'Women have to keep themselves safe because no one else will': When will Pakistan address its femicide problem?
More than one month has passed since the horrific murder of 27-year-old Noor Mukadam in Islamabad, Pakistan, while it has been just over a year since the motorway rape case where a young mother was raped when her car broke down. Between the two incidents – both of which were widely covered by the media – countless incidents of gender-based violence and assault have been reported, but for Pakistani women, nothing has changed despite the media outcry.
It’s also been a month since proceedings against the murderer Zahir Jaffer have been going on but despite the media coverage around it and the calls for action, neither Jaffer nor anyone else complicit in the murder has faced any repercussions.
|Women rights activists hold placards during a protest rally in Islamabad against the brutal killing of Noor Mukadam, the daughter of a former Pakistani diplomat who was found murdered at a house in Pakistan's capital on July 20 [Getty]|
What has happened over not just the last month, but increasingly over the last year or so, is equivalent to the slow suffocation of women and minorities in Pakistan, as increasing cases of gender-based violence have led to a femicide crisis in the country.
Beyond just the lack of legal action against the perpetrators, the crisis has had much larger social and psychological implications for women across the country.
“They [the perpetrators] are becoming more brazen because they believe consequences won’t be dealt out as it is the women who are shamed instead"
Sabah Bano Malik, a multimedia journalist and activist believes that the lack of action taken by authorities is possibly the reason such cases are becoming more common. “They [the perpetrators] are becoming more brazen because they believe consequences won’t be dealt out as it is the women who are shamed instead,” she says.
Malik also believes a large part of the victim-shaming narrative comes from the media as well, blaming the way media outlets often cover trauma and violence in sensationalised ways.
On 14 August, when a woman was assaulted at Minar-e-Pakistan during Independence Day celebrations, media organisations and social media users were quick to bring up the fact that the victim was a famous influencer on Tik Tok, and had previously posted videos they found “vulgar”, thus enough to justify her assault.
Beyond just the harmful victim-blaming, the young woman was then interviewed on national television by two male hosts, one of whom kept touching her head and sitting very close to her.
“Why wasn’t she interviewed by a woman?” asks Mehar Khursheed, the Media Coordinator at the Sindh Health Department. Khursheed has previously worked in digital advocacy, training journalists on media sensitivity and reporting. She points out that the lack of diverse voices in the media leaves no incentive for media reporting to be sensitive because so much of it is dominated by cis-men, who are not impacted by such incidents and the threat they pose the same way.
"Social media users were quick to bring up the fact that the victim was a famous influencer on Tik Tok, and had previously posted videos they found 'vulgar', thus enough to justify her assault"
“The way in which we consume trauma in our media is shocking, it’s almost as if readers here enjoy reading about trauma and violence,” Malik adds, adding that her own job as a journalist and the safety it accorded came under question in her own household.
Despite growing up in a privileged household where Malik shares public mobility was never restricted in the same way many women in the country face, she says that the rise in cases of gender-based violence made her father question the risks of her job and that her mother has actually been accompanying her while she is out reporting on the field.
Malik isn’t the only one facing new restrictions, and whether they come from family, friends or are self-imposed, Pakistani women and minority communities are living under increasing psychological pressures to keep themselves safe because no one else will.
It’s often easy for out of context viewers to point out such behaviours as overprotective or questioning why women are the ones who have to bear the brunt of restrictions while those who endanger them roam free. But in the absence of systemic change, finding safety in any way they can has become second nature to Pakistani women.
"Pakistani women and minority communities are living under increasing psychological pressures to keep themselves safe because no one else will"
Khursheed points to pandemic restrictions that dampen physical gatherings, and overall exhaustion with feminist organisers and activists on how social media noise asking for change seems to have lessened. “The women that I see around me and follow online, they’re all still really passionate but there’s Covid and we can’t sit with each other and grieve with each other without this extra pandemic stress and it's making all of us a little wary. I can’t think of anyone who’s doing well, women or men who are allies,” she adds.
Despite the high-pressure environment that many activists are working in, the work they are doing hasn’t stopped. Organisations like Aurat Azadi March have been organising to hold vigils and protesting in efforts to create space for women to grieve, process and demand change.
But the change they are asking for goes far deeper than doling out capital punishment to perpetrators, as many officials have called for in the aftermath of incidents of violence and assault.
Both Malik and Khursheed point to the need for a systemic change that starts from the very patriarchal mindset rooted deep within social norms. Whether it be academic figures like Professor Nida Kirmani or political workers like Ismat Shahjahan, there are women doing the work that is needed across all fields – and yet it is these entrenched social beliefs and norms that counter the impact of that work and prevent it from spreading to the masses. It’s the same social divides that prevent every case of gender-based violence in the country from garnering the same kind of rage and demands for justice.
"Imagine the number of men who inflict such brutality on women every day without being seen, without being noticed, because the victims are poor and unknown"
“Noor's horrific murder is a test for a system that too easily bends to power and influence. But it must also be a test for us – imagine the number of men who inflict such brutality on women every day without being seen, without being noticed, because the victims are poor and unknown,” says writer Fatima Bhutto.
But what Bhutto says will continue to remain true until change comes from those in power. Khursheed points out that this much-needed change needs to be personal, political and social all at the same time.
No laws will matter until citizens can trust that those laws will be implemented and their rights will be protected and for that, we need a larger push against mindsets that support victim-blaming and categorising women into a very restrictive definition of what it means to be a ‘good woman.’
“It’s not just political representation that needs greater gender diversity and ethnic representation, it's also time we look at the way gender roles are represented and enforced within our daily lives and households as well,” says the media coordinator and activist.
Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist with bylines in VICE, HUCK, Guardian amongst others. She has experience writing on minority politics, activism, and gender issues. She is also the founder of the Pakistani community platform, Perspectives Magazine
Follow her on Twitter @anmolirfan22