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Outcry in Pakistan over beheading of former ambassador’s daughter

People attend a candlelight vigil in remembrance of Noor Mukadam, who was killed July 20 in Islamabad. (Sohail Shahzad/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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The name Noor Mukadam has ricocheted through Pakistani news and social media since the 27-year-old daughter of a former Pakistani diplomat was found beheaded at home in an upscale part of Islamabad, renewing attention on the country’s paltry record of addressing violence against women.

Police arrested suspect Zahir Zakir Jaffer at the site the night of the attack on July 20. Police on Saturday jailed his mother and father, reportedly a wealthy businessman, as well as two household staff members, who are accused of serving as accomplices and trying to hide evidence, according to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.

The shocking details of Mukadam’s killing — her beheaded body showed signs of torture and stabs — has stirred anger in Pakistan and diaspora communities, which have held vigils and rallied around her online.

Her death has also renewed calls for police and politicians to prioritize pursuing justice for victims like Mukadam, notably by strengthening the country’s limited domestic violence laws, the first of which was passed in 2013.

“Another day. Another woman brutally killed. Another hashtag. Another trauma. Another (likely) unsolved case. Another trigger. Another fear fest,” Meesha Shafi, a Pakistani actress and singer, wrote on Twitter after Mukadam’s death.

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While police acted swiftly in arresting a suspect, some have questioned whether, without Mukadam’s social capital as a former diplomat’s daughter in an upscale neighborhood, her plight would have reached the public’s radar.

“Noor’s horrific murder is a test for a system that too easily bends to power and influence,” columnist Fatima Bhutto, the niece and granddaughter of two former Pakistani prime ministers, wrote on Twitter. “But it must also be a test for us — imagine the number of men who inflict such brutality on women everyday without being seen, without being noticed, because the victims are poor & unknown.”

Pakistan ranked 164th out of 167 countries in Georgetown University’s Women, Peace, and Security Index in 2019, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Legislation to tighten protections for women against violence has frequently faced pushback from religious and community leaders in the socially conservative country, which is governed in part by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Recent efforts to pass a stronger domestic violence bill have faced resistance from Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, which advises the government and lawmakers.

In 2016, following the killing of social media star Qandeel Baloch by her brother, Pakistan’s Parliament passed a law closing a loophole concerning so-called honor killings, or the murder of females by family members for allegedly shameful acts. The law previously allowed the victim’s family to pardon the assailant.

Victims of gender-based violence face many other barriers to speaking out, said a spokesperson for Aurat March Lahore, a Pakistani organization campaigning for women’s rights, who requested to be anonymous to protect group members.

“The legal system is complicit in maintaining a culture of silence, in which criminal defamation laws are being weaponized against survivors who speak out against abuse,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Furthermore, legislative changes without an overhaul of the legal system to make it more gender-sensitive and survivor-centric, along with investment in shelters and welfare programs, will make no difference.”

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Jaffer, a dual Pakistani-U.S. citizen, was reportedly an acquaintance of Mukadam. The exact motive for and circumstances of his alleged attack remain unclear.

Jaffer had previously been deported from Britain for involvement in a rape and sexual harassment case, Pakistani police told Dawn.

Mukadam’s father, Shaukat Ali Mukadam, served as Pakistan’s ambassador to South Korea and Kazakhstan. The family also lived for a time in Dublin, where acquaintances fondly remembered and paid tribute to Mukadam after her death, the Irish Times reported.

On Tuesday, British actress Jameela Jamil, who is of Pakistani heritage, posted a story on Instagram about Mukadam’s killing after a fan inquired.

“I am disgusted to learn the details of what happened to Noor Mukadam,” she wrote. Jamil added “that this level of violence no longer surprises me considering the ongoing violence against women in Pakistan and India.” She urged “men in the public eye to speak out about this.”

Despite the uproar over Mukadam’s killing, journalist Arifa Noor, writing in Dawn, said she doubted that any major overhaul of police work and other protections for women would follow. Already, she said, there are questions about whether police collected sufficient evidence from the crime scene, which would be crucial in any subsequent trial.

“Individual cases can put state organisations under pressure and be seen as ‘test cases’ or ‘watershed moments’ but they may not prove sufficient to change the unspoken function of the police and how it is expected to perform — even in urban centres,” she wrote.

This report has been updated.