A woman fights back

Print edition : July 29, 2005

The case of Mukhtar Mai brings to fore the plight of average women in Pakistan who continue to be victims of discriminatory laws, but the image-conscious military establishment wants to keep her out of international glare.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Islamabad

Mukhtar Mai talking to the media in Islamabad after the Supreme Court decision overturning the acquittal of the 13 accused in the rape case.-ANJUM NAVEED/AP

ON the afternoon of June 11, Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz addressed a news conference at his residence. It was convened at short notice to announce the schedule for the 13th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit proposed to be held in Dhaka. As soon as he finished giving details of the summit dates, a correspondent working for a foreign media group caught him by surprise with a question on Mukhtar Mai, a woman who has drawn international attention for her sheer grit and determination to bring to book her alleged rapists.

The mediaperson wanted to know why Mukhtar Mai was put on the Exit Control List (list of persons banned from travelling outside the country). A perplexed Shaukat Aziz replied: "I am hearing it for the first time. To the best of my knowledge there is no such thing. It could be some misunderstanding. Let me find out the details."

A week later, after much noise within and outside Pakistan on the difficulties faced by Mukhtar Mai in going to the United States on an invitation from a Pakistan-American non-governmental organisation based there, President Pervez Musharraf proudly announced, while on a tour of New Zealand, that he had personally ordered that her name be put on the Exit Control List as her travel outside Pakistan could tarnish the image of the country.

The invitation caused panic in the Pakistani establishment. The President believed that if Mukhtar Mai told her story in the U.S. it would be bad for Pakistan's image. "I don't want to project a bad image of Pakistan. I am a realist. Public relations are the most important thing in the world. Pakistan is the victim of poor perceptions. The reality is very different. Rape is not a rampant malaise Pakistan suffers from every day."

The Mukhtar Mai case did get special attention from the state, with the President himself intervening to ensure that the guilty would be punished. Yet, reflecting the country's messed-up judicial and police system, the courts issued a release order for the accused. The government had to intervene once again to advise the judiciary to re-examine the case.

The government's reaction to Mukhtar Mai's travel plans raises many questions. She was invited to a seminar where the secretary-general of the ruling party was also invited along with other human rights activists.

Rape is not peculiar to Pakistan, nor is the government responsible for it except in not establishing sufficient deterrents against the crime. Then why fear what she would possibly say? In fact, Mukhtar Mai can say anything she wants to the world even sitting in her own village given the extraordinary interest the case has generated the world over.

According to Nasim Zehra, a well-known Pakistani analyst, stopping Mukhtar Mai from going abroad certainly does not amount to good public relations. She says: "Good public relations result from solid action on home base, not from promoting a `good image' or by preventing the flow of negative, but factually correct, information. To make matters worse, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called [Foreign Minister] Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri to get an assurance that Mukhtar Mai will be allowed to travel to the U.S. The Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman, meanwhile, insisted there was no outside pressure."

The "daring" revelation by the General in New Zealand must have embarrassed the Prime Minister but that is a minor detail compared to the extraordinary courage and conviction demonstrated by a barely literate village woman in taking on the mighty establishment. No single ordinary woman in Pakistan has shaken the system as much as Mukhtar Mai has and it is no small task given the entrenched feudal mindset and the "image conscious" military establishment.

The past three months have been particularly testing for her. It all began on March 3. The Lahore High Court's Multan Bench set aside the 2002 verdict of the Anti-Terrorism Court and freed five men convicted of rape. The court said the evidence failed to prove that gang-rape actually took place and counsel for the victim could not prove that a panchayat was even remotely implicated in this dreadful act. The Judges also criticised the police for "incorrect investigation" and "inefficiency".

Unfortunately, the verdict only brought back memories of the alleged barbaric incident in which four men gang-raped Mai on the orders of a panchayat in Meerwala village in the district of Muzzafar Gar in southern Punjab in June 2002. The case caught the attention of the international media and human rights organisations, which forced the government to take action against the accused and the members of the panchayat.

The Anti-Terrorism Court awarded the death sentence to the six accused. Mukhtar Mai was working in her house when the panchayat ordered her father to bring her to them to "apologise" on behalf of her brother who was accused of having an affair with a girl from a rich, feudal family. When she was brought to the panchayat, the village elders ordered her to be raped to "restore the pride and honour" of the family who brought the case.

The Seraiki-speaking belt of southern Punjab is notorious for such incidents and horrific crimes against women, particularly those from a poor background. In 1981, three women of a poor family near Multan were forced to dance naked in the streets of a village. Three months ago, in another district of southern Punjab called Vehari, 13 men raped a girl for reasons similar to those given for the action against Mukhtar Mai. According to police records, 580 women were raped in the first six months of 2004 in southern Punjab. Twenty-four were maimed by acid attacks, 634 were abducted and sexually assaulted and 115 were killed after rape or during resistance against attack. These are just the reported cases - the vast majority of cases are of course never brought to the police.

The case of Mukhtar Mai has helped to bring to fore the plight of average women in Pakistan who continue to be victims of discriminatory laws and harmful customary practices. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in 2004 there were 450 cases of "honour killings" (a practice where a woman is targeted for allegedly bringing bad name to the clan).

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