The story of Noor Mukadam’s murder is gradually revealing all that is wrong with society
At around 10pm on the eve of Eid-al-Azha, when he had just settled down to read the Quran, Ambassador Shaukat Ali Mukadam received a call from the police and learnt that his life had been upended forever. His daughter Noor, who had been missing for two days, had been located on the first floor of an Islamabad townhouse, her head no longer attached to her body. At the time of her death, she was only 27.
Mohammad Ali Mukadam remembers hearing his father’s screams and running up the stairs in a state of panic.
“My dad couldn’t tell me what had happened,” he tells The News on Sunday. “At first, he said that Noor was in trouble. I said, ‘Yeah but she’s ok—she’s alive right?’ And it was when he said, ‘no she’s not’ that I also started screaming.
Sara Mukadam – Noor’s elder sister – did not learn about the murder until the following day. She had just been to Disneyland with her husband and son and had flown back to Dallas in the early morning. It was while she was sleeping off the journey that her husband, Farhan Mohiyuddin, received a series of phone calls.
“At first I was in denial,” says Farhan, who still sometimes refers to Noor in the present tense. “Then I started thinking to myself, how am I going to tell Sara? How am I going to wake her up and give her this news?”
“He couldn’t tell me,” says Sara Mukadam with tears in her eyes. “When he came into the room, he said that something had happened to Noor, and I just started screaming. I kept saying ‘Did she faint?’ because that was the worst thing that I could imagine having happened to her. And all the while I was thinking, ‘Why isn’t he nodding his head? Why isn’t he nodding his head to [did she] faint?’” Eventually, her husband put her on the phone with one of her cousins and it was from her that Sara learnt of her sister’s death. “I had lost total control,” says Farhan. “I just froze and didn’t know what else to do.”
Noor Mukadam was born in Amman, Jordan where her father was serving as charge d’affairs. In her short life, she had lived in Dallas, Seoul, Nur Sultan and Islamabad, though it was in Dublin that she had spent her happiest period. Friends remember her as artistic and socially conscious with an innocence that was almost child-like in nature. She liked collecting socks and playing with stuffed toys, and she used to bake a batch of brownies at least once a week. Iyla Hussain Ansari, who befriended her in Islamabad, describes her as indefatigable in her optimism.
“The worst thing about her was that she was very naïve. The best thing was that she always saw the best in people.” Sara Mukadam goes a step further. “I honestly think that she refused to believe that there was any evil in the world. I really don’t think she believed it existed.”
Friends speculate that it was this optimism that allowed her to become close to Zahir Jaffer, the prime suspect in the murder case and the man from whose residence her body was recovered.
“Noor was friends with a lot of people others couldn’t tolerate,” says Iyla Hussain Ansari. “We used to call them her charity friends and Zahir was definitely one of them.” Jaffer, an American citizen, is an heir to one of the largest fortunes in the country and it is perhaps for this reason that the case has become something of a cause célèbre. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the country has been gripped by an atmosphere of reckoning — though on precisely what, is much less clear. The circumstances surrounding the death of Noor Mukadam — a senior police officer described the crime scene as the most gruesome he’d ever witnessed — have exposed several fault lines in this stratified country.
For the first few days after the news broke, public sentiment was focused largely on the plight of women. A series of vigils were organised around the country to protest what activists are calling an epidemic of gender violence. According to a 2019 survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women, and government data shows that at least 28 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced some form of physical violence.
Khawar Mumtaz, who served as chairperson on the National Commission on the Status of Women from 2013 to 2019, describes this as a sign of a society in transition.
“Nowadays women are getting opportunities and have enough role models to see that they can come into their own,” she tells The News on Sunday. “They want to be educated, they want to work, and they want choice; and that choice means there is a total loss of control over women, who have typically been seen as property.”
Noor Mukadam herself was deeply concerned about these issues. A week after her death, a photograph surfaced of her protesting the rape of a Pakistani-French woman whose car had run out of fuel on the motorway near Lahore. In the picture, she is seen holding a placard that says, “Hang Them! Destroy Them! Humiliate Them! We won’t stay home so they can grow! No more!”
Her friend, Iyla Hussain Ansari speaks about her commitment to women’s rights. “Every long conversation with her included some time talking about how we can be better feminists and also what it means to be a Muslim feminist,” she says. “Whenever there was news of violence against a woman, she would be angry and upset.”
But if the initial response to the tragedy was one of concern for women, it has since dispersed in a number of different directions. One of the most salient divisions in this complex country is on the subject of faith and personal morality. Pakistan is a country where secularity and observance have always been in conflict and are deeply tied to concepts of class and prosperity. The hashtag ‘KhooniLiberals’ has been trending on and off for the past few weeks, as reactionary elements in the body politic have sought to blame the incident on the perceived Godlessness of the elite. A television host, Imran Riaz, published a problematic and disturbing video in which he speculated on the nature of Noor’s friendship with her murderer and suggested that by becoming close to a man who wasn’t in her family, she had transgressed the limits prescribed by Islam.
This is most troubling to Noor’s friends and relatives who remember her as a devout and conscientious Muslim. They say she made a habit of praying five times a day, fasted during Ramazan and had committed several passages of the Quran to memory. According to her mother, Kausar, when the family went to perform Hajj, Noor refused to take advantage of the amenities provided on account of her position as the daughter of a senior diplomat. “We were given this tent with a fridge and air-conditioning but she said, ‘no, Hajj is not about comfort but about enduring hardship.’”
In fact, they say, it was because of her religious beliefs that she felt she couldn’t accept Zahir’s proposal of marriage. Shafaq Hasnain – one of Noor’s closest friends – remembers meeting her in January for lunch and being told that she wanted to end her friendship with Zahir. “She felt that it couldn’t work out because she was such a strong believer, and he was an atheist who didn’t believe in anything.”
Two of Zahir’s acquaintances told The News on Sunday separately that he had been obsessively asking Noor’s friends if she was involved with someone else, though neither could say with confidence if this was the reason behind the murder.
In any event, what is more important now is the outcome of the trial. Under Section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code, the standard punishment for premeditated murder is retaliation in kind, which in this case translates to death by hanging. Then, there is also the matter of Jaffer’s parents, who are likely to be tried on the charge of abetment. Sources close to the investigation have said that while Noor was being held at the Jaffer’s family residence, they were in telephonic contact with their son and with servants. Instead of calling the police, however, they decided to send a team from a counselling and rehab centre called Therapy Works to control the situation.
The criminal justice system does not enjoy universal confidence in Pakistani society. It has been pointed out that the Jaffers do not lack for influence and connections.
Shaukat Ali Mukadam sees the murder of his daughter as a test case. “The rich and powerful think they can buy the law. We have to break this perception,” he says. “Justice is not only to be done but also seen to have been done.”
It is this pursuit of justice, and the hope that the murder will serve as the catalyst for a reformation of our society that is giving the Mukadam family the strength to keep fighting. In the end, however, even that may not be enough to bring them their peace. “My life is finished,” says Kausar Mukadam. “Every morning, I wake up in a state of fear and panic. It used to be famous about our family that we were laughing all the time — that’s finished forever. Birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations — everything is finished.”
The writer is a freelance journalist