On July 20, 2021, every television screen in Pakistan showed breaking news of an innocent woman’s beheading: Noor Mukaddam’s mutilated body was discovered in Islamabad’s wealthy Sector F-7/4 neighbourhood, after having been tortured with knuckledusters for two days, her throat slit open with a sharp-edged weapon and her head severed.
Her murderer Zahir Jaffer, the son of a wealthy businessman confessed to the crime during an indictment hearing. Whilst in court he stated: “My life is in your hands, you can save it, you can give me a death sentence, but I don’t deserve such a miserable life in jail.”
The investigation revealed that the killer tortured, raped, and beheaded Noor after refusing his marriage proposal.
Pakistan is ranked the sixth most dangerous place in the world for women, it’s also had a spotlight placed on its wider society, and Noor’s beheading has sparked protests across the country to bring about justice for her; with #JusticeforNoor trending on Twitter. However, Noor’s death is not an isolated incident.
On September 9, 2020, a woman’s car ran out of fuel on a motorway near Lahore. As she waited for help with her two children, her car was broken into by two men, who subsequently stole money from her and then proceeded to rape her in a nearby field, in front of her two children.
On August 14, 2021, Pakistan’s Independence Day, Ayesha Akram, a TikTok star, was mugged, groped and sexually assaulted by a mass crowd of 400 men, at Greater Iqbal Park in Lahore. Shocking videos went viral of the assault that happened in broad daylight, men flung the woman in the air, tore her clothes off, slapped and groped her. Not one man among the hundreds of men came to the woman’s rescue.
On January 9, 2018, the body of 7-year-old Zainab Kasur was found near a garbage disposal near the city of Lahore. Her autopsy report found that she was extensively raped and tortured before being strangled to death.
White Ribbon Pakistan, an NGO working for woman’s rights found that 4,734 woman faced sexual violence between 2004 and 2016. More than 15,000 cases of honour crimes (a violent crime, usually including murder, committed by people who want to defend the reputation of their family or community, usually enacted by men against girls or women) were registered.
There were also more than 1,800 cases of domestic violence and over 5,500 kidnappings of women during this period.
While the Government of Pakistan has passed various laws to prevent violence and support those affected by it, the conviction rate for violence against women is very low at only 2.5 per cent.
However 11 rape cases are registered every day in Pakistan, with more than 22,000 rape cases reported to police across the country in the last six years.
So, why is gender-based violence a cultural norm in Pakistan?
The country suffers from an epidemic of patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism. The deeply patriarchal society means that women are often seen as subordinate and second-class citizens. The values instilled by this ideology seem to be embedded in tradition, religion, and culture.
Women are continuously treated as property; a woman is only a man’s daughter until she becomes another man’s wife. Pakistani society limits women’s mobility as well as their behaviour and activities.
Societal norms in Pakistan enforce extreme separation of men and women and only permits limited contact with the opposite sex.
Public spaces are taken up by men, and women rarely travel outside of their homes without a male family member. Women are expected to live under the constraints of the purdah system, usually for their protection, which visualises itself with the enforcement of veiling, but also by separating women from the activities of men. The “purdah creates differentiated male and female spheres”.
Hayley Dasovich, an American travel blogger who visited Islamabad’s F-11 sector as a solo traveller said: “My first impressions [of the country] is that there is predominantly men in public. It is a little bit strange for me to feel like I am the only women out here, I’ve never experienced that before.”
Pakistani women spend the majority of their lives confined and trapped to the courtyards of their homes, and only leave for serious or approved reasons. There are no recreational spaces in public for women (outside of the home) and it is rare to see a public space that is accommodating to women.
It’s also uncommon – even a taboo – for women to be seen driving, and Plan International estimated that less than 5% of women own a driver’s license. Even in wealthier parts of cities like Karachi and Islamabad, it is still rare for women to face no restrictions on their mobility.
