IN September last year, a woman was gang-raped on the side of the Lahore-Gujranwala motorway in front of her children. When Umar Sheikh, a high-ranking police official blamed the victim for driving alone at night, protests erupted all over the country. One of the women who participated was Noor Mukaddam.
She, like the other protesters, called for justice, an end to victim-blaming and chanted slogans calling for freedom. Like many others, she must have thought that this could be a watershed moment — and that finally, justice would make its way to the women of Pakistan.
The only thing that has changed since then is that Noor herself has been killed.
The violence with which she was taken is extraordinary, but what is required now is what has always been required: an understanding at the highest level of deep-seated patriarchy that fuels gender-based violence and perpetuates impunity, selective outrage and victim blaming. According to data collated by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, sourced from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, 90 per cent of women in Pakistan experience domestic violence, yet only 0.4pc of them take their cases to court. Even less make it to the news. It is easy to turn the page on an anonymous death of a woman, which is dispassionately reported in newspapers daily. There are no photographs, and rarely is the victim named or known.
Scrutiny, protests, and swift police action are no guarantees of justice.
But in Noor’s case, we know who she was, what she looked like; we know chilling details of her killing. We know her name. And it is impossible, and rightly so, to ignore what happened to her.
However, this does not mean it will be easier to get justice for Noor. There must be thousands like her, but they will rarely see collective national outrage come out on the streets for them. In Pakistan, like anywhere else, wealth, education and connections bring justice closer to reach. But for women, the normalisation of violence weighs heavily on the outcomes. Scrutiny, protests, and swift police action are no guarantees of justice, and Noor’s family still has an uphill battle before them.
Read: Noor of our nation
Just this week, lawyer Khadija Siddiqi has been asking why the man who stabbed her in the neck 23 times was released from jail having served just three-and-a-half years of his five-year sentence. “Technical remissions” have been cited, and she has been provided no protection for once again sharing the streets with the man who plunged a knife into her neck repeatedly in broad daylight. Khadija somehow survived, but it seems that getting meaningful accountability would be the true miracle.
Pakistan and its polity have a history of criticising and questioning women who have demanded an end to violence against them in any form. They have been accused by former presidents of using their tragedies to get asylum in richer countries. Aurat March organisers have been taken to court, endangered by false accusations of so-called blasphemy and vilified mercilessly by online troll armies. Prime Minister Imran Khan has twice held show of skin responsible for tantalising men into rape. He has since clarified that while he believes rape is only caused by rapists, his remarks were taken out of context (they weren’t). It was only last year that the demeaning and unscientific ‘two-finger’ virginity test was outlawed for rape victims. Noor had not even been buried when she was taunted on social media for having invited her own murder for being at Zahir Jaffer’s house.
Under the Constitution, the state has a responsibility to protect its people. And this responsibility goes beyond stopping a crime from happening. It also includes providing redressal and justice for victims. We don’t need another watershed moment. We need better laws, vigorous implementation, and accountability from the many watershed moment(s) we have lived through.
The state needs to focus on making greater efforts for protection of women and their rights. Effective and thorough investigations, swift prosecution through fair trials, abolishing informal and parallel legal systems that do not protect the rights of women and girls, proactively meeting their international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women are critical measures that the government must turn its attention to.
As for the women of Pakistan, our outrage is limitless but unfortunately, violence against women is not finite either. That is why the criminal justice system has to work, starting with effectively addressing the inequality, stereotypes and discrimination that create the permissive environment for such violence. Accessible, affordable, acceptable and quality mechanisms that deliver justice and redress on the victims’ terms must be built and upheld.
The cost of not doing so could mean another woman missing from yet another protest — with only her name on a placard.
The writer is the South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International.
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2021