Mukhtar Mai's trial of strength

After being gang-raped as part of an inter-family dispute in Pakistan, tradition dictated Mukhtar Mai should commit suicide in shame. But instead she decided to speak out against her attackers and fight for justice. Justin Huggler tells her amazing story

Sunday 11 September 2005 00:00

She is the last to enter the room. It is almost as if she slips in behind the others, a small woman, her slight figure hidden in the folds of her brightly coloured salwar kazmeez. When it comes time to talk, she is happy to let the others do most of the talking, preferring to leaf through a pile of magazines, shyly pretending to study the pictures.

But she's the one we've come to meet. This is Mukhtar Mai, the most famous Pakistani woman in the world. The tragedy of it is that her fame is a result of being gang-raped at gunpoint by four men from her village as an "honour punishment".

But then even that doesn't single her out in Pakistan, where women are still raped every year on the orders of such councils as punishments because their relatives have somehow offended against tribal codes of "honour".

No, this shy, unassuming village woman in front of us is famous around the world because she was the first victim to stand up and demand justice, to insist that the men who raped her be brought to court, and to refuse to be silenced by the traditional values that say being raped is too shameful for a woman to speak of.

Many Pakistani rape victims have committed suicide rather than live with the "shame" of what has happened to them. Those who have gone on living have hidden away what happened to them under a code of silence. Not Mai. She broke every taboo in Pakistani society, telling her horrific story again and again, to the police, to the media and to the courts, until the men who did this to her were convicted.

And she will have to go through all of this again. Mai was back in the news this year after a Pakistani court unexpectedly overturned the guilty verdicts on the men who raped her and set them free. She appealed to the Supreme Court, which has ordered a retrial and that the men are rearrested. Now she will have to relive that night again in court.

She also hit the headlines after the Pakistani government, which had previously backed her, unexpectedly turned on her and banned her from a planned visit to the US to talk about her ordeal. President Pervez Musharraf said he had personally ordered the travel ban because she was being exploited by Western NGOs to "blacken" Pakistan's reputation. Pakistan backed down and rescinded the ban after the personal intervention of the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, but Mai has found herself under new pressure.

Mirwala, the village where Mai lives, is a poor farming community in southern Punjab. * There's not a hill in sight, the land is flat for miles around. The sun beats down like a hammer here and it can be hotter than 50C on a summer day.

To the Western eye, Mirwala is a dirt-poor place. But to a Pakistani, it has a lot of features that single it out as being privileged. There is a surfaced road, rather than a dirt track. The village is connected to mains electricity. There is a large school for both boys and girls. And there is a police post.

Most villages in the area have none of these attributes. And none of this was here before Mai went to court. She has brought all of this to her village, using the money she was sent in donations from around the world, and using the influence with the government that her fame has given her. Children used to have to walk 6km to the nearest school every day. There was no electricity, no proper road and, vitally that night she was raped, there was no police presence in the village.

A lot of women would have given in to the temptation to move after what happened to her. After all, she is still a neighbour of the relatives of the men who raped her - men who were sentenced to death in the original trial and who were openly issuing threats against her during the period when they were acquitted.

But, for Mai, her cause became about more than just demanding justice against her attackers. Her proudest achievement is her school, where 160 boys and 200 girls study, and where she now works as an administrator.

"I'm doing this to improve the condition of the people in that area, to eradicate illiteracy," she explains. "I'm doing all this to make sure the sort of incident that happened to me doesn't happen again."

Mai leafs through a pile of magazines as we talk, but she only looks at the pictures, because she is illiterate herself, the product of Pakistan's disastrously underfunded education system. Now as well as being an administrator, she is also a student at her own school, learning to read and write.

It all began on the night of 22 June 2002. If truth be told, Mai's life up to that point had not been entirely happy. She was 30 years old, divorced at the age of only 19 after three years of an unsuccessful arranged marriage. She had no children, and in Pakistani village society * the lot of a divorced, childless woman is not an easy one. At 30, she was becoming too old to remarry. Her illiteracy meant she had little chance of moving out of village life.

But what happened that night demonstrates how women are treated in traditional Pakistani rural society, as objects to be used and abused by men to settle family quarrels.

Mai is not comfortable talking directly to a foreign male reporter about what happened. She has been through enough, reliving it in courtrooms and police reports, without this indignity being heaped on top. So instead a man who works alongside her tells her story for her, while she sits awkwardly in the corner, occasionally interjecting to comment or explain.

It started when another clan in the village, the Mastoi, accused Mai's brother Shakoor of "illicit relations" with a Mastoi woman. The accusation was plainly preposterous - Shakoor was only 12 years old at the time - and a subsequent government enquiry found it was untrue. But the Mastoi were more powerful than Mai's clan, and they were demanding recompense.

It was at this point that the village panchayat became involved. These panchayats exist across the Subcontinent. A sort of village council, they came into existence to solve disputes and administer a form of social "justice" in remote villages, where police rarely intervened. But the "justice" they are concerned with revolves around traditional concepts of male honour. They have no official recognition under Pakistani law and no authority to impose their decisions. But Mirwala was a long way from the nearest police post, and some of the Mastoi men were armed.

Even while the village elders were debating the issue at the panchayat, two of the Mastoi men took matters into their own hands and kidnapped Shakoor. They beat the 12-year-old and then anally raped him. Fearing for their lives, the rest of the Mais fled to the village mosque where they took sanctuary.

