Analysis

Can Social Media Bring Justice for Women in Pakistan?

The killing of Noor Mukadam has galvanized an unprecedented online movement.

By , an independent journalist and recent graduate of modern South Asian studies from Oxford University.
Women’s rights activists protest the killing of Noor Mukadam.
Women’s rights activists protest the killing of Noor Mukadam in Lahore, Pakistan, on July 24. ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

The killing of a 27-year-old woman in Islamabad in July has sparked an unprecedented furor in Pakistan that hasn’t let up. Noor Mukadam was the daughter of a former diplomat and the man suspected of killing her, Zahir Jaffer, is the son of a business tycoon. Jaffer and his parents, who are accused of alleged involvement in covering up the crime, are in jail awaiting trial. The killing has stirred ongoing outrage on social media, where women—and many men, too—have found an outlet for their frustration with Pakistan’s systemic gender-based violence.

This month, Mukadam’s case was transferred to a special court for a speedy trial. New evidence against Jaffer and his family is surfacing nearly every day, including a police report underscoring that his parents were aware of the killing. Some of Mukadam’s friends organized a protest outside the Islamabad High Court last week to demand justice as the court weighed whether to grant Jaffer’s parents release on bail. Their petition was ultimately denied.

Meanwhile, Jaffer and his family are already facing a trial by social media, and online activists have made clear that an unfair legal outcome will not be tolerated. Mukadam’s killing has stirred a massive response among Pakistan’s civil society that could have ripple effects for women’s rights. In 2018, the #MeToo movement catalyzed some change in Pakistan, but defamation lawsuits against victims have stalled its progress. Mukadam’s case has galvanized a similar feminist movement, with a broader call for social justice.

The killing of a 27-year-old woman in Islamabad in July has sparked an unprecedented furor in Pakistan that hasn’t let up. Noor Mukadam was the daughter of a former diplomat and the man suspected of killing her, Zahir Jaffer, is the son of a business tycoon. Jaffer and his parents, who are accused of alleged involvement in covering up the crime, are in jail awaiting trial. The killing has stirred ongoing outrage on social media, where women—and many men, too—have found an outlet for their frustration with Pakistan’s systemic gender-based violence.

This month, Mukadam’s case was transferred to a special court for a speedy trial. New evidence against Jaffer and his family is surfacing nearly every day, including a police report underscoring that his parents were aware of the killing. Some of Mukadam’s friends organized a protest outside the Islamabad High Court last week to demand justice as the court weighed whether to grant Jaffer’s parents release on bail. Their petition was ultimately denied.

Meanwhile, Jaffer and his family are already facing a trial by social media, and online activists have made clear that an unfair legal outcome will not be tolerated. Mukadam’s killing has stirred a massive response among Pakistan’s civil society that could have ripple effects for women’s rights. In 2018, the #MeToo movement catalyzed some change in Pakistan, but defamation lawsuits against victims have stalled its progress. Mukadam’s case has galvanized a similar feminist movement, with a broader call for social justice.

Mukadam’s killing has lent visibility to other incidents of gender-based violence in Pakistan. Following the news of the killing on July 20, #justicefornoor quickly gained traction. A weeklong Instagram campaign organized by Zahra Haider, a feminist activist and a family friend of Mukadam, provided a platform for women to call out abuse they had faced at the hands of powerful men. Official accounts run by Mukadam’s family and their legal team now provide constant updates on the case.

To those who have joined in on social media, Mukadam’s killing seems to indicate that women aren’t safe anywhere in Pakistan. The case is distinct from many incidents of violence against Pakistani women in that it took place in an upscale neighborhood in the capital, with both perpetrator and victim coming from elite backgrounds. It was also particularly brutal: Mukadam was beheaded, and an autopsy confirmed she was raped and tortured before she died. Experts say both factors likely increased the momentum of the movement calling for justice.

Mukadam’s wealth and connections appear to have increased attention to her case. “It is not a rich man killing a poor woman. It is a rich man, with education, killing a daughter of a former diplomat,” said Nighat Dad, the founder of Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation. ”Mukadam’s death has initiated conversations in civil society and society at large.” Although law and order may prevail for an upper-class woman in Pakistan, women in other segments of society would rarely receive the same response, particularly in rural areas. It is telling that it took such a high-profile case to spark a broader conversation about class—and how it shapes perceptions about women’s safety.

