The rape and murder of Noor Muqaddam, by a man from the same circle of rich friends, outraged Pakistan – and it highlighted the shocking levels of violence women there face.
In the days after her death, people demanded justice for Noor and an overhaul of the criminal justice system. The BBC’s Shumaila Jaffery in Islamabad watched the case unfold.
Warning: This story contains distressing details of violent crime.
On July 20 last year, a phone rang in a police station in the upscale F-7 neighbourhood in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. The caller, whose identity is a secret, informed the police that a crime had been committed in the area.
When police arrived at the scene, Noor Muqaddam, 27, was already dead.
According to police, Muqaddam had been held hostage for two days by a man she knew, Zahir Zakir Jaffer, the son of one of Pakistan’s wealthiest industrialist families.
She had pleaded for her freedom, the police investigation report revealed, and CCTV footage showed that she tried to escape at least twice. The chilling video showed her jumping from a window on the first floor but she was then dragged back inside the house, where she was tortured, raped, murdered, and finally beheaded.
Muqaddam’s “crime”, her killer told police, was refusing to marry him.
The terrible details of the crime reverberated around Pakistan. Women’s rights activists took to the streets, there were candlelit vigils, and hashtags including #JusticeForNoor and #EndFemicide trended on social media. Many women came forward and shared their own stories of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Several hundred kilometres from Islamabad, in the eastern city of Lahore, barrister Khadija Siddique lay awake last July after hearing about Noor Muqaddam’s murder.
“It was so much of a reality check and a flashback for me. Because I could have been in Noor’s place,” she told the BBC.
In 2016, Khadija Siddique was stabbed 23 times by her boyfriend on a busy road in Lahore, after the couple broke up. Her attacker was initially sentenced to seven years, but that term was later reduced to two years.
Then, in 2018, the Lahore High Court acquitted him, ruling that the courts could not rely solely on the statement of the victim. Pakistan’s Supreme Court later restored the sentence.
He was released from jail on July 17 last year, just three days before the murder of Noor Muqaddam’s.
Siddique was fortunate to have family support, and her case got media attention; many don’t. Her trial was fast-tracked. But in most cases of violent assault against women, she says, justice never comes.
“Lack of expertise and lack of proper training of investigating officers leads to faulty investigations. Crucial evidence is not collected, it’s usually discarded, or it is delayed to such an extent that it loses its evidential value in the court,” she said.
Though reliable data on crimes against women in Pakistan is not available, according to UN estimates, the conviction rate in such cases is between 1% and 2.5%, so it’s not hard to see why many victims choose to remain silent.
Those who go to trial can find themselves under attack: subjected to lengthy cross-examinations that usually don’t pertain to the offence but to the women’s supposed integrity.
“As soon as you start mudslinging at women, you talk about their past and relationships, they immediately back off,” Siddique says.
“Women fear character shaming, they fear victim-blaming, and these fears culminate into not reporting the violence that they usually suffer by the men they are related to or who they know.”
Pakistan ranks 153 out of 156 countries in the global gender equality index, despite efforts in recent years to introduce new laws to protect women and special courts to hear cases of gender-based violence.
But things are changing for the better, according to Nilofer Bakhtiyar, chairperson of the national commission on the status of women.
“These high-profile cases were always there, but now they’re being highlighted in the media,” she says. “The families of these victims are also very supportive. In the past, this was not the case.”
Bakhtiyar says that the public outcry over Noor Muqaddam’s murder was part of the change.
“There is an urgency to curb this kind of violence against women. And men, in particular men sitting in higher places, today are talking about it. And the policymakers don’t want to push it under the rug any more.”
Yet violence against women remains a very serious problem in Pakistan. A recent Human Rights Watch report estimated that about 1,000 women die in so-called “honour killings” every year. Activists believe that the misogynistic mindset is so deeply rooted in society that it will take years to bring any real change.
A month before Noor Muqaddam’s murder, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was accused of victim-blaming and encouraging misogyny when he suggested that increasing numbers of sex crimes in the country were partly due to women’s choice of clothing.
“If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on men, unless they are robots,” Khan said during an interview with the American TV network HBO.
His remarks angered women and sparked nationwide protests. A thread on Twitter asking survivors to share photos of their dresses, and stories of abuse became a top trend.
In his defence, some female parliamentarians from his PTI party said the question had been taken out of context, and that he should be judged by the measures his government is taking to empower and protect women.
But can Noor Muqaddam’s murder become a watershed moment for the women’s movement in Pakistan, and spare other families from the heartbreak her family has gone through?
“No one in Pakistan, no family should have to go through what we are going through,” her sister, who led the Justice for Noor campaign, told the press.
Siddique is skeptical.
“We have mastered the art of silence; women are made to believe that whatever happens to them is their own fault.
“Justice for Noor is a step forward, but we still have a long way to go.”