By Ayesha Mirza
Artwork by @rainbowactive
Trigger Warning - mentions of violence, rape and murder
A Note From The Editor:
When we read about Noor Mukaddam’s life being taken away. Or when hundreds of men (yes, hundreds) are caught on camera sexually assaulting and groping a woman in Lahore’s Greater Iqbal Park. And when Raza Ali, a police constable, opened fire on his wife and daughter in their own home too. It happened all of these times. Violence against women occurred, and it was perceived as normal. NBD.
And we are so fking tired of it. Seriously.
We’re not asking for ponies or unicorns; we’re asking not to be murdered, beheaded, or grievously injured.
Trite words, stats, and another outraged article aside, there has to be more. Because when the concept of “justice” feels so far away, and the most we can hope for is to not become the next victim of targeted and consistent violence, we really have to stop and rethink a few things. There comes a point where “educate your sons”, or “speak out against your male friends” falls short because if hundreds of men can gather to assault one woman, we clearly aren’t being heard.
That’s not to say that individual responsibility doesn’t matter, or that we shouldn’t tell men these things, but it’s also so much bigger than that. It’s how the privilege of being male is fundamentally one of power, whether it’s the son of an elite family or an ordinary man who decided to walk through the park that day or a police constable. This behaviour is learned, but it’s also encouraged by a society that is set up to exploit women’s vulnerabilities.
So we may not have anything new to say here, but we will keep talking, because if we stop, then we risk those women being forgotten. We can’t forget that Noor was “the kind of girl who went the extra mile for her loved ones” according to her friend and that she liked going for drives, and was an artistic, kind soul. We can’t forget that these women are not just statistics, but people that had so much to live for.
And we can’t forget that we must demand more from the systems and people who are in place to protect us.
On 20th July 2021, Noor Mukaddam, a 27-year-old woman was found gruesomely murdered at a house in a posh neighbourhood in Islamabad, Pakistan. Her alleged murderer, Zahir Jaffer was arrested the same night from his house in the affluent Sector F-7/4 where Noor was tortured and subsequently beheaded. The barbaric killing of Noor left the entire nation shocked and egregiously exposed to the “gender terrorism epidemic” prevalent in Pakistan.
An investigation into the events that led up to the horrific incident revealed that the suspect Zahir Jaffer, a Pakistani-American citizen, already had an escape plan in place of fleeing to the US after committing the murder. Once arrested, he gave the police and media persistent reminders of his American citizenship and how he cannot be kept in police custody or charged with murder due to his foreign citizen status. He may as well have gotten out his American passport and waved it in our faces like a get-out-of-jail-free card. (PS. It’s not. Foreign citizenship doesn’t bar you from having to follow the laws of the country you are in. Especially regarding actions which are illegal in the country of your citizenship as well, like say, murder.)
Since the court proceedings have begun, the suspect’s misguided sense of impunity has only grown more problematic. While at the court hearings he is always dressed in crisp attire, wearing the best suits money can buy, in jail, he has access to a phone as well as home-cooked meals. In addition, he was granted special medical assistance at PIMS (Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences) after falling sick. These are all privileges that are not granted to ‘normal’ prisoners, demonstrating how Zahir Jaffer has fully used his wealth and influence despite committing a heinous crime.
What’s worse is that there were people, such as Zahir’s parents, who were fully aware of his abusive and violent behaviour, and we can only wish they’d acted sooner to stop him rather than protect him, because then maybe Noor would still be alive. Throughout the duration of the murder, Zahir was in contact with his father Zakir, a wealthy businessman and director of Ahmed Jaffer & Company (Pvt) Ltd, one of the oldest family-run trading and project management companies in the country. Zakir Jaffer had called Dr Tahir at Therapy Works, a counselling and rehabilitation centre, claiming that Zahir was “soliciting a girl” at his house. He had asked Dr Tahir to send a team from Therapy Works to handle the matter. Meanwhile, Zahir had called up several of his friends and conjured up different excuses to each of them. Zahir’s parents were arrested on charges of abetment and hiding crime from police and only issued a statement condemning the murder after widespread criticism.
The Shadow Pandemic
The alleged murderer and his family’s attitude are extremely commonplace for anyone with wealth and influence in Pakistan. Just days after Noor’s murder, Shah Hussain who was convicted of stabbing law student Khadija Siddiqi 23 times in 2016 was released without finishing his sentence. Shah Hussain’s release came on the grounds of good behaviour, which included finishing his degree and learning the Quran. This is not the first time that the child of a business tycoon, feudal lord, or politician has gotten away with their crime.
Pakistan has had a history of wealthy and influential people doing away with their crimes through either paying blood money, bending the laws, or resorting to more extreme measures such as threats and coercion.
Days before Noor’s murder two other women, Quratulain Baloch and Saima Ali were also tortured and murdered by their husbands in their respective provinces of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Noor, Quratulain, and Saima’s murders coupled with a number of reported rape cases in the month of July have shone a light on the femicide endemic in the country. Pakistan has had a poor track record of women’s rights, ranking 153 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s global gender index. A 2020 report on “Tracking Numbers: State of Violence Against Women and Children in Pakistan” revealed 1422 cases of domestic violence, 9401 cases of violence against women, 4321 cases of rape, 2556 honour killings, and 15,714 cases of kidnappings of both women and children throughout the country. Local officials have often said that actual numbers could be much higher as many cases go unreported for various reasons. These findings contradict the authorities' claims that things are improving. If anything, the recent episode of violence against women has proven these claims to be blatantly wrong.
