Pakistan: The ever growing strength of the quietly dignified Mukhtaran Mai Print E-mail

Pakistan, March 22, 2007 Thursday Rabi-ul-Awwal 1, 1428

Where angels fear to tread

By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Quiet dignity envelopes her slender frame. You notice that the experiences of the last five years have made her come out of her shell. She can now speak in Urdu and is less reticent and shy. “I can face the whole world, but if there is one place that I fear the most it is the court and the inquisition and cross-examination. It’s such a humiliating experience and till now it has not ended. I feel soiled and sick of myself.”

Her quizzical expression, made all the more endearing by the slight squint in her right eye, is replaced every now and then by a slight smile that turns into an almost audible laugh. It almost seems she’s found peace. But then grief steps in to cloud her eyes and those few stolen moments of happiness. You know that the tragedy will stay with her forever.

There is something about Mukhtar Bibi, known as Mukhtaran Mai, that pulls you to her. Why is meeting her such a humbling experience? You want to shield her, but know very well she is much stronger and far more capable than you ever could be.

She has travelled the world and rubbed shoulders with the who’s who and received numerous honours and awards for her courage including the Fatima Jinnah Gold Medal for bravery in 2005 from the government of Pakistan. The same year she was the recipient of ‘Glamour Woman of the Year’ award from Glamour Magazine in US; then the Casa Asia in Spain by the Casa Asia Organisation. In 2006, the Time Magazine put her name on the list of 100 most influential people of the world; the Mayor of Las Vegas, USA, presented her with the Key of the City, and the Vital Voices bestowed her with the Global Leadership Award. This month she received a very prestigious award in Portugal by the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe. She will also address the National Assembly of Portugal and meet the president as well.

No matter how much Bibi takes pains to tell you that she is like any other ordinary village woman, something about her says otherwise. “Perhaps the only thing that I can think of that makes me different,” she continues, “is that my parents have never hit me nor spoken to me harshly. Even my brothers have never lifted their hands on me.” She explains that in her village beating up is the most common form of violence (among others) that all girls have to bear. “It may be something trivial that the female has done, but men, including fathers, brothers, fathers-in-law and husbands, think nothing of the beating.”

Despite having reached that iconic status, she remains rooted to the ground. Quiet dignity envelopes her slender frame. You notice that the experiences of the last five years have made her come out of her shell. She can now speak in Urdu and is less reticent and shy. “I can face the whole world, but if there is one place that I fear the most it is the court. Well, not the court exactly but the inquisition and cross-examination. It’s such a humiliating experience and till now it has not ended. I feel soiled and sick of myself.”

Since she became an icon of courage five years ago, life has been one endless roller-coaster ride for Bibi. When not travelling abroad, she is busy holding meetings with donors who are interested in funding her NGO –– Mukhtar Bibi Women Welfare Organisation –– and showing them her schools and the recently opened crisis centre/shelter for women; writing a biography and working in a documentary film –– telling her story to the world is something that has to be done. Yet she never falters from her main purpose –– helping the poor and the oppressed. “I know how difficult it is for the poor to access justice, to talk about their ordeal, to even reach me. I feel once they come to me, it becomes binding to provide them with support from my side.”

People from all over the country come to her. They have found a shoulder to cry on, a saviour who will shield them from their oppressors. “Cases of rape, wife battery, property disputes, murders, incest, assaults, there is a whole list of complaints, I cannot even begin to tell you how much people suffer daily,” says Bibi.

And if they cannot come to her, she goes to them. “Whenever we hear of any injustice –– we just rush to the place. If we can, we muster the support of the media and even the local police. Sometimes the cases are resolved there and then with the help of the local leaders, a little bit of counselling and sometimes it’s the issue of police refusing to register a case.” In the latter case, says Bibi, because she is there and she is followed by the media (fortunately), the police cannot keep up their high-handed attitude and give in to the pressure. The government has accused her of playing the judge and the jury. Unruffled, she denies it vehemently saying: “They are entitled to their opinion. All I’m trying to do, in my own small way, is to alleviate the problems of the people quickly.”

While the story of Mukhtar Bibi of Meerwala will perhaps never die, being one of the darkest days in the history of this country, to refresh the readers we take an unpleasant trip down memory lane.

