Mukhtar Mai: Fighting for Women's Rights in Pakistan
Friday, July 1, 2005 7:30 AM

On June of 2002, in Meerwala Jatoi, a remote farming village in Punjab, Mukhtar Mai, a thirty year old unmarried woman from a low-caste family, was publicly gang raped under the direction of a tribal court. She was paraded naked before hundreds of onlookers before being covered with a shawl by her father and walked home. According to the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, community sanctioned violence against woman is still prevalent, especially in rural parts of the country. In the first seven months of 2004 alone, 151 Pakistani women were gang-raped and 176 killed in the name of “honor.”

Mai was punished because her younger brother, Abdul Shakur, then 12 years old, had been accused of having an affair with a girl from the powerful Mastoi tribe. Investigators later determined that the “affair” was invented as a cover-up after three Mastoi men kidnapped and sexually assaulted the boy in a sugar cane field. Abdul remembers, “They asked me if I would tell my family.” When he said yes, the men beat and locked Abdul in a room. When the police arrived they found Abdul and a Mastoi girl alone together.

Mai, a teacher of Islam, went before the Panciat, (tribal council), pleading with the village elders to show mercy on her brother. According to some accounts, in order to restore tribal honor, the court ruled that Mai’s brother and the Mastoi the girl he was found with should be married. The tribal court also demanded that Mai herself be given in marriage to a Mastoi man. Sources differ on whether the Mastoi or Mai objected to the tribal court’s initial decision. The BBC maintains that the Mastois demanded zina (adultery) for zina. What isn’t disputed is that the council chose to punish Mai with karo kari, or gang rape. Four men from the Mastoi tribe volunteered to carry out the punishment.

The local imam (Islamic cleric) spoke out against the tribal court and its voluntary rapists, demanding that they be brought to trial in a civil court. The imam encouraged Mai to file an official complaint with the police. At first, the police refused to respond to the complaint. After the iman brought Mai’s story to the media, the tribal elders and volunteer rapists were tried in an anti-terrorism court. Under Pakistani law, criminal cases can be tried under Anglo-Saxon law and Islamic law simultaneously. Fourteen men were charged with rape; eight men were acquitted and six sentenced to death.

Although the government offered to buy Mai a home within Islamabad, to protect her from reprisal by the Mastoi clan, Mai chose instead to return to her native village. Using the $8,000 settlement she received in compensation, Mai opened the first school for girls in Meerwala. The school offers elementary education to 130 poor and orphaned girls, including the daughters of Mai’s attackers. With help from volunteers, the curriculum has expanded to include literacy, math, science, English, and Vocational training (sewing/handicrafts). There are now two girls-only schools in Meerwala with plans to set up multiple branches throughout Pakistan.

In the future, Mai hopes to establish a non-profit group, the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization which would lobby against Karo Kari, the Panciat/Jirga System, “honor” killings, and female sexual violence. The organization aims to provide emergency assistance and health care facilities for women while raising political awareness and advocating for equal rights between men and women. Through, NYTimes Op Ed Columnist Nicolas D. Kristof, who has covered Mai’s story since 2002, has helped raise $133,000 in donations for Mai’s social work. With these funds Mai has established an ambulance service, a women’s shelter, and a trauma center for women.

This last March, the Lahore High Court overturned the convictions of five of the men, citing a lack of evidence. The sixth man was sentenced to life imprisonment. After Mai appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, the Federal Shariat Court (Islamic court) reinstated the original convictions of the six men. However, the Supreme Court threw out the Islamic court’s decision, choosing instead to hear Mai’s appeal. Thirteen of the village elders and rapists were rearrested pending the Supreme Court decision. In addition to asking that the Supreme Court reinstate the death sentences of five of the men, Mai is also appealing the original acquittals of the eight other men involved in her rape. This last Monday the Supreme Court heard the initial arguments.

At the invitation of the Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Woman, (ANAA) Mai was scheduled to appear in the United States on June 22 to publicize her success with developing a women’s trauma center in Meerwala. On June 11, expressing worry for Mai’s security, the government banned the schoolteacher from overseas travel, placing her under house arrest. On Friday of that week, the Lahore court ordered the release of Mai’s attackers on bail. Government officials have since reported that none of the prisoners were released because their lawyers failed to file the appropriate paper work. That Saturday, Mai was escorted by police officials to Islamabad, where she was instructed to withdraw her application for a US visa. According to the NY Times, officials accused Mai of being unpatriotic, threatening her family and friends.

The President has since admitted, “She was told not to go. I don’t want to project the bad image of Pakistan.”

Gen. Musharraf has received international condemnation for attempting to preserve Pakistan’s “modern” image by suppressing information about Mai’s case. Gen. Musharraf had threatened to “slap” Ms. Jehangir, a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights “in the face” for publishing information of Mukhtar Mai in international magazines Human Rights advocates also protested the Pakistani government’s ban on Mai’s ability to travel abroad. ANAA staged protests outside the Pakistani Consulate in New York and the Pakistan Embassy in Washington D.C.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice spoke with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri asking that the travel restrictions placed on Mai be revoked. In response to international public outcry Prime Minister Shaulkat Aziz removed Mai’s name from the Exit Control List. Pakistani government officials have since returned Mai her confiscated passport, but she has not announced whether she plans to travel abroad in the immediate future.

Compiled from:  “Pakistan Lifts Travel Restrictions on Rape Victim” NY Times, 16 June 2005; “Pakistanis Re-Arrested in Officially Ordered Rape” NY Times, 28 June 2005;’sTragedy.htm; “Challenging a Tribal Code of ‘Honor’”, Asma Jahangir, Time Asia, 4 October 2005