Who killed Sarah Shahnawaz?

I’m advocating here for something very ordinary — to take the worst possible fallen woman this society hates to the core, and refuse to believe she deserves harm.
Published October 4, 2022

If human phenomenon is to be believed, you’ve already forgotten about Sarah Shahnawaz.

If you are one of the optimists and want to keep her memory alive, you may have a Facebook post in her name.

If you are like me, and academically observe intimate partner violence, you know this will happen again — the forgetters and those who remember doing equal amounts for a very stone-cold Sarah Shahnawaz, who in my mind is always holding a book and gleefully smiling.

Every woman I knew suffered a tiny death when Noor Mukadam was murdered in the quiet suburbs of Islamabad in July last year. I walked the streets of Islamabad and wrote about how the women who usually don’t come out for public support are finally unabashed in their anger. I wrote, “the question assumes that #JusticeForNoor will get Noor Mukadam justice.”

A hashtag is a hashtag.

There was terror in every woman after Noor was found murdered as failed attempts of escape flooded our timelines.

Almost every woman has either courted a violent partner, married one or has been the sister or the daughter or niece of one who could potentially kill a woman with a dumbbell and lower her in a bathtub and then have the audacity to cite self-defence. That terror surfaces in our fatigued kintsugi-hearts yet again this month.

Sarah Shahnawaz did not end up dead just because she was the third wife of someone who liked his women dangerously obedient. She ended up dead because she was socialised to be dangerously obedient well before she was his wife.

We are all Sarah.

Now we say cheers to the ones we lost, but in our inebriated state, we must also say cheers to these other murderers of Sarah, that were not necessarily present at the crime scene in Bani Gala, but should be put under trial, nonetheless.

Some killings happen before the murders.

Divorce Stigma

I maintain that a divorced woman has dodged a bullet, but for popular culture, a divorced woman is someone her mother should have made more flexible to accommodate injustices of all kinds. As if a human life is dough, and marriage the flaming tandoor.

A divorced man, similarly, gets the social commentary of his wife being too rigid, too sensitive, too easily burned out to pass the slightest coal walk loyalty tests.

Divorce stigma, both ways, emboldens violent men while weakening women’s ability to speak up against it.

Honour code

Be damned if you speak up, be dead if you don’t.

Most women who speak up are shamed with such vicious labels that it’s no wonder that they are better off using silence as a survival tactic. Shame, as we know, benefits only those who already hold power.

Batameez, nakcharee, beghairat, behaya if she speaks up; bechari if she doesn’t. Between extreme hate and extreme pity, women are horizontal corpses and vertical corpses.

The honour code is outdated, that we can argue, but there can be no argument about the fact that the ghairat brigade of sadistic men and women run this arsonist racket that cloaks the poison of most Pakistani marriages.

The joint family system

Everyone will be at each other’s throat in a family, until the newest wed bahu comes and unites everyone against her — the foreign body. Families will spend disproportionate amounts of time to beat the woman down, talking about where she fails colossally and mildly.

The rich may not burn their bahus by pouring gasoline, but they can use the machinery of relatives, house help and gym accessories to ensure stove burnings are not even necessary. Anger can only flow one way.

The newbie woman has to win over the trust of the status quo, often the thankuranins of Bollywood, the fierce father figures, the quick to be offended in-laws.

Mistakes are not always forgiven with a slap on the wrist. A lot of families believe that their angry sons are just men waiting for someone to out-beast them by magical submission, love or both. If their son is still angry, the woman failed.

Women cannot outdo eras of inertia where men believe they are mightier than them. That is a spiritual bankruptcy our society must accept and then do away with, if it is to claim any respect.

The dry eggs theory

You see an independent young woman in her early thirties, and you will instantly look past her humanity, her personality, her character and her achievements all the way down to what’s in her ovaries — tell her it’s about time she settles down and has children or her time will be up.

I can’t wait for time to be up for sexism.

There are men in our country who have no business breeding or being parents, yet no one looks at them critically or holds them accountable.

Parenting is not mothering. Unstable spouses make motherhood a nightmare for women, and children’s early education a travesty. Yet all we want to do is get women pregnant sooner, often and much without offering her a safe place to raise the eggs after they hatch — financially, psychologically, cerebrally and socially.

It is this very sense of urgency that does away with important due diligence processes where the men’s family and the men must be put to character tests. Processes that could pick out a serial killer from a good man are left out in the interest of hatchlings.

The seed of doubt

When women are not believed — when they speak up against authority, or when they sign a legal document — they then tend to self-censor and self-doubt.

