither does grief.