No Country for Women

Murder of a former diplomat’s daughter Noor Mukadam lays bare the distressing situation of women in Pakistan.

Islamabad, Pakistan: The gruesome murder of the former diplomat’s daughter in the heart of Islamabad has sent shivers down everyone’s spine and stirred national outrage over femicides in the South Asian nation of Pakistan. The murder involving families from the privileged elite of Pakistani society has put the treatment of women in the spotlight.

Noor Mukadam, 27, the daughter of a former Pakistani diplomat, was found beheaded in a posh neighbourhood of Islamabad on July 20. The police have charged Zahir Jaffer, a U.S. national and heir of one of Pakistan’s wealthiest families, with murder. Preliminary investigators revealed the two were friends, and Jaffer lured Mukadam, to his home, held her there for two days, and then brutally murdered her. Jaffer had previously been deported from Britain for involvement in a rape and sexual harassment case. On facing public anger, the Jaffer family took out full-page advertisements in newspapers distancing themselves from the murder and calling for justice.

Noor Mukadam’s brutal murder has become the most keenly reported femicide in recent history. As soon as the news of her murder broke, social media erupted with furious disgust, and there have been protests and vigils in major cities, as well as among the Pakistani diaspora in Canada and the United States. Twitter is currently filled with posts from people shocked at the murder and calling for justice for Noor. It should be declared a national emergency, said one user. Perhaps someone will actually do something about it then. The murder has sparked fresh debate about the safety of women in Pakistan, with the hashtag #JusticeForNoor garnering millions of tweets.

People protesting Hashtag #Justicefornoor

Hundreds of women are killed in Pakistan annually, and thousands more suffer of brutal violence, but very few cases get sustained media attention, and even a smaller fraction of perpetrators are ever punished. In a country where “honour” killings are a common practice, the brutality of the killing has forced Pakistan to confront its poor record on gender-based violence. The country is ranked 153 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s global gender index, just above Afghanistan. It ranks sixth on the list of the world’s most dangerous countries for women.

During the Covid lockdowns, there has been a surge in domestic violence, which many see as fueled by the growth in religious conservatism and the government’s failure to tackle the issue. “Women are not just angry, they are terrified because we know far too many rapists and murderers get away with it,” said Kanwal Ahmed, founder of Soul Sisters Pakistan, one of the country’s biggest women-only online Facebook group.

Critics say the current Pakistani government, under Prime Minister Imran Khan, hasn’t been focusing on empowering girls and women. Recently, Imran Khan, was condemned after he suggested that the way women dressed was to blame for the rise in sexual violence. He later claimed the comment was taken out of context.

In the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, governed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, official recently issued guidelines ordering girls to wear the veil or abaya. The order drew widespread outrage, forcing the government to reverse the decision. PTI leader and former federal minister Ishaq Khakwani admitted that the government did not pay enough attention to address the issue of violence against women.

While the twists and turns of the trial unfold in the national media, rights groups in Pakistan say the government should now pass the landmark bill that was put on hold in early July after objections by the Council of Islamic Ideology, despite being passed by the National Assembly. The bill streamlines the process for obtaining restraining orders, and defines violence broadly, to include “emotional, psychological and verbal abuse”. The legislation to improve protections for women against violence has regularly faced pushback from religious and community leaders in the socially conservative country, which is governed in part by a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Noor’s death came in the wake of a string of cases of brutal femicides. Just days before her death, Quratulain, whose picture as a beautiful glowing bride was put side by side with the photo of her bruised and battered corpse, was killed allegedly by her husband.

The status of the two families has brought this case worldwide attention. But for victims from lower-class backgrounds, without money or affluence, the fight for justice is lost before it has even begun.

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