Cultural stereotypes of masculinity can be defined as various qualities and attributes associated with or expected of men. Women stereotypically embody family honour, while men are made responsible for it; this translates into a need to control and dominate, stemming from toxic-masculinity, directly feeding into an uptick of violent gender-based crimes.
“This whole issue of so-called honour where a women’s body embodies the family honour and the men are made responsible, results in their need to control every aspect of a women’s body and life,” says Fatimah, an Aurat March protester.
Pakistani activists estimate that there are about 1,000 so-called “honour” killings every year.
Honour killings are a frightening reality for women in Pakistan. The United Nations estimates that 5,000 women are victims of honour killings every year. Honour killings are most common in cultures that see women as property “whose value lies in their virginity or sexual modesty”.
These killings are often carried out on women who violate social norms around things like “choice of clothing, education, employment, a romantic partner, engaging in premarital or extramarital sex, or behaving in sexually provocative manners.”
This was the case for Qandeel Baloch who in 2016, was murdered by her own brother because he felt that “the videos and photographs she had been posting online brought disrespect to their family”.
Qandeel was strangled to death whilst she slept, so are women even safe in their own homes?
Studies reveal that 60% to 70% of women suffer some form of abuse in Pakistan and about 5,000 women are killed annually from domestic violence in the country, with thousands of other women made disabled.
Pakistani culture also teaches that there is a level of shame around the reporting of a gender-based violent crime, even if it’s sexual in nature. Maryam Azidi, an Aurat March protester said, “a huge majority of women in Pakistan face violence but only a small number actually report it.”
The culture can also be to blame for teaching generations not to interfere when witnessing abuse, even normalising domestic abuse.
So, what is Pakistan doing to protect its women? It seems like men are getting away with their crimes due to the absence of a functioning legal system in the country.
Perpetrators are usually not held accountable as there is a lack of implementation of the legislation around women’s rights. “90% of women in Pakistan face violence but only 0.4% actually report it,” said Maryam.
How do you tackle sexual violence in a country that doesn’t enforce laws to protect women, that has no sex education or recourses around sexual violence and no awareness of law enforcement?
The low status of women; coupled with the lack of female visibility in public spaces; and the cultural and religious standards of Pakistani society, which do not support the discussion of taboo topics, such as sex; equate to women being treated worse than animals. Women are experiencing a complete failure of justice.
The Aurat March is a socio-political demonstration held annually in cities such as Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th.
An ‘Aurat March’ which translates to ‘women’s march’ in Urdu has been held in many different cities in Pakistan for the last three years. The idea for the march began when a group of women decided to protest to ask for an end to violence and harassment.
It has now evolved into a wider movement, including trans people and demanding an end to the country’s patriarchal established order, and its subsequent constraints on the basic rights of women. The march brings further attention to the lack of basic human rights women in South Asian countries face, as well as the countries inability to protect their female citizens.
“I feel the most empowered when I see a collective sisterhood getting together, reclaiming public spaces, and coming out to say this is our country and we refuse to stay at home”, says Maryam, the Aurat March protestor.
However, the march has been receiving backlash since it started, with religious clerics wanting to stop it, claiming that it is anti-Islamic and is spreading vulgarity and hatred.
Many men also have been threatened by the march, saying it is “rejecting of the South Asian woman’s identity” as quoted by Aliza (another demonstrator of the Aurat March). Despite all the reprisal, protestors “will not back down, we know how to fight for our rights, and we will keep fighting until our rights are given to us,” Aliza said.
The gender imbalance in Pakistan makes the country undoubtedly unsafe for women. Pakistan’s societal inability to change its deep-rooted toxic and patriarchal structures; coupled with the lack of a functioning legal system; and its unwillingness to protect its women, illustrates to us that no amount of Noor’s, Ayesha’s and Zainab’s will change a society that tolerates and justifies its violence against women.
Featured image by Justice for Noor via YouTube.
Edited by Will Drysdale and Isis Flack.