In June 2002, Bibi, then 30, was gang-raped on the orders of the local jirga in Meerwala, a small farming village in southern Punjab council, as retribution for her younger brother’s alleged sexual molestation of a girl from the socially high Mastoi clan.

Instead of committing suicide, or shrouding herself in a cloak of victimhood and becoming just another statistic among Pakistan’s long list of human rights violations, she decided to take on her violators and went to court. “Even I didn’t know I possessed that courage. I never imagined what was in store for me,” says Mukhtar Bibi who was always a shy and quiet person. “I was always a very private person and kept things to myself, hardly ever sharing my thoughts with even my closest friend. And then something ugly happened and I somehow found the courage to tell the whole world my shame.”

And is she happy she did? “I’m glad I did,” she says. Is her family happy, too? “She has no choice and neither does her family. If Bibi becomes another statistic, she will die and so will her family. All this limelight ensures her safety,” says Farhan Ahmed Khan, programme manager with MMWO.

According to companion Naseem Akhtar, Bibi’s relations with her brother Shakoor and her father are not the same. “She knows they are not to be blamed but her’s is a wound so deep that it has strained the relations. She treated Shakoor like her son but since that episode, that fondness is missing.”

Of the 14 men accused in an anti-terrorism court, six were found guilty and awarded the death penalty in August 2002. The court’s ruling was widely hailed by civil society. However, justice took a backseat when the convicts went in for an appeal and five of the six condemned were acquitted. The sixth accused had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The court ruled that the evidence produced before the trial court was insufficient and police investigations faulty.

This triggered a round of protests at home and abroad, bringing embarrassment for the government. The public outcry coupled with the suo motu powers exercised by the Supreme Court resulted in the re-arrest of the perpetrators.

Five years since that incident in the summer of 2002, for Bibi justice still remains but a distant dream despite the bills passed and presented in the assembly to protect women and to prevent anti-women practices. The final verdict is yet to be declared.

There is immense pressure on her to relent from all quarters, from the state as well as her perpetrators. Yet she refuses to bow down. She wants to fight to the end. “I will never forgive any one of them,” she says softly, her eyes distant but there is an unmistakable steel in her voice. “I don’t know if I will get justice in my lifetime but I will not relent.” However, one thing is certain. Since that incident, not one jirga has taken place in her village.

Where does she get that astonishing resilience and undaunting drive? According to her companion Naseem Akhtar, “Scores of women throng her doorstep all day long and even the night. And she listens to all of them.”

”I don’t know how I get the strength to listen to so much grief and misery,” she says simply, adding, “When God tests you He gives you the strength to fight the odds, too.”

It may be her unfaltering faith in God that she draws the strength from, but confesses that “when I cannot bear it any longer, I find refuge in tranquilisers and anti-depressants. I also see my psychologist periodically and that helps unburden my misery.”

But every time, says Bibi, a new gang rape case emerges, she relives her own nightmare. “I die a little every time I hear of an incident.” “She becomes very quiet and refuses to hear any details. She also stops eating for a couple of days,” interjects Akhtar.

Bibi also has a formula that she thinks can end this oppression. It is so simple and doable that it is a shame that the experts at the helm have not thought about it as seriously as the once unlettered woman from Meerwala has. “If we educate all our children, the violence meted out to women will also vanish.”

Two months after the incident, when she was offered Rs500,000 by the government, she declined taking cash or cheque and instead requested it to build a school for the area as there was none. “The four-room school was big enough but there were only three girls –– my sister Tasmiha, another girl Haleema and I.” Today, along with that school, there are two more schools, one of which is for boys. There are a total of 700 boys and girls enrolled in these schools.

Does she allow boys and girls from the Mastoi clan to study in her school? “Of course, everyone is welcome and it’s their basic right as well. I don’t want them to grow up like their predecessors. Initially they were hesitant but slowly and steadily we motivated mothers to send them. However, they still do not send their girls,” says Bibi.

”It’s hard even now to convince parents to send their daughters, but those from the Mastoi tribe feel that sending their girls to my school will sully them.”

There are eight teachers of which four teach in the boys’ school. All the female teachers are provided pick and drop service.

”Hopefully these kids will grow up to learn to respect the fairer sex. The girls, too, will become aware of their rights. I want no girl to go through what I went through,” she says, her hopes pinned on the boys and girls of her school who are taught not just the regular syllabus but special lessons on human rights and the dignity of women.