The brutal killing of 27 years old Noor Mukaddam on July 20, 2021, in the federal capital left us all gasping and grief-stricken, which sparked nationwide outrage. People were demanding to do more to ensure women’s safety. We all have held our breaths praying for justice. On December 24, after a long-drawn trial of four months, the district and session court in Islamabad has finally announced its verdict in the gruesome murder case, sentenced prime accused Zahir Jaffer to death.
The court also found him guilty of rape and handed him 25 years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 200,000. He has been awarded 10 years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 100,000 on the charges of kidnapping and one year in prison for wrongful confinement. He also has to pay Rs. 500,000 as compensation to Noor’s legal heir to cover the legal expenses incurred by her family.
Co-accused Jan Muhammad and Muhammad Iftikhar, who was working at Zahir’s home as gardener and watchman respectively, and thwarted the victim’s multiple attempts to escape, will face a total of 10 years in prison and pay Rs. 100,000 as fine, each. However, Zahir’s father Zakir Jaffer, mother Asmat Adamjee, and cook Jamil have been acquitted along with all the employees of Therapy Works.
The ruling left many asking questions regarding Zahir’s parents’ acquittal who were facing charges of abetting the crime but the prosecution failed to establish its case against them. Meanwhile, people are also apprehensive about the probability of the survival of this verdict in case of any subsequent appeal, if filed, in a higher court. Still, the verdict is what many were hoping for that Zahir will inevitably face the consequences of his barbarity. Nevertheless, the storm of rage that this incident brought forth and played a role in pushing prosecutorial action shouldn’t subside yet. Instead, we should find ways to channel our anger and grief in a way that will lead to tangible action for the longer-term benefit of society.
Culture of impunity
We should not move on without important conversations taking place. The case of Noor Mukaddam is one of those few cases of femicide that captivated Pakistan. However, Gender-based violence is much more prevalent, systematic, and under-reported in the country. Men, who commit serious crimes start somewhere, usually from minor crimes yet they remain scot-free. Society, instead of recognizing this and doing something about it, provide a breeding ground for narrow masculinity and misogyny and produce individuals like Zahir Jaffer. On the other hand, It advises women to stay safe and transfers the responsibility for men’s violence onto them. Still, women encounter various forms of threats and violence regardless of whether they use safety strategies or not and are perceived culpable after their abuse. This happened in the case of Noor Mukaddam as well.
Despite having a history of violent outbursts that led up to this murder, Zahir’s behavior remains unchecked. His family and friend turned a blind eye to his erratic behavior. In fact, Therapy Works; a mental health institute in Islamabad authorized him to work there as a therapist. On the day of the murder, he tortured Noor consistently for three hours. Terrorizing findings also revealed that she tried to escape by jumping from the balcony and hiding inside the security guard’s room from where Zahir dragged her back in. The security guards were present but no one stopped Zahir from torturing Noor. Nor did anyone report it to the police.
Even after the murder, people blamed and shamed Noor Mukaddam for her assault. People were instinctively focusing on her background, clothes, or whereabouts, and her ties with the murderer to formulate her character. Nobody was asking the real question about Zahir’s background, character, or mental health.
This problem of victim-blaming has overtaken every sector of Pakistan as well as the legal system. The criminal justice system is discriminatory. The deep-rooted bias of patriarchal police discourages women from reporting the violence. Even If they pluck up the courage to go to court, the process amplifies the traumatization and reinforces the devastating feeling of powerlessness.
The pain of the family mourning the murder of their beloved daughter and sister is unimaginable. Despite the torment that Noor’s family had to go through, they made a brave move to go to court. We all witnessed the pain and courage of Noor’s father to confront his daughter’s assailant. The unfolding accounts revealed during the course of the trial were disturbing too. They also faced re-victimization during a legal process
In one of the hearings, the lawyer of Zahir Jaffer Questioned Noor’s father; “Keeping that in mind that you have been an ambassador to this country, tell me is it acceptable for a guy and a girl to have such a relation in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan?”
Zahir had confessed to murdering Noor because she had rejected his marriage proposal – A simple NO that he couldn’t take as an answer. But his lawyer tried to push the narrative that the victim somehow brought violence upon herself. In another hearing, Zahir’s lawyer hinges on a drug party to shift the moral consequences on the woman brutally raped, and beheaded.
This case was uniquely horrifying, but not an isolated one. Country statistics of gender-based violence paint a grim picture.
In a Thomas Reuters Foundation poll in 2018, Pakistan was rated as the sixth-most dangerous country for women. The country managed to get the rank of 7th worst in sexual violence, 5th worst in non-sexual violence against women, and 4th worst in terms of economic resources and discrimination as well as the risks women face from cultural, religious, and traditional practices including honor killing.
According to the report published by Georgetown University, Pakistan stands at 167 out of 170 countries on the Women’s Peace and Security Index (2020). The country secured the 153rd spot among 156 nations in World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (2021). Data from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan revealed that 1,957 incidents of honor killings had been recorded over the past 4 years. The average rate of honor killing in women between 15 to 64 years is 15 per million women per year.
Complicity of the state
GBV is devastatingly pervasive, still grossly underreported in the country. It is because of the society that tells women to suffer in silence and also because they lack legal protection. The conviction rate in GBV crime is as low as 3% which exposes why many victims chose to remain silent.
Furthermore, we do not have a law on countering forced religious conversion. Mainly religious-political parties blocked any such move of criminalizing the practice despite repeated concerns and complaints by several minority groups. Also, the government demonstrates a marginal interest to ensure the safety of minority women. The legislation on Domestic violence (Prevention and Protection) bill proposed in 2020 for Islamabad Capital Territory is still undecided. Even if there are laws, they are not properly implemented. Forced marriage and child marriage are criminal offenses but are still commonplace. Though current law sets the legal marriage age at 18 that is contentious too. It also took a long time for all our provinces to enact their laws against domestic violence. However, despite the existence of laws, only a few victims are able to find relief.
From now on, we have to choose between the two paths before us: the path of forgetting and the path of reckoning. The problem is ingrained in the core of our culture which we need to realize in the first place. Noor’s gruesome murder was a result of femicide, that exists for a long in our society. It doesn’t refer to the killing of women but refers to the entire system that condones such murders or fails to put in the dock those responsible.
This murder gives a wake-up call that we should stop ignoring the extent of femicide and make it a bigger issue because these women matter.