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Ordinary Violence

Can international rights groups look beyond “honor killings”?

On the evening of July 20, in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, a young woman with long dark hair jumped in panic, screaming, from a second-floor balcony down to the ground and rushed to a small guardhouse in the corner of an enclosed compound. She made it in, screaming for help. But she did not get help. Instead, the guards watched as their boss came out of the main house himself. He came over to the guardhouse and dragged her back in. In the hours between then and when the police arrived on the scene, sometime after 8 p.m., the woman’s alleged assailant, Zahir Zakir Jaffer, tortured, stabbed, and killed her. That was still not enough for him: after she was dead, he proceeded to behead her.

The dead girl was twenty-seven-year-old Noor Mukadam. When Noor’s father, Shaukat Mukadam, who is related to my family, arrived at the scene, he saw the decapitated body of his daughter. Nothing in his many years as an ambassador in Pakistan’s foreign service could have prepared him for that. Jaffer, the scion of a powerful and prominent family, had killed and beheaded his beloved daughter. Prior to being apprehended by the police, the newspaper Dawn reported, Jaffer had also stabbed a staff member from Therapy Works, who was apparently on the scene to intervene. Therapy Works is a rehabilitation facility in Islamabad where Jaffer had undergone treatment and reportedly received certification to act as a counselor.

I did not know Noor Mukadam, but all of our grandparents were part of the same group of Bombay Muslims who migrated to Pakistan after the British divided the subcontinent. In the days since her passing, I have been a distant witness to the pain and anguish they are experiencing at the lack of answers and at the very real fear that justice for Noor’s death will be elusive. The longer the time that passes between the crime and the trial, the more opportunities there will be for the powerful tentacles of the Jaffer family to intimidate a witness, bribe another police officer, blackmail a judge. All of it is a matter of course when justice involves punishing the very powerful.

This time, however, things might be different. Noor Mukadam’s case has shaken Pakistan in a manner that other cases (and there are so many of them) have not. It could be the timing; she was killed on an evening during the feast of Eid al-Adha, when most Pakistanis were celebrating, women applying henna and getting their new outfits ready for the occasion, men busy preparing for the sacrificial rituals. Set against this backdrop, the heart-stopping details of a young woman’s fight for life seemed especially shocking.

In the wake of the killing of Noor, we confront the durable unity of patriarchy, even as feminists struggle to come together.

The mass revulsion at the killer may also have to do with citizens’ exhaustion at the impunity with which the children of entitled men commit crimes and destroy lives. If the daughter of an ex-ambassador was not safe in the country’s capital, then the millions of working women who set out every morning to earn a living can expect nothing better. Then there is the horrific contrast between killer and killed: the disheveled bearded Jaffer with greasy stringy hair who has been compared against the dewy-skinned luminescence of his victim. It is impossible not to want her to be alive and perhaps forgivable to wish him to be dead.

The intensity of the moral reckoning provoked by Noor’s case can be seen in the conversations on YouTube, Twitter, and other social media. As alleged friends and acquaintances of Noor have taken to the platforms to share their own stories of Jaffer’s terrible behavior in recent years, the public’s sympathies remain with Noor. This is a twist, because in cases past it has not taken long for a judgmental and moralizing mass audience to begin pointing fingers, walking down the familiar route of blaming the victim. This time, the crime has been discussed in parliament, and Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that he is personally following the developments in the case—even though parliament recently declined to pass a bill to protect women from domestic violence.

The international human rights community, the same one that avows feminist solidarity and spouts lyrical about the need to protect girls, will need to think more expansively about how to confront violence against women. While the Associated Press notes that some human rights groups have criticized Prime Minister Khan for pandering to religious groups and showing little concern about attacks against women, so far they have not focused on the killing of Noor. It appears as if all the intrepid white women who had sworn such authentic interest in the region as they went about the losing business of saving Afghan women are now otherwise occupied. Or it could be that the details of Noor’s death are not exotic or “other” enough to attract their attentions; there is no “honor” angle here, no culturally specific detail, that could be pinned implicitly on the natural savagery of brown folk. The killing of women by their husbands, boyfriends, or exes happens all the time in the United States. And yet this resemblance is not being used to construct an alliance between Pakistani and American women, both fed up with the brutality of patriarchy.

A cynic could conclude that honor killings, those culturally specific crimes marked as “different” rather than similar to all other cases of femicide, are better causes for the international feminist. They provide the sensationalism of contrast, the intrepid feminist against the culturally repressed and oppressed Muslim woman. It is this difference that creates the liberated white woman as a heroic character and the dead brown one as a hapless casualty.

For twenty years, crimes of domestic violence committed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region have helped provide moral cover for the international community’s continued presence there. At any other time, Noor’s death might have been entered into that account, an example of the inherently uncivilized nature of the brown man and a validation of imperial efforts to save brown women. But Noor was killed when the media spotlight was shifting; the massive withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan was underway, and the international community was busily following it. With the turn away from the region led by the U.S. withdrawal, there was no ready-made niche in which Western audiences could slot the macabre murder of a young Pakistani girl. With the United States leaving anyway, there is no sense in framing a death like this as evidence for the need of a Western presence, occupation, and war. The brown people, it appeared to have been decided, could now do to each other what they pleased.

There is still time to change things. What happened to Noor Mukadam can become one basis among many to highlight the durable unity of patriarchy around the world, even as feminists struggle to come together. If some semblance of a feminist collective can be gathered, women, white and brown, will be stronger for it, better able to demand justice for the many among them who have been brutalized and treated as expendable. In the meantime, Noor’s murderer has been imprisoned, pending trial, but he can apply for bail. The last I heard, he had pulled a Weinstein, insisting he was sick so that prison authorities were forced to take him to the hospital.