Content warning: mentions of violence, sexual assault, and rape
The horrifying murder of Noor Mukadam in July 2021 was shocking to many in Pakistan. The 27-year old was tortured, murdered, and beheaded by her acquaintance, Zahir Jaffer. Noor was the daughter of a former Pakistani diplomat, which was a large reason why the case received publicity and attracted demands for justice to be served. Zahir was later arrested at his home and confessed to the murder. Zahir’s parents, along with domestic workers in the house, were also arrested for knowing about the incident and failing to inform the police.
In another disturbing case, on August 14th, 2021, a woman named Ayesha Ikram was brutally harassed and groped at an independence day event by hundreds of men. Unfortunately, these two cases of harassment and violence against Pakistani women are neither the first nor last in the ever-increasing number of reports. While violence against women is certainly not a new phenomenon, only recently has media attention been brought to these issues.
The Severity of the Problem
Domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape, harassment, gender-based killings, early marriages, and forced marriages are among the many horrifying acts many women are subject to. Data reveals that 24.5% of women in Pakistan experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. In 2017, Pakistan was also ranked only 133rd out of 189 in the Global Gender Inequality Index. As well, instances of violence often go unreported which makes it difficult to accurately determine the number of cases.
While Pakistan has many laws and policies in place to protect women, they are not effectively implemented. For instance, measures to protect women include the Domestic Violence Bill, the Sexual Harassment Against Women Bill, the Workplace Harassment Bill, and the Violence Against Women Act. However, despite these legal frameworks being in place, only 1-2.5 percent of perpetrators of violence against women are actually convicted. As well, many women are not provided with resources to seek help if they have been a victim of violence of any sort.
Not even children are safe from these horrifying ordeals, as many cases include violence against children. One such case was that of seven-year-old Zainab Ansari, who was was raped and killed, with her body dumped near her home. It came to light after the perpetrator’s arrest that he had done this with six other girls in the past.
Patriarchal Society in Pakistan
This violence is largely due to the structuring of Pakistani society that enables men to perpetrate violence against women. In the country’s patriarchal society, women are considered lesser than men, and a woman’s behavior and actions reflect greatly on the respect of the family. It is ingrained in the minds of many women that they must always work to protect that familial honor, and that if that honor is ever betrayed, it can never be regained. The origins of this patriarchal society span back generations. It has been embedded in the culture for decades through cultural and traditional practices.
While men are often the perpetrators, their honor does not get tarnished due to their actions. On the other hand, a woman’s honor and dignity are tarnished when she becomes a victim, and because of this, women are discouraged and often not allowed by their families to report their perpetrators.
As honor and respect are very important in Pakistani culture, honor killings are quite common, with some willing to kill in their attempts to protect these values. Things that constitute not upholding honor include anything that society generally disapproves of such as marrying someone who your family does not approve of, having a career that is not considered honorable or generally making choices that are not what “honorable” or “respectable” women would make.
While legally honor killings carry a death sentence, this has not deterred them from occurring, and many who commit these crimes often go unpunished. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report showed that around 1,000 cases of honor killings occur in Pakistan every year. An example includes Qandeel Baloch, a social media influencer, who was killed by her brother once he found out that she posted videos of herself online. He believed that she was ruining their family’s reputation, and thus she should die.
Another large part of the problem is how ingrained and normalised violence towards women is. Sadly, many women in the country, particularly in rural areas, have accepted this patriarchal structure as their fate, and they often do not object to any inequality they face. This is due to them fearing backlash or threats of violence if they speak up. While media reports spark outrage among some, the attention dies down and often no steps are taken to seek justice or ensure similar incidents do not occur in the future. For the majority of cases where there is no media attention, it is usually swept under the rug. Cases that are reported and taken to court often do not see justice for long periods of time. Also, women’s testimonies are often not given significance in court, and most women require a male to act as a character witness in many legal cases, including rape.
Change on the Horizon
Despite high levels of violence against women, positive actions have been taken to protect women and victims. In 2016, a bill was passed that no longer allows perpetrators to escape punishment even if the victim’s family forgives them. Previously, if the victim’s family pardoned the perpetrator, they could walk free.
As well, increased media attention, especially on social media, has brought many more cases to light and has the potential to make it more likely that victims get justice. Women’s marches have also taken place across the country in recent years, demanding that the government better address the issues that women face, such as domestic violence, harassment, and gender-based injustices.
Ultimately, the Pakistani state has failed to protect women and continues to allow perpetrators to walk free. While many problems are not acknowledged, change has been slow and gradual. If a rejection of the patriarchy does not happen, many women will continue to be victims of horrific incidents.