It was a day of anger. Women were angry. And men were to bear witness.
This was a day different from all the other days. Usually, men are angry, women stand down. But on that day, when we staged a sit-in at the #JusticeForNoor protest in Islamabad; a Sunday — a day when most people in the capital stay home with their families, now there is a dark shadow cast on the word family itself. Yet, this seemed like a new family; these women who had come together for a cause.
I stood in an enclosure roped in by volunteers who wouldn’t let anyone in except women and trans people. A speaker at the protest said: This is our space and while we applaud the men who have shown up in solidarity, today we ask them to stand back and stay quiet.
We were also told that the district officer had not permitted us to march beyond the sit-in at the press club, but we insisted we must march to the point closest to our parliament. We were taxpayers and we had demands — it was a simple case of wanting representation and being heard.
We walked from the press club to the famous D-Chowk, one foot after another. In front, a woman wearing two-inch platform heels walked too, finding it harder than the rest of us in traditional khussas, but walking nonetheless in the same formation, her short hair clumped together from the sweat. It was a scorching afternoon and the sun beat down on us at about half boiling point. Inside us all, there was a slight thaw from the numbness we all felt over the last few days when we received news of 27-year-old Noor’s beheading — a violent murder, but an intent all too common. A man thought he needed to show a woman her place, and things got out of hand.
These streets belong to all of us, they are not men’s property — a young woman yelled into a crackling microphone. She stood atop a pickup with a banner honouring the three recently slain women at the hands of the men. Her voice was shrill, from screaming azadi slogans, and from just being a woman. We need a base voice in the rally, I said to my friend who was also a speaker. She smiled back from behind her Covid mask. At that time, humour felt like resistance.
Behind me, young girls raised a poster over their heads that read — raise better men. Almost all of us had deep sunset orange henna on our hands, intricately applied. The day Noor was murdered was the day we were all supposed to celebrate Eidul Azha and be merry. We were supposed to make offerings; not be an offering.
I was marching somewhere in the middle of the crowd. Some women had dyed their hair blue, pink, and silver — it’s in vogue. Girls were wearing sleeveless, there were women in niqabs and there were women who were dupatta-clad, some women were demure, others boisterous, all focused on one single motive — mourning.
We walked, we chanted shame-shame-shame, and we walked some more.
When we turned onto the eight-lane Jinnah Avenue, we grew wide like a river that meets an ocean, in front of us was Constitution Avenue. The symbolism was unmistakable. Our founding father and his sister side-by-side in politics gave Pakistan a visual blueprint of how to behave, and our constitution, guaranteeing our protection and our equality. Our founding father died a year after the nation’s birth, his sister suspiciously dead not long after.
In Pakistan, women’s Constitutional rights are guaranteed, but are generally out-claused by other matters that are more important to the country than 51% of its population. Still we walked, onwards. To our right was commercial area and on our left were the banks that help roll out loans to enable the commercialism — all of this is mostly for men. We marched between the two, daring to ask, daring to name our murderers, daring to be soft, daring to be hard and to be shell-shocked; one more loudspeaker chant: give patriarchy one last push to its final end!
I chanted dry-mouthed, voice grainy. Maybe for us women, pushing patriarchy down may require much more than a nudge. I was parched and asked a friend to buy me some from water from a street hawker. The water was like hot soup. I thought of blood; blood is drawn out of women, much like hot soup. I’ve become morbid. Dark thoughts are a consequence of knowing too much. It is also a consequence of choosing not to cope by ignoring the problems our society coughs up again and again — violence against women, domestic violence, victim-blaming, and the well-funded war on women.
Call the gender wars what you may, but the blood must remain within our skins — no need to bleed us out because of minor discomfort to a moral code like honour. Feel dishonour, but please do not kill for it. Someone recognised their friend and rushed to them for a hug; they trembled and held each other tight while we marched on around their little friendship island. I am so glad you had the courage to show up, she told her friend.
We were promised that Noor’s friend was to speak, but she couldn’t. She was overcome by the protest and by the trauma it unleashed. I would be too. We had heard witness testimony earlier of a sister of a slain woman. She spoke about her nieces witnessing the crime. She spoke of delayed justice. She spoke of evidence tampering. She spoke of death. Her voice didn’t rattle, she had recounted it over and over again, but the rest of us shuddered and cried over the relatability of it — the familiar feeling of not being believed. Of getting silenced. Every story began with silencing, and every story was un-silenced because of social media’s ability to garner support for the underdog.
We finally sat down on the road to the parliament — the road blazing hot. This was it. This is where we say goodbye to Noor, but not to our need to bring her up every day of our lives; in memory, in words, and in a very cautious life for our daughters.
Why do we wait for a hashtag to get justice? The last speaker asked us. We nodded. The question assumes that #JusticeForNoor will get Noor Mukadam justice.
When we slowly walked back home from D-Chowk, banners in toe, the birdsongs from the trees along the well-heeled parts of Islamabad were louder than usual. I gathered some wildflowers along the roads leading back to my home. They now sit blooming in an earthen vase near a poster from the protest. They are also loud.