In Pakistan, woman’s brutal killing, beheading casts a harsh spotlight on gender-based violence

Noor Mukadam’s killing is the latest in a series of attacks on women in Pakistan, where such assaults have drawn protests as the country moves toward greater religious extremism.

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A women’s rights activist places a candle beside a poster with the pictures of Noor Mukadam, who was beheaded, during a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to her and other domestic violence victims in Islamabad, Pakistan.

A women’s rights activist places a candle beside a poster with the pictures of Noor Mukadam, who was beheaded, during a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to her and other domestic violence victims in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Anjum Naveed / AP

ISLAMABAD — Noor Mukadam’s last hours were filled with terror.

Beaten with brass knuckles, the 27-year-old jumped from a window but was dragged back, beaten again and finally beheaded.

A childhood friend has been charged with her killing.

The gruesome death in an upscale neighborhood of Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad is the latest in a series of attacks on women in Pakistan, where rights activists say gender-based assaults are on the rise as the country moves toward greater religious extremism.

Mukadam was the daughter of a diplomat. Her status as a member of the country’s elite has shone a spotlight on the growing violence against women in Pakistan, prominent rights activist Tahira Abdullah said.

But the majority of women who are victims of such violence are among the country’s poor and middle classes, and their deaths often aren’t reported or ignored.

“The epidemic of sexual crimes and violence against women in Pakistan is a silent epidemic,” Abdullah said.

A women’s rights activist places a candle beside a poster during a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to Noor Mukadam and other domestic violence victims in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Candles burn in tribute to Noor Mukadam and other domestic violence victims in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Anjum Naveed / AP

Pakistan’s Parliament recently declined to pass a bill that seeks to protect women from violence in the home, including attacks by a husband. Instead, it asked an Islamic ideology council to weigh in on the measure — a council that previously said it was OK for a husband to beat his wife.

Data collected from domestic violence hotlines across the country showed a 200% increase in domestic violence between January and March last year, according to a Human Rights Watch report this year. The numbers were even worse after March, when COVID-19 lockdowns began, according to the report.

In 2020, Pakistan was near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s global gender index, 153rd of 156 countries, ahead of only Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, which held the last spot despite billions of dollars spent and 20 years of international attention on gender issues.

Many of the attacks in Pakistan — estimated by human rights workers to number more than 1,000 a year — are “honor killings,” in which the killer is a brother, father or other male relative.

“The authorities have failed to establish adequate protection or accountability for abuses against women and girls, including so-called ‘honor killings’ and forced marriage,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Women’s rights activists rally in Lahore, Pakistan, to condemn violence against women.

Women’s rights activists rally in Lahore, Pakistan, to condemn violence against women.

K.M. Chaudary / AP

Rights groups have been critical of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, saying he panders to the religious right and excuses the perpetrators of attacks on women.

A former cricket star who has married three times, Khan once had a reputation as a womanizer but has embraced a conservative Islam. He keeps close ties with a cleric who blamed the coronavirus pandemic on “the wrongdoing of women.”

And he once appeared to blame women for attacks by men, saying, “if you raise temptation in society ... all these young guys have nowhere to go. It has consequences in the society.”

His information minister Fawad Chaudhry said Khan’s statements have been taken out of context and denied that violence against women is on the rise, without offering evidence.

“I think this perception is not really close to reality, that in Pakistan women are not safe or maybe that there’s a misogyny in practice in Pakistan,” Chaudhry said.

Yet one of Khan’s Cabinet ministers, Ali Amin Gandapur, told a rally of thousands of mostly male supporters he would “slap and slap” a female opposition leader.

Women’s rights activists place candles and flowers beside posters of Noor Mukadam.

Women’s rights activists place candles and flowers beside posters of Noor Mukadam.

Anjum Naveed / AP

Last September, a senior police officer blamed a woman who was ambushed and gang raped in front of her two children, saying she shouldn’t have been traveling at night and without a man.

Such remarks reflect an increase in ultraconservative, even extremist religious values in Pakistan, said Amir Rana of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies. The country has seen an explosion of religious organizations and religious political parties, many with extreme beliefs, said Rana, whose organization documents extremism in Pakistan.

Chaudhry said America shares responsibility for the role it played in the region in the 1980s. At that time, Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator, with the aid of the United States,used religious fervor to inspire Afghans to fight an invading Soviet Union. Many of those Afghans ended up in Pakistan as refugees.

“And, very conveniently now, the U.S. media and U.S. authorities ... blame everything on Pakistan and have left the region,” the information minister said.

Abdullah noted that Zia-ul Haq introduced Islamic laws that reduced women’s rights to inheritance, limited the value of their testimony in court and made reporting rape almost impossible by requiring four male witnesses.

In Mukadam’s killing, police have charged Zahir Jaffar, the son of a wealthy industrialist, with murder, with reports saying she was killed after spurning his marriage proposal.

The brutality of the assault and fear that his social status might see him be freed prompted protests and a social media campaign — #justicefornoor.

Women’s rights activists demonstrate in Lahore, Pakistan, to condemn violence against women.

Women’s rights activists demonstrate in Lahore, Pakistan, to condemn violence against women.

K.M. Chaudary / AP

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