Zahir Jaffer murder trial: A case of not comprehending the word “No”

“Women who accuse men, particularly powerful men, of harassment are often confronted with the reality of the men’s sense that they are more important than women, as a group.”

Anita Hill, Speaking Truth to Power.

On a more than a usually muggy night of July this year, as the entire country prepared for the upcoming eid festivities on the morrow, one innocent soul amongst the 7 billion populating the globe breathed her last in a manner that puts to shame even the wildest imaginings of Voltaire as he penned Candide. As she lay lifeless, her sundered form a manifestation of her soul painfully stripped from her body, her family’s nightmare had just begun.

As is so often the case in such incidents, a trial in the court of public opinion began even before the police investigation started, the public, akin to vultures, sustained by tiny morsels of the victim’s personal life, while the morally high fourth estate, the press, who prefer their prey live, circled ever closer to the family and the police investigation in the manner of raptors.

As I visualize these passive bystanders of the case in the guise of baser creatures, the mind wanders to the perpetrator, who has been described ad-nauseum in the public arena as, “a scion of an old business dynasty”, “a rogue so comfortable in his own self-worth, he could charm the skin off a snake” and even simply, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Regardless of the fact that he outwardly embodies much of the privileged class, we need to stop building the mystique and strip away the glamorous layers to call him what he is, a creature who has as failed to evolve into a human being and whose depravity has shattered multiple lives with impunity.

Zahir Jaffer like any rapist, is devoid of basic human sensitivity and empathy, as the depravity of his actions has shown and which have again been rehashed in the public mindset too many times to count. He possesses the hallmarks of a psychopath, who lives and thrives off society wearing a veneer of respectability all the while completely devoid of remorse for his actions.

Zahir Jaffer is the classic self-inflated ego who possesses not the slightest glimmer of empathy and who has never learned to comprehend rejection. When such a creature decides to take revenge for being “deprived” of what he feels was “his” by right, his victim does not stand a chance and has already been relegated to a lesser being and must be stripped of everything, down to their sense of self.

With Noor’s family continuously under the microscope and one of the country’s highest-profile criminal trials stretching on, the solitude the family needs to grieve remains as elusive as the sense of security women are entitled to as human beings around the world. The family of Noor, meanwhile is and will perhaps forever be, at the mercy of their own imaginings and will likely tread the endless slippery slope of “what-ifs”.

Meanwhile, Zahir Jaffer’s family, by making threats, bribes, and calling in favors has tried to distort the facts of the case and is putting up a defense that floundering as it may seem, threatens a gross miscarriage of justice.

What makes this case both simpler and more complicated is the myriad of stakeholders, from witnesses to abettors, and the highly publicized nature of the trial which seems helpful in reminding people what a family lost at the hands of a monster but also muddies the water through sensationalization.

The next thought that springs to mind are, how, despite having a checkered past full of harassment and bullying and despite raising so many red flags, how has he managed to escape accountability. The answer is intuitive, in that, as the physical power, confidence, and influence of a criminal magnify, the escalation of the crimes increases exponentially, which simply means the most hardened criminals are often the hardest to catch.

On a more practical level, the biggest worry possessing observers is why in spite of countless witness testimonies, overwhelming DNA evidence, and repeated assertions by Zahir Jaffer himself, is the case still pending in court? Will all the perpetrators get their just desserts or will the courts let the employees of the household and the workers at Therapy Works through the cracks in the chalice of justice.

And of course, the spiritual debate in the aftermath of the grisly event that begs the question, are we merely pessimistic bystanders, possessed of an apathy borne of selfishness or worse, are we in the grip of a convenient collective naivete where we pretend all is well as long as our own garden is well.

Are we so inured to atrocity, so cocooned in our personal pursuit of a measure of peace that even after witnessing the worst possible suffering a human can endure, we simply choose to salve our national conscience, in the words of Voltaire, “by justifying evil as being necessary in the scheme of the best of all possible worlds.”

Fighting rape is akin to conquering the Hydra

While the horrific crime which resulted in Noor Muqaddam being raped and then murdered by Zahir Jaffer has prompted hundreds to take to protesting, with people demanding anything from public lynching and stoning to a public hanging, it was far from an isolated incident.