Like his sister, Shakoor gave evidence against his rapists and they were convicted. Male rape victims usually remain silent in Pakistan, where being sodomised is a deep shame for a man.

The Mastois and Mai's family are from different ethnic groups. While Mai's family are Punjabis, the largest ethnic group in Pakistan, the Mastoi are Baluchis, a major ethnic minority. In the area around Mirwala the Mastoi * are the more powerful group, and they consider themselves to be socially superior.

Faced with their demands for retribution, the panchayat came up with a solution. They invoked an old Baluchi custom, whereby if a woman from the family that has given offence comes forward to apologise, the aggrieved family are honour-bound to accept the apology and forgive them. Mai's father, Ghulam, was sent from the panchayat meeting to fetch one of the women from his family from the mosque.

"My parents came to me and asked me to be the one to apologise," says Mai. "I wasn't happy about it, but since they wanted to settle the issue I went, only to resolve it. But I was not happy."

When she got there, four of the Mastoi men dragged her to a nearby house. Two of them, Ghulam Fareed and Allah Tita, were armed, and none of Mai's clan were, so they couldn't resist.

"I begged them not to do it but they were deaf to all my crying and begging," Mai says. One by one they raped her, then they ordered her to go home. Six days later she filed a case with the police.

"But no one was ready to listen to me," she says. "The police were under the influence of the Mastois." She says they were particularly influenced by Faiz Mastoi, the most powerful man in the area, who did not personally rape her but was later sentenced to death for his part in arranging the trap for her.

"In the beginning, all my family were frightened of the Mastois and they warned me: 'If you stand against them they'll kill you and us,'" says Mai. "But it was my mother who encouraged me. She said: 'There's nothing to worry about. I will back you and your struggle for justice.' One by one all the family members came round to support me. But it was my idea and my decision."

As Mai's campaign for justice continued, gradually she began to have success. The imam of the local mosque, Maulana Abdul Razzaq, preached in his Friday sermon that what happened to her had been wrong, which gave her cause religious legitimacy in the eyes of local people. Then Pakistan's Supreme Court got wind of the case, and gave a suo moto decision ordering local police to arrest the men who raped her and bring them before a court. That, the police could not ignore.

Fourteen men were put on trial. Eight were acquitted, but six were eventually sentenced to death: the four actual rapists - Abdul Khaliq, Mohammed Fayyiz, Ghulam Farid and Allah Tita - together with Faiz Mastoi. The sixth man was not a Mastoi, but a member of Mai's clan, Ramzan Bhachar. It was he who agreed to use the Baluchi custom of a woman apologising, and he was judged to have been in on the plot to have Mai raped.

Mai had won. She had been through a nightmare but she had managed to bring the men who raped her to justice. She was fêted. President Musharraf met her and personally thanked her for her courage. He gave her a large reward, and she began work on her school. That was all in 2002.

Then, in March this year, the High Court suddenly dropped a bombshell. It overturned the verdict, acquitted five of the men entirely, and commuted Abdul Kahliq's sentence to life imprisonment. It ordered the other five freed, which put Mai in fear of her life. The Pakistani authorities intervened, keeping the men in prison under controversial public-order legislation.

Mai and the Pakistani government launched a joint appeal. But relations with the authorities soured unexpectedly after she accepted an invitation from an organisation of doctors of Pakistani origin in the US to give a talk about her struggle. Suddenly her name was put on Pakistan's notorious Exit Control List, meaning she couldn't leave the country. The authorities demanded she surrender her passport. President Musharraf, who had personally thanked her, said she was being exploited by Western NGOs to damage Pakistan's reputation.

It was a rare miscalculation by Musharraf. The US was furious. Condoleezza Rice phoned the Pakistani Interior Minister and ordered him to lift the ban. Suddenly Mai was so big even the Pakistani President could not stand in her way.

She doesn't see it that way. "For about 15 days it was bad," she says. She complained at the time that she was being kept under virtual house arrest by the police, who said they were only there for her own safety - a familiar refrain from repressive security forces the world over. But then things calmed down again. Today, she giggles at the thought of being on the Exit Control List, which is more usually full of the names of politicians and figures from Pakistan's elite who have fallen from favour.

Even so, when the Pakistani Minister for Women, Nilofer Bakhtiar, returned Mai's passport to her, she still asked her not to leave the country, though the final decision is now up to Mai. "I'm not doing anything to blacken the country's name and I won't in the future," says Mai. She says she hasn't decided yet if she plans to travel abroad.

Then last month came the Supreme Court's decision to uphold Mai's appeal. The court sruck down the High Court's earlier acquittal of her rapists and said it would retry the case itself. It is to retry all 14 of the original accused in the coming weeks. It was another success for Mai in her long struggle.

"So many people have come to tell me that they support me, from all over Pakistan," says Mai. "Women who had suffered the same as me, but who had not spoken out, came and said they wised they had spoken out like me."

Her struggle is one that needs to continue. Only two weeks ago Pakistani police arrested seven men in a case that sounds like a carbon copy of Mai's: they are accused of kidnapping and gang-raping a woman as a "punishment" because her young brother had "illicit relations" with the sister of one of the rapists. Pakistan has a long way to go before cases like Mai's are a thing of the past.

But Mai is looking to the future of her projects to improve her village. Her next plan is to build a hospital in the village. With her courage and steadfastness, she has made a lot of good come out of that terrible night.

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