When women show off their bruises, they are crying wolf, or they are told to look at the brighter side or to stay muzzled for the kids. With half-testimony, it is the very essence of personhood that is challenged here. They cannot believe themselves when they feel unsafe, unwelcome or unable to breathe. This makes them stay, when their instinct is to run.

Both Noor Muqadam and Sarah Shahnawaz held a great deal of elite privilege, but that was not enough to protect them from self-doubt that takes a victim gradually into the dark dingy Stockholm’s Syndrome room — where men that raise dumbbells, knives and guns and can never do harm — stripping them of all agency they may have received in their education.

Mean men rule through potential fear, not fear itself, and before time, women don’t want to leave. Both Sarah and Noor, even having passed into the dead realm, had doubters of their story. People still wondered what they were doing there with a dangerous man? What did she do to make him angry? There are two sides of every story; what’s his?

His story is his arrogance in the fact that no one faces the music in Pakistan for domestic violence.

Men’s comfortable silence

The men who have spoken up in Pakistani society against intimate partner violence are so few, you could hold a convention of these men in a local Islamabad café.

Unless their mothers or sisters have endured it and turned to them for help, they have never truly experienced being on the other side of the honour code. And even that isn’t enough at times. Our culture prides itself in asking God for better naseeb for girls. What most of them mean with this prayer is that their women get a man who hits lightly and cheats only sometimes — pain, just enough to bare.

Women never get a prayer for limitless abundance of joy when they are married. What they get is potential good luck — as if there is more certainty that the girl will return to her family home in a body bag, brain dead, or just resigned with their life.

Men need to street agitate against domestic violence, call out their brothers-in-laws, their friends, cousins, their golf buddies, even their fathers, the same way they anger when they see political corruption, then maybe we will see change. Good luck with that.

Normalised serial marriages

Being someone’s third wife in a society where men and women have equality is not suspect, but in ours, where 9 out of 10 women have or will face domestic violence, this is suspect.

When Sarah’s husband asked for her hand in marriage, he had two wives before. It was irrelevant if they were divorced or still wed because society allows a man to have four women without any accountability and little introspection into the failure of their previous relationships.

The perfect victim

Too often, women who are victims are presented to us as demure and sweet and innocent. This is the worst thing for other victims. It makes it seem like they are some blunt object for whom deaths, abductions, assaults, and forced sexual torture are uneventful.

No woman deserves the indignity of harm.

A woman can be traded for dowry, even paraded, and objectified in the chai-trolley culture, chosen in a lineup, swiped right on, negotiated to settle a feud, been beautiful enough to possess, or just a plain Jane — she STILL should not be treated poorly by those who have social power over her.

Girls have tried to leave abusive relationships, only to be sent back into the jaws of death because some success of the man gives him credibility, or some struggle of the man makes people feel sorry for him. Everything’s greater than her well-being.

I’m advocating here for something very ordinary — to take the worst possible fallen woman this society hates to the core, and refuse to believe she deserves harm.

High pain tolerance

From birth, girls are told they need to stop wincing — how else will they endure periods, marriage, childbirth. As if there are medals for unnecessary pain. Pain with a biological cause makes all the sense, but who made it okay to endure insults and disrespect as a casual outcome of heteronormative relationships?

In the survival manual woman are given at rukhsati, they are ordained to never come back to their father’s homes unless they are dead. This includes the usual build up to death — shoves and kicks and slaps and backslaps.

If not tacitly spelled out to women to endure abuse, they must have learned it from ostracisation of women who are rebels, or from literature, or from our ghastly men’s locker room talk. When women weigh their options, belonging to a man is better than being subjected a few hundred’s filthy mouths.

Women think they are enduring pain with no apparent gain will reward them with something meaningful, but in fact, its just a form of extreme self-harm to live in a hostile home. No spirituality allows for self-harm.

Martyr in reverse

It was Merilyn French who called this violence a war against women. The hate that men have for women is so animalistic that it tends to justify the crime, as if the victim is forsaken to the anger and power of men.

Said another way, it’s the crime that justifies the punishment the victim endures. It makes for a good story that the martyr has given herself away to the hell-like punishment, therefore let her keep feeding the fire of men’s ranging anger.

In Pakistan, according to WHO, more than half of the women who suffer intimate partner violence don’t speak up or report it, because they don’t consider it a crime against the state. Women normalise it to be a business-as-usual in matters-of-the-home — instead they work harder to appease as a trauma response.

The same report says that about 80 per cent of the violence is perpetrated by the husband, who think they were justified in striking their wives. Let that sink in. The delusion is more harmful than the crime itself.