Violence against women is not a purely physical phenomenon either - it brings with it significant economic ramifications, which make it unsurprising that poverty too comes with a gender bias. At the global level, the cost of violence against women (public, private and social) has been estimated at approximately US$1.5 trillion; this is about the size of the Canadian economy. That’s out of pocket health expenses, lost days of work, the absorption of risk and instability, the invisible workload of nursing one another, and of course, death. It’s important to recognize that the feminization of poverty is intricately tied to gender bias - the most extreme of which is found in gender-based violence. And while the trend is growing at an alarming pace in Pakistan, the growth elsewhere in the world (including and especially India) raises red flags as well.
Plus during the COVID pandemic, domestic violence and abuse against women reached a new high, believed to be fuelled by increasing religious conservatism that the government has failed to tackle. Earlier in July, a domestic violence bill that was passed in the national assembly was put on hold due to objectification by the council of Islamic ideology. The bill was criticised for destroying the family system and increasing divorce rates. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently retracted from his rape apologist stance but his previous comments, however, emboldened many to further suppress women. Whilst the recent surge in violence against women cannot be directly linked to Khan’s comments, what we can say is that having the Prime Minister show a disregard for women’s safety and choosing to victim blame has played into the favour of the perpetrators, disabling any conversation about patriarchal violence, and instead, offering a breeding ground to misogynists.
Despite the Prime Minister’s withdrawal from his initial statement, the unfortunate reality of Noor’s case and many others is that victim-blaming and shaming is always the first response to any crime committed against a woman. Perpetrators are always handed a free pass because “boys will be boys” and “girls need to be more responsible”. A video of anchor Imran Khan recently made rounds on social media, where he drew parallels between Noor’s murder and her lack of telephonic conversation with her father. Once again, we’re witnessing the perpetrator’s crime being excused and the victim is continuously vilified.
More Money, More Power
Noor’s case also highlights that it is the status of the two families and the brutality of the murder that has brought worldwide attention to the crime. And if it wasn’t for the fact that Noor’s father is a former distinguished diplomat and former envoy to South Korea and Ireland, Shaukhat Mukadam, we wonder whether the response would be the same. This isn’t to take away from what happened to her, as it deserves all the outrage, but so many acts of violence against women are easily dismissed. It is impossible for many victims from lower-class and underprivileged backgrounds to even think of seeking justice due to a lack of access to money and media.
And this is where it’s important to recognise how patriarchy is not an isolated system, but gendered violence is also class violence.
Both patriarchal privilege and class-caste hierarchies reduce the likelihood of Zahir Jaffer, and many like him, from ever facing just consequences. The Jaffer family utilised all sorts of connections to try and weasel their way out of accountability, misusing their influence over therapy and rehabilitation centres in Pakistan. Zahir Jaffer was seeing patients at Therapy Works as well as providing counselling to students in numerous schools, the same organisation that his father called to “handle” the situation. Zakir Jaffer’s call to Therapy Works was yet another attempt by his family to sabotage the situation so that his son is not arrested and evades justice in the court of law. However, SSP Ataur Rehman confirmed that Zahir Jaffer was “sound and in his senses” at the time of the arrest. And because that didn’t work, they tried again, because money really knows no bounds when it comes to covering up criminal behaviour. In order to save him from jail, his parents allegedly attempted to get their son declared “mentally unfit”, which would provide an insanity defence, with the help of Therapy Works. A test had to be conducted externally, and a team of psychiatrists declared he was in fact mentally fit to face trial.
This exposes the government’s failure to regulate rehabilitation centres and maintain checks and balances on practitioners, especially when wealthy individuals with their own interests have significant influence. The lack of regulation of psychiatric and psychological facilities stems from the stigmatisation of mental health and the government’s inability to address it, allowing a vacuum for those like Zakir Jaffer to play the field. It was later revealed that Zahir Jaffer had displayed schizophrenic symptoms earlier, although it is yet to be proven. However, the accused does have a proven history of violence against women in the past, based on his own phone records, and is allegedly facing rape charges in the UK as well. Considering that the concept and criteria for mental health and mental illnesses are fairly vague in Pakistan, many fear that Zahir may be afforded a lighter sentence due to his past history of mental illness.
And we’ve seen this before, not just in Pakistan, but in other cases of violence against women in other countries, as men using power and influence to get away with abuse and violence is a universal problem. In 2016, Stanford University’s student Brock Turner received only a six-month sentence in jail for the assault and rape of an unconscious woman. The light punishment drew criticism both within the US and abroad, and then Turner was released after three months for “good behaviour”. In countries such as Pakistan, however, men even in lower positions of power and influence have benefited. For instance, the police refused to arrest Qurutulain Baloch’s husband for murdering her due to his influential status in the province. Similarly, Saima Ali’s husband was a policeman himself. These cases are stark examples of patriarchal violence intertwined with wealth and influence, which ultimately benefits the perpetrator.
We have yet to see the outcome of Noor’s case and while most of us await justice; there has been a surge in men taking to social media to discipline women. Men from all ranks of society have taken it upon themselves to offer their two cents on how women should behave, rather than condemn the men who murder young girls. The future of women in Pakistan looks grim in light of the current circumstances. If Zahir Jaffer is able to get away with his heinous crime, women of Pakistan will find themselves in an extremely dangerous state, as it will further embolden the misogynists to continue doing what they do with the legal system on their side. The court proceedings for Noor’s murder began earlier this month, women hope that Noor’s case will become a watershed moment for women’s rights in the country and bring rigorous reform to ensure the safety and security of women.
About the author
Ayesha Mirza is a writer from Pakistan. She is passionate about dismantling structural misogyny and amplifying the voices of the marginalised groups. IG: @ayeshaamirzaa