It was the rape of a 6-year-old girl from Lahore in 2018, after which the country’s current rape epidemic and the associated systemic lethargy in dealing with sexual violence was first pushed into the spotlight. The attacker, Mohammad Imran who was also responsible for attacking six other girls was executed in October later that year. Since then there has been a spate of rape incidents both in minors and women that have been catapulted into the national conscience.

It is perhaps a small mercy that Pakistan’s laws allow rapists to be hanged and in the rare event that a victim does get justice, they don’t have to look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives, living on borrowed time as the perpetrator’s sentence expires and he gets ready to hunt again. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that rape is a serial offense and hence must be dealt with in a final manner with no room for clemency.

Barring a few cases where the death penalty is administered, and a few devils are eliminated, a majority of rapes go unpunished and for that, we need to look no further than the lack of institutional accountability, protection of powerful rapists and trafficking rings, with the authorities able to barely scratch the surface of the deep dark web and a general lack of discourse on the underlying causes.

Be it a seminary, a motorway, a market, a university, or a home. No matter how socially well placed a woman is or what her age or rank is, she is vulnerable to the baser instincts of beasts, no place is safe and she can’t be allowed to rest even in death.

It is ironic that despite the advances mankind has made, it is apparent that today, our society systematically degrades and dehumanizes women with rape ultimately being its worst outcome.

The level of malice and cruelty in these crimes seems to be rising. It is a hallmark of rape that is harder to prove since the word of the perpetrator is mightier than the victim.

From the general passivity of the victim and superiority of the perpetrator, power asymmetry extends to the trial where, unlike murder, for instance, it is hard to prove it even happened thanks to the inherent nature of the crime which lacks tangible evidence that is apparent in some other crimes.

Punishment for rape requires a perfect set of circumstances, including reporting, maintaining evidence, and meticulous investigation to even prove.

There is currently a consensus among women is that the problem of sexual crimes is getting worse. The key social issues behind the crisis remain unresolved and the culture of forgiveness for sexual offenses is firmly entrenched, with senior officials prone to blaming the victim and a focus on why the victim was in “the wrong place at the wrong time”.

The nation is not prepared to shift the focus of rape crimes from the victim to the perpetrator, and will not refrain from making value judgments about the victim, their family dynamics, dress, and state of mind.

The foremost questions that plague the mind are the role the civil society is playing, to what extent the media reflects reality, and how value judgments label some victims more deserving of justice. If voices for justice are raised, they are conditional upon age, profession, and the general behavior of the victim.

It is a sad reality that the human psyche dictates that justice, on the one hand, is a privilege not to be wasted on the poor, illiterate, and powerless while also at the same time excluding empowered women who know their own minds. Ironically, there is a consensus on ignoring justice for models, prostitutes, and working girls.

While fighting rape culture may seem like playing whack-a-mole, the system needs to incorporate better tools for accountability and examples need to be made of perpetrators to deter further crimes. We need to stop playing catch up and create an enabling environment where even the least severe crimes are reported and punished to avoid escalation. We must stop being selective in serving justice, structures must be put in place to punish “influential” criminals and timely intervention must be every citizen’s duty.

The conversation must start where we discuss the underlying causes of this rape epidemic and we must use the Zahir Jaffer trial as a barometer for truth and a harbinger of future hope for all victims. The hardest question remains, is exposure to these brutal crimes which often go unpunished, encouraging more crimes (case in point the Dark Web)?

Hard as the journey may seem, difficult though it may be to put the pieces together for understanding the final picture, weighted topics such as these require more insight than just an average person’s knowledge of the inner workings of the human mind. It is perhaps a good policing practice to use these cases as an opportunity to discover the causes of this menace by tapping into the minds of these monsters. This can help in raising red flags and hopefully, more timely intervention can save more lives.

To all the victims of sexual abuse out there; before you complete the journey from victim to survivor, you must know, the shame is not yours. It is instead reserved for the Zahir Jaffer’s of the world. The shame is on the abuser, not the victim or the survivor.

And to the society as a whole; stop victim-blaming, for it is a sign of self refuge and self-deception. Stop justifying rape as an excuse for a victim’s so-called poor judgment.

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