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What do you see? A rich dead woman?

3 ways to talk about Noor Mukadam's murder

SAMAA | - Posted: Jul 26, 2021 | Last Updated: 2 months ago
Posted: Jul 26, 2021 | Last Updated: 2 months ago

A rendition of the Rorschach inkblot psychological test on a person's perceptions. Art: M. Obair/SAMAA Digital

People are giving convoluted explanations why Noor Mukadam was murdered and why this case is suddenly so significant. Allow me to categorise them into three major camps of dissuasion and denial:

  1. The WhatAboutIsts
  2. The She’s-to-Blamers
  3. The Anything-but-the-Home-ists

The WhatAboutIsts

The WhatAboutIsts are some of the loudest voices. They present the Dogmatic Contrarianism argument, which goes something like this:

Why is everyone talking about just this case? What about women in (Sahiwal, Sukkur, Swat)? What about women in poorer areas who are (raped, murdered, burnt alive)? No one cares when something happens to them just because they are poor.

The WhatAboutIsts argue that people pay attention to a crime if it happens only to a rich or powerful person. No one cares if it happens to someone poor or from a family no one has heard of.

In this argument, the legitimacy of Noor Mukadam’s homicide is undercut by the fact that the man accused of the murder and the victim both belong to influential families. People argue that had the victim not been the daughter of a former ambassador, this case would have never been given so much attention.

This is what such a flawed argument says: Don’t talk about the crime. Instead talk about why THIS crime and not THE OTHERS. You will see this argument made every time
a) a rich or powerful woman has been victimized or assaulted (Meesha Shafi), or
b) someone victimized or assaulted has become an influential woman (Malala Yousafzai, Mukhtaran).

This argument diverts attention from what happened: a woman was murdered.

'Survivor, activist, legend' Malala Yousafzai featured on Vogue's cover
Photo Courtesy: Vogue

The funny thing is that no one is actually making these rich-poor victim distinctions. In the minds of the WhatAboutIsts, however, it is a double standard that is sneakily determining what is considered worthy of public outrage in Pakistan. They do not realise that no one is picking one victim over the other. No one is saying that poor women who are raped or murdered should be ignored and rich women should be championed when they are raped and murdered.

There is a misconception about Power at the heart of this flawed argument. Power is fluid, it is not temporally fixed. A rich woman who is, say, a professor, will have power when she stands in front of her students in class at university. But when she leaves campus after dark, and hails a rickshaw or ride, to go home, she loses that power. She is just as vulnerable as any woman standing on a street corner at night. She is just as vulnerable to rape and murder.  

The people making the distinction between rich and poor victims are actually the WhatAboutIsts themselves. Had they cared so much about the murder, they would have focused on it, instead of casting doubt on those who do speak of it. This is the classic patriarchal bait-and-switch: muddy the waters from ‘why’ to ‘why this one’.

They attempt to dissuade people from discussing the crime altogether. Just because people in Gaza are dying, doesn’t stop us from talking about the people dying in Kashmir. There is room to discuss crimes against women from all backgrounds and many do. Yet the WhatAboutIsts are too lazy to do it themselves and instead reserve their vitriol and suspicions for anyone else trying to.

The She’s-to-Blamers

These people tend to come out of the woodwork when a man has been accused of assault, murder, harassment, violence. Their argument is:

Why are we blaming the man? Why isn’t anyone blaming the woman? Perhaps she dressed inappropriately, cheated on him, behaved contradictory to morals befitting the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? (Chris Rock once said about the OJ Simpson case: “I’m not saying he should have killed her. But I understand!”)

Some people on social media are accusing Noor Mukadam of being “unfaithful” to her murderer as the potential justification for the homicide. After all, they say, no one beheads anyone without a reason, right? Why would someone commit such a gruesome act, unless provoked? This way of thinking makes an excuse for the crime.

It is telling that any time people in power talk about violence against women they speculate:
Maybe it happened because she wanted to get rich and get asylum
Maybe she shouldn’t have gone out late at night
Maybe she shouldn’t have refused his marriage proposal
Maybe she shouldn’t have dressed in a Western manner

The argument is: Men are savages. They can’t control their sexual or violent impulses. They don’t have the brains to tell right from wrong. And even if they are, what’s the big deal? Boys will be boys, right?

motorway rape verdict

The onus is always on women, the women who bring it on themselves.
This is another great patriarchal trick: never focus on the act, distort the motive. It deliberately does this to avoid the notion that men are responsible for their actions. This argument has no answer for necrophilia or child rape.

We need to stop creating rationalizations for criminal behaviour. The motive behind an acid attack, rape, murder is irrelevant when we see how frequently these crimes are perpetrated and how infrequently the perpetrators are convicted. A social media user said it best: It terrifies me that every woman (myself included) is one man’s “bad day” away from becoming a hashtag. There’s an ugly reason behind why the rape conviction rate in Pakistan is only 0.3%.

And that is why Noor Mukadam’s case matters. It is a case that will decide whether those who deserve punishment will escape it or not.

SAMAA Digital

The Anything-but-the-Home-ists

These people are similar to the She’s-to-Blamers but they cast the net wider. They believe that violence is at the root of an externalized provocation and will blame anyone except those who played the biggest role in enabling criminal behavior: The family itself.

A few years ago, while researching extremist tendencies in children, I believed self-proclaimed experts who said extremists were created by the absence of family values and the presence of external influences (religious indoctrination to violence on TV).

As I dug deeper, however, I uncovered two critical reasons why a child becomes vulnerable to extremist ideologies. The first was Absentee Parentism, found mostly in fathers who were too busy with their jobs or other matters to pay attention to what their children were doing. The second was Shielding Protectionism, present mostly in mothers, who were too afraid to confront ugly tendencies in their children and swept them under the carpet. Both factors prevent interventions with children at a young age when such tendencies can be reversed.

In Noor Mukadam’s case we saw this at work. When news broke that the DC Islamabad said that the suspect’s parents were going to be arrested as well, many people began tweeting that they had nothing to do with the murder. They blamed Therapy Works for failing to notice the signs. While some blame is to be shared, are the warning signs not there to see for family and peers, who are far more exposed to a killer? This is exactly the same mistake we make when we blame sexual assault on factors other than the enabling environments created by the family.
The majority of sexual abuse cases occur within a household. Most domestic violence cases in Pakistan go unreported and have a low conviction rate. This is not because of a breakdown in the family system, but the outcome of an enabling environment generated by families, peers and friends, that allow such crimes to go unchecked.

Rawalpindi man arrested for harassing, blackmailing woman online
Artwork by SAMAA Digital

Who is a perfect victim?

As such arguments are made, let us ask deeper, uglier questions at the heart of these convolutions: What do we expect from victims? What is a victim for us? How do we decide who is a legitimate victim?
We have certain expectations from our victims:

  • They cannot be rich or wealthy
  • A true victim does not belong to privilege
  • Family or peers cannot be held to account
  • Other external factors are to blame
  • Their murderers are created in a silo
  • It is not a pattern, just a series of isolated incidents
  • Those assailing them are not entirely responsible
  • Something the victim had done must have led to it

I am refraining from describing the murder of Noor Mukadam as a “tragedy” for its meaning carries too strong a whiff of the inevitable. This homicide could have been prevented. And when you and I talk about a murder, we can just call the murderer for what they are.

Usman Zafar is a journalist and communications professional based in Islamabad @Zafarsmu

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Noor Mukadam murder case, Zahir Jaffer arrest, Therapy Works
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