Last week, Pakistan's Federal Shariat Court—the nation’s highest Islamic court—vacated an appeals court decision that had outraged the world.
In essence, the appeals court had acquitted five of the six men convicted in the 2002 “honor rape” of Mukhtar Mai. Her ongoing story may well foreshadow the future of Muslim women who suffer under tribal law and other oppressive traditions. Hers is a savage tale of brutalization and courage, with confusing twists and a resolution that is uncertain. But it is a story of hope, which provides reason for optimism.
In it, the West provides an invaluable voice of conscience and compassion. But the story’s ultimate message may be that Muslim women must stand up for themselves and say ‘no.’
In the summer of 2002, a panchayat court (or village council) sentenced Mukhtar to be gang-raped by four men. The sentence was not to punish Mukhtar for wrongdoing. Rather, her 14-year-old brother was accused of associating in public with a girl from a rival and more powerful tribe; her rape was meant to punish the family for his transgression.
Gang-raped, beaten, and thrown naked into the street, Mukhtar was forced to walk home through her village. The public nature of the punishment ensured she was an outcast and unmarriageable. Mukhtar was expected to kill herself, but a suicide attempt failed. Her family revived her, and the support of her loved ones deterred her from making future attempts.
Her story grabbed the media's attention. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times visited her home and observed, “a girl in the next village was gang-raped a week after Ms. Mukhtaran, and she took the traditional route: she swallowed a bottle of pesticide and dropped dead.”
By contrast, Kristof wrote, Mukhtar survived and propounded “the shocking idea that the shame lies in raping, rather than in being raped.”
In rural Pakistan, as in many remote Muslim areas, tribal courts often take precedence over the law of the land on matters of family and "honor." Indeed, when human rights organizations express outrage over ritualized violence against women in Islamic cultures, it is often the panchayat tribal courts toward which they point an accusing finger.
For example, Pakistan is notorious for “honor killings.” This is the practice by which women are murdered, usually by male relatives, for sexual ‘improprieties’ such as having sex outside of marriage. Mukhtar’s story is an international indictment of that system.
However, in recent years— largely due to its alliance with and dependency upon the United States—Pakistan’s national government has been trying to reform how women are treated in their country. President Musharraf has declared an agenda of “enlightened moderation” that sets his more Western version of society at odds with tribal traditions.
In Mai's case, the first “official” encouragement came from a local imam (an Islamic cleric) who called for her attackers to be brought before a civil court. (The importance of calls of reform and rebellion originating from within the society itself cannot be overstated.)
Soon, international opinion took up the cry and Pakistan’s authorities reacted quickly. A special anti-terrorism court sentenced the four accused rapists as well as two members of the panchayat court to death. Musharraf presented Mukhtar with approximately $8,300 in compensation and ordered the police to protect her.
Mukhtar used the money to open schools for children in her village.
Sarwar Bari of Pattan— a non-governmental organization that supports Mukhtar —states, "A lot of people would have taken the money and run away, tried to forget, but Mukhtaran has not only stayed but has launched a visible challenge to the feudal landlords to change the status quo.”
And, then, a slow and boring appeals process ensued. And, then, world attention shifted focus.
Some of that shift was the natural consequence of a fast-moving world. Some was encouraged by Pakistan’s government to mute global criticism. Clearly, the Pakistani government was not pleased with reporters like Kristof.
Last September, Kristof reported, “relatives of the rapists are waiting for the police to leave and then will put Ms. Mukhtaran in her place…I walked to the area where the high-status tribesmen live. They denied planning to kill Ms. Mukhtaran, but were unapologetic about her rape.”
And while the world shifted focus, the appeals court set her rapists free.
Early this month, Kristof published an op-ed in the N.Y. Times entitled, “When Rapists Walk Free.” There, Kristof commented, “I had planned to be in Pakistan this week to write a follow-up column about Mukhtaran. But after a month's wait, the Pakistani government has refused to give me a visa…”
But now that the higher court has overturned those acquittals, global attention is again on Mukhtar.
On a website about her ordeal, Mukhtar, a small, soft-spoken women in her 30s, says of the attention: “My legal name is Mukhtaran Bibi, though I have become known in recent years as Mukhtar Mai. The local media here in Pakistan gave me that name, meaning ‘respected big sister,’ after my story first became national news.”
But what the world sees upon refocusing on Mukhtar is a woman who has stood strong for two years and become a lightning rod around which other women gather to march and protest.
One official reaction: a contempt plea has been filed against 14 people, including Mukhtar, for making statements critical of the court to the press. Liberalizing the treatment of women and moving too openly against tribal courts obviously places Musharraf in an uncomfortable position.
Yet change is coming. Mukhtaran has said. "It's more than I would have thought possible two years ago."
Imagine what might be accomplished if the world pays attention for the next two years.