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January 25, 2022

Noor Mukadam should not die in vain

Editor's note: this article contains descriptions of violence and sexual assault. 

Last summer, one of the darkest, most gruesome cases of violence against women sent shockwaves throughout Pakistan.  Twenty-seven-year-old Noor Mukadam, from one of the country’s most prominent families, was brutally tortured and murdered after she reportedly refused her boyfriend's marriage proposal. Zahir Jaffer, the son of a wealthy and powerful businessman, invited Noor to his home and proceeded to rape, stab and eventually behead her with a pocket knife. 

Powerful men like Jaffer have come to expect that their privilege and status in society will protect them from punishment. And why wouldn't they? Jaffer's family's status helped him avoid consequences in the past. Despite multiple sexual assaults in the US and UK, along with other red flags, Jaffer remained free to strike again. Even Jaffer’s parents, who learned from house staff about their son's violent behavior as it was happening, chose to protect their reputation instead of calling the police

As a member of the same community as Noor and Jaffer, this story hit close to home. Like Noor, I am the daughter of an ex-diplomat. I walk my dog in the same neighborhood where this crime took place. I am also a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. This news has shaken me to my core, as it has shaken this country.

misogyny at the core of femicide plague 

I stand with other Pakistani women to demand that authorities deliver swift and severe repercussions. Unlike other violent incidents which often get swept under the rug, justice in this case seems likely.  Thanks in-part to the intense scrutiny of international media coverage, and the trending hashtag #JusticeForNoor, law enforcement has been motivated to conduct a thorough investigation. Unfortunately, nothing will bring Noor back to her family. 

Not once has Jaffer shown remorse or apologised to Noor’s family. Instead, he is attempting to use the insanity plea to wiggle his way out of this heinous crime. Although he likely won’t get away with it this time, as a nation, we need to admit a bigger picture problem: a misogynistic society that forces women to be unsafe in their own homes or with friends.

As part of my work with women in Pakistan, I hear unspeakable stories of rape, honor killings and acid attacks every week. Most people, including law enforcement, pay no attention, because these survivors are neither wealthy nor well-known in society. 

victim blaming and governmental neglect of survivors

Noor’s murder reminds us that violence against women can happen anywhere. It doesn't matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white, or from a first or third-world country.

According to the World Health Organization, pre-Covid violence against women impacted one in three women in every corner of the world, with younger women being the most vulnerable. This figure has substantially risen during the pandemic. No one is immune. 

Pakistan remains the 6th most dangerous country in the world for women. We have a plethora of laws to protect women against violence, but a serious lack of implementation, coupled with a corrupt and sluggish justice system that often blames the survivor. Add to this a Prime Minister who blames rape victims for wearing “very few clothes,” and it is clear why women and girls in Pakistan do not have any chance of anything changing.

time for A global treaty to end violence against women and girls 

The international community must come together to end this brutality. Regardless of culture, religion or social status, we need to demand an end to rapes, domestic violence, sexual slavery, acid violence, dowry deaths and on and on. Enough is enough. We need a solution. 

Fortunately, there is one on the table. Momentum is building for a global treaty to end violence against women and girls. A global treaty would dedicate resources to violence prevention; create a metrics-based reporting framework; establish an international monitoring body; and require training and accountability for police officers, judges and health professionals; among other necessary measures.

We already have international treaties for tobacco and landmines. There is no reason not to have one to protect women and girls from violence. The President of Nigeria, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States have already come out in favour.

A global treaty would help activists like me feel supported as we demand justice for these crimes. When we put ourselves in harm’s way to protect other women, we could do so with the knowledge that accountability will follow. We could build awareness that violence against women and girls is not normal, or inevitable. 

If there were a global treaty, perhaps girls like five-year-old Marwah from Karachi, Pakistan might still be alive. Instead of being sexually assaulted, set on fire and thrown in a trash pile, she may have returned home from her short trip to buy biscuits, unscathed.

Outraged Pakistanis protested and demanded justice, a hashtag trended, but the story died out, and nothing changed. Last summer it was Noor. Tomorrow it will be someone else. Unless we act, it could be any of us. 

Islamabad paid homage to the life of Noor recently by holding an exhibition of her art and calligraphy. A gifted artist and animal lover, one painting of hers remains incomplete, for she didn’t have time to finish before she was robbed of her life. 

Women around the world are scared, angry and tired of their pleas falling on deaf ears. We shouldn't have to reassure our terrified daughters that they will be safe without an international agreement to back us up. Together, we can stop these despicable acts from happening to more women and girls and rid our societies of this plague of violence.

Zainab Ali Khan is a Gender Specialist with over 10 years of work experience in the Development and Corporate sectors of Pakistan. She is a Global Coalition Coordinator at the Every Woman Treaty - a global campaign for an international treaty to end violence against women and girls.

Image by Melanie Wasser