Violence against women is endemic in Pakistan. In the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, the country ranks 153 out of 156 countries, and a recent Human Rights Watch report found that incidents of domestic violence increased by 200 percent last year, worsening after coronavirus lockdowns began in March. But many cases of sexual harassment and gender-based violence go unreported.

In July, Pakistan’s Senate passed a domestic violence bill to apply within Islamabad, defining domestic violence to include emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse. The bill would be a big step forward, but it is currently stuck in legal limbo. The legislation was rolled back when Babar Awan, an advisor to the prime minister on parliamentary affairs, sent it to the Council of Islamic Ideology for review. Some critics have argued the bill is a “conspiracy to destroy the institution of the family in Pakistan.”

Achieving justice in Pakistan remains a pipe dream for most survivors of gender-based violence.

One major factor in the lack of reporting abuse in Pakistan is the stigma associated with it. Many women who have experienced domestic violence feel scared to proceed with a report. Families sometimes reinforce this silence, and victim-blaming is common. This can be exacerbated by social class: Pakistani men from the elite class consider themselves above the law, Haider, Mukadam’s family friend, said. Power, status, and money can allow people to avoid the consequences of alleged crimes.

Achieving justice in Pakistan remains a pipe dream for most survivors of gender-based violence. The nongovernmental organization War Against Rape estimates less than 3 percent of sexual assault and rape cases result in a conviction. For those that do, it doesn’t always stick. In 2016, then-law student Khadija Siddiqi was stabbed by the son of an influential lawyer. Her attacker was convicted and released from prison before completing his five-year sentence. “There is a lack of accountability when the perpetrator belongs to the privileged class,” Siddiqi said.

Weeks after Mukadam’s killing, people are nonetheless still posting statements of solidarity, promising to continue the fight for justice and to “stand against the voices that want to silence us.” For survivors like Siddiqi, such online support is empowering. Even as she exhausted her legal avenues against her attacker, she said seeing others standing up for her online made her feel seen and heard. When Siddiqi’s attacker was released, public anger stirred online before she even made a public statement. Likewise, Haider said the masses have “humanized and internalized” what happened to Mukadam, rallying around her.

Mukadam’s killing has stirred an online revolution, and Pakistan’s political leadership are paying attention, as shown by the recent case of TikTok influencer Ayesha Akram. In August, Akram was sexually harassed by a crowd of hundreds of men while filming at a public park in Lahore, Pakistan. The assault was captured on video, and people quickly responded on social media. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned what happened to Akram, saying he was “ashamed and pained.”

However, even as digital platforms draw attention to cases of gender-based violence, progress can feel ephemeral. The lack of political will is evident, with senior Pakistani officials more concerned about global public relations than working to stop violent crime against women. Although authorities have made 104 arrests in Akram’s case, 98 suspects were released due to a lack of evidence. Dad, the digital rights activist, said officials now know how to navigate online pressure and quell the public. “They lodge the first information report, silencing the public, but laws still don’t get implemented at the structural level. There is a lot of performative political behavior,” she said.

Internet outrage over Mukadam’s killing ultimately reveals the gaps in Pakistan’s justice system and systemic patterns of oppression against women: an ineffective police force, limited laws against domestic violence, and a lack of action from senior officials. Moreover, justice may prevail for Mukadam and her family. But some activists are skeptical about whether it will affect broader change for women throughout Pakistan. Not everyone has the means or the supportive network to mount a successful case. “Many of these cases end up in a compromise, which doesn’t act as a deterring factor in society,” Siddiqi said.

The response to the crime has nevertheless fostered a sense of community among women that did not exist before, setting the tone for a battle against the deep-rooted problem of sexual violence in Pakistan. It has clearly captured the attention of government officials. Transformative change can follow if they translate this momentum into policy.

Hajira Maryam is an independent journalist and recent graduate of modern South Asian studies from Oxford University. Her work focuses on South Asia and Turkey. Twitter: @hajiramirza

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