The venue inscribed on the birthday invitation was an orphanage in Islamabad. Walking down the entrance, I saw a stage fully decorated with the honouree's beautiful calligraphy and painting collection. The birthday girl's father, a man weighed down by loss yet resilient to the core, embraced me and thanked me for coming. Unfortunately, the birthday girl would not be joining us today.
Noor Mukadam was murdered a year and a half ago at age 27, and we were all present to celebrate her memory. Shaukat Mukadam, her father, told me that his daughter would come here every year to celebrate her birthday with the orphans. "She would have been here if she were alive," he murmured with a smile, his eyes glistening with unshed tears, glancing around the venue as if he felt her presence lingering among us.
Remembering the victim of a horrific murder that jolted the city was a small crowd of mere 10 to 15 people present in a two million-strong city. In our midst at Noor's birthday, the family of Sarah Inam was also present. Sarah was also brutally murdered in Islamabad, the capital city of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, just a few months after Noor Mukadam.
The city had barely recovered from the shock of one brutal act when it was forced to witness yet another heinous crime. The common denominators were the same: the murderers were men from privileged backgrounds. The kind of men I went to school with, worked alongside, or socialised with. Men who sadly believed it was okay to take someone's life.
The chilling reality of these incidents serves as a sobering reminder of the urgent need to address the deep-rooted issue of male privilege.
Male privilege is a prevalent and pervasive plague in Pakistan, rooted in our society's patriarchal structures, culture, and history. In the land of the pure, the concept of male privilege is an unwritten rule, deeply ingrained into the very fabric of our society. It is the systemic and often unacknowledged advantages, entitlements, and social power conferred upon men that are reinforced repeatedly through our elders, the media, social constructs, dramas, and movies.
This idea that men are superior to women and that their ego and status are 'supreme' casts its shadow over our homes, and almost every subsequent sphere of society. Even the slightest impingement triggers this fragile male ego leading to devastating consequences for women, such as workplace harassment, abuse at home, or in the case of Noor and Sarah — murder.
Male privilege lies at the heart of the femicide epidemic this country faces. This plague is evident even in polls; in a recent survey conducted by Ipsos, "85 per cent of Pakistanis agree that the main role of women in society is to be good mothers and wives". In comparison, the global average stands at 41pc.
In short, one can infer that an average Pakistani is twice as likely to discourage women from going to work, contributing to society, or finding purpose in their life if it comes in the way of being good mothers or wives. We are all party to this male privilege and have created an environment for it to persist.
An enabling environment
Our society's permissive context further exacerbates this male privilege, implicitly granting men the license to stare, grope, harass, rape, assault, and get away without facing the consequences. Wedded to our outdated loyalties, colonial-era constructs perpetuated by our societal norms have shielded men from being held accountable.
We shun the voices of our own when our traditional loyalties are questioned. We stop our women from protesting for their own rights, we encourage and expect our women to give up their careers for a suitable husband or discourage divorcing an abusive husband. We often turn a blind eye to harassment happening in front of us, diverting attention or dismissing it as someone else's problem instead of stopping the perpetrator in his tracks, and challenging the oppressive systems that allow such injustices to persist.
Fighting fatigue and resolve to change
This July will mark 730 days since evil struck our capital's heart and took Noor away. The fervour once shown with hundreds present at gatherings remembering her, has dwindled. The truth is we forget these things. Life takes over.
Inevitably, we will forget about the murders. We will forget about the horrific rape incident in F-9 Park. We have forgotten how a mother was raped before her children on the motorway. We forgot about the manifold incidents of violence against women before Noor’s and countless unknown cases that never even made it into the mainstream news. New stories replacing old incidents capture our attention. The carpet we use to hide our shortcomings is replaced with a newer, bigger carpet. All that is left are mourning families. The status quo persists, and the enthusiasm of our citizens and politicians wavers.
Change will require us to prioritise endurance to drive change over participation in a one-off protest. We need more than just thoughts and prayers — we need endurance over enthusiasm. We need the endurance to continue protesting, educating, crafting, and implementing laws that ensure women feel safe in their homes, workplaces, and the public sphere. It will require a series of interventions, experiments, continuous course correction, patience, and pain.
Educating the public and beginning conversations is a start and the upcoming seminar "Countering the Femicide Epidemic" organised by the National Commission on the Status of Women, in collaboration with Noor's family and the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad on June 1, is a time to indulge in the tough conversations we desperately need to have. The event is open to all members of civil society.
Noor Mukadam’s landmark case has exposed the entrenched male privilege in Pakistan. After a long trial in the lower court, which sentenced Zahir Jaffer to death — a verdict upheld by the high court — the nation now awaits the Supreme Court's verdict. Women across the country hope for a judgement that challenges the tenacious status quo and removes the cloud of fear that has arrested them.
On Noor's birthday, I noticed her beautiful and inspiring calligraphy and thought about who she could have become — a world-renowned calligrapher, another Edhi who could have helped thousands of orphans, or simply just another loving daughter, sister and friend. I also realised that no one is going to fix this for us — no messiah is coming. We all must lead and end this plague.
Change starts at home; it lies within you. It begins when we listen unconditionally, when we become curious, question, and renegotiate centuries-old loyalties. When we do not look away, but instead stop a harasser in the act, and when we let women decide how they want to live their life. Most importantly, it's when we tell our men that they are not entitled to women.
Header Illustration: A photo of Noor Mukadam. — Photo courtesy Leena Ghani Twitter