Mukhtar Mai

I feel very stupid if I let a day go by without making some progress in a book or two. The significance of this compulsion in the context of the subject I raise today, is not lost on me. I finished the 2005 book In the Name of Honour, a memoir from the perspective of Pakistani civil rights leader Mukhtar Mai. It was written first in French, and then translated to English, and the story is further extolled in the chapter Rule By Rape of Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

On June 22, 2002, Mukhtar Mai (then known as Mukhtaran Bibi) went to the farm of the Mastoi clan in the village of Meerwala, in the Punjab province of Pakistan. The Mastoi were the most powerful and aggressive clan in the village, and had accused Mukhtar’s younger brother Shakur, of the peasant Gajur caste, of flirting with a woman of their family. The accusation was modified over time, and went from the 12 year old having spoken to the woman, to that he raped her. She was in her 20s.

The boy was kidnapped, and over the succeeding days his family had tried to negotiate his release. The Mastoi’s were armed, and held the majority over the village council, called a jirga. The local mulla suggested that a Gajur woman appear before the clan and ask forgiveness. Since Mukhtar was the eldest daughter, 28 years old (estimated, since there are no birth records), and divorced, known to teach the Koran to children (she had memorised the verses) as well as embroidery, she carried respect.

She appeared before the Mastoi clan with her father and uncle at her back, and proceeded to ask forgiveness. But it turns out to be a trap, and four Mastoi seize her and drag her to a stable. On the hard earth, they gang rape her. When they are finished, Mukhtaran Bibi is thrown out of the stable half naked before the entire village. Covering herself in her fathers shawl, she walks the hundred or so yards home. During his captivity it turns out that the Mastoi beat and raped 12 year old Shakur, something he eventually tells his father.

Mukhtaran lies utterly destroyed in her room. Only her mother’s words, coupled with a building, irrepressible anger prevent her from committing suicide. Suicide is the normal response for raped women in Pakistan. I would venture to say that this means they are not only the victims of rape, but of murder. Yet Mukhtaran Bibi does not submit, which is also the most accurate translation of the word Islam, instead she goes to the police. Her journey to fight for and claim justice begins, and she becomes Mukhtar Mai, or ‘respected big sister’, and founds the first school in Meerwala.

Her journey is far more nuanced than I can sketch in less than a 1000 words, and involves glaring instances of prima facie obstruction of justice when police officers have her sign (stamp her fingerprint since she was then illiterate) a blank piece of paper upon interviewing her. This is so that they can write whatever suits them and is one of the reasons the high court acquitted the Mastoi rapists. In 2011 the Supreme Court upheld the high court decision.

Mukhtar became a worldwide icon for women in the 2000s, much in the same way Malala Yousafzai (2014 co-recipient of the Nobel peace prize) has in the 2010s. Though Malala has benefitted from the revolution in social media. Both women share the goal of having every Pakistani child educated, especially the girls. And even though they both do not accept the restrictions and prohibitions placed on women in Pakistan, both remain committed Muslims.

Pakistan — and the world — are better for these women. But the situation remains fraught. The Human Rights Watch estimates that a rape is committed once every two hours, a gang rape every night. This is because ingrained in the traditions of Pakistan (that predate the Islamic Republic) is the notion that the violation of an enemies women, disgraces and dishonours that enemy. It works as ‘justice’ for a crime. If a woman is raped by a man from another family, then the woman’s father or brother is permitted to rape a woman of the other family. In the pursuit of power, or faux-justice, incalculable evil is visited on women.

As Mukhtar Mai says; “Men have the monopoly on vengeance, which passes through violence inflicted on women.”

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