Feeling safe. It’s such a basic need. Lately, this notion of safety, or rather the lack of it, has been weighing on my mind. If you’ve been following the news in Pakistan, you might understand why. The gruesome murder of an ambassador’s 27-year-old daughter, Noor Mukadam, by the son of one of the richest families in Pakistan, has sparked national outrage over the growing femicide in the nation. Noor’s homicide comes on the heels of two other publicized ones, highlighting how badly the country is failing its women. Hashtags like #justicefornoor #justiceforquratulain and #justiceforsaima are the calls for help by a gender that does not feel safe in their own country.
I saw someone holding up a sign at a recent protest: “Just a man’s ‘bad day’ away from a hashtag”. It gave me goosebumps. Because it was true for Saima Ali and Quratulain Baloch. One day the abuse dealt to them by their husbands went too far. Scores of women in Pakistan, and indeed all over the world, deal with toxic masculinity on a daily basis. And for some it only ends with their death. In a leading survey, Pakistan ranks 6th on the list of the world’s most dangerous countries for women, just behind countries like India, Afghanistan, and Syria, the latter two of which are war-torn countries. Honour killings and domestic abuse are sadly not rare anymore, and the society’s patriarchal attitudes are to blame.
I didn’t know Noor personally. I grieved for her, like the whole nation did. But why were thoughts of her in particular still keeping me up at night? Perhaps it was the brutality of her murder. Zahir Jaffer mercilessly tortured and then beheaded her! It’s hard to wrap your mind around that kind of evil. But with this incident happening among the privileged, elite and well-educated circles of Islamabad, for many women including myself, even the semblance of safety has now been shattered. Noor’s murder has destroyed any illusion that misogyny is only rampant amongst the uneducated. No one can deny anymore that gender-based violence cuts across all socio-economic classes in Pakistan – whether it’s a rural village or the upper echelons of society. Pakistani women are scared; because what happened to Noor could have happened to any of us. And Pakistani women are livid, because the patriarchal society they live in enables this kind of behaviour and allows men to get away with so much. The country’s legal system has time and again failed to serve justice in these gender-based crimes. Consider that the first words out of the murderer Zahir’s mouth after his arrest were, “I am a US citizen”. No remorse, just words reeking of privilege and the underlying belief that he had impunity. And you know the scariest part? Noor’s murder would have been lost in the crime statistics, if not for her influential background and social status as the former diplomat’s daughter.
I truly hope that the outcry over this high-profile murder case becomes the impetus Pakistan needs to face up to its femicide crisis. Extensive law to counter this kind of violence is the need of the hour! In April of this year, a bill proposing stringent punitive measures against all forms of domestic violence was introduced to the parliament, but it came to a halt due to opposition and has not been approved yet. Now more than ever, it is imperative to renew calls for the Pakistan’s parliament to pass that landmark bill criminalizing domestic violence. One easy way you and I can help is by signing this petition: https://www.change.org/p/the-prime-minister-of-pakistan-pass-the-domestic-violence-bill-in-pakistan. Use your voice to create awareness. Support the allies and activists who are fighting for this cause. Share this petition with friends. It’s time to do whatever we can to put pressure on the country’s leadership to step up and work towards ending gender-based violence.
If we can take one thing from Noor’s tragedy, it should be the conviction that change is needed, and we need to be the igniters of that change. What the last few weeks pondering over these femicides has taught me is this: If we are not confronting toxic behaviour in our everyday life, we are complicit. Change starts at home. Hold the men in your lives accountable! I can remember incidents in the past where I felt uncomfortable with a sexist remark made at a social gathering, but I didn’t say anything in response, perhaps to avoid a confrontation. I now realize that every time we let someone get away with saying or doing something misogynistic, we are implicitly giving him or her permission to do it again – because we are normalizing that behaviour. The message we are sending is that the misogyny is okay. But it is definitely not okay, and people won’t realize that until they are called out on it. How many times did the people around Zahir Jaffer stay silent while he gradually sank into this person capable of murder? So many people must have enabled him, and they are all complicit.
I say ‘people’ and not men because women are also victims of internalized misogyny. Desi aunties making sweeping assumptions like “larki ne phassaya hoga” (“the girl must have trapped him”) hold their gender in contempt without even realizing it. Patriarchy is so ingrained in our society that sometimes it’s difficult to even identify it, much less shut it down.
If you have sons, and are raising the next generation of men, you have even more of an opportunity, and responsibility, to raise them right. Teach them to respect women and treat them as equal partners. Show them what accountability means. Don’t accept that boys have to be inherently aggressive. Call out any hostile or sexist behaviour.
Whether it’s in your family or your romantic relationships, or your workplace, it is so important to challenge any toxic patriarchy. This “boys will be boys” narrative needs to stop, and we all must do our part to banish it. Let’s do it consciously at the grassroots level, and push for higher accountability at the broader government level. So that one day, women can feel safe in their world.
Feeling safe. It’s such a basic need. I dream of the day women in Pakistan are allowed to feel that way.