“I am fine by the grace of Allah,” said Mukhtar Mai in response to my question about her feelings regarding the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s recent decision to acquit five of the six men convicted of raping her in 2002 — an incident that would eventually propel her onto the global stage as powerful advocate of women’s rights.
Mai, who was raped at the behest of her tribal elders (in retaliation for her younger brother’s alleged relationship with a woman of another clan), became a cause célèbre in the West when she pressed charges against her rapists, thereby setting an important precedent for victims of sexual assault in her country. Rape victims in Pakistan are stigmatized by their communities and are often expected to commit suicide to spare their families the lingering shame of association. As a result, cases of sexual violence often go underreported.
Mai’s decision to take her case to the “panchayat,” a council of tribal elders that traditionally decides many such cases in the rural settings across Pakistan, was almost unheard of at the time. Her efforts soon grabbed the attention of many Western journalists, including The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, who wrote about Mai at length in his columns. She was also named a Glamour magazine Woman of the Year in 2005. With the financial support from a number of outside sources, Mai began to open schools for girls in her village Meerwala, in the eastern province Punjab in Pakistan.
Despite Mai’s global prominence, it has taken six years for her case to reach the Supreme Court, and the acquittals in April have been widely perceived as a setback for women’s rights in Pakistan. Rights organizations, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, have condemned the verdict and are calling for it to be overturned.
Hina Jilani, a leading Pakistani lawyer and women rights activist, says that judiciary needs to be cognizant of the ways in which evidence in sexual assault and rape cases can be compromised at every stage of the investigation. “Regardless of whether the case is high profile or not … greater awareness is needed. … We need to see how the judiciary is looking at the evidence in rape cases,” Jilani said.
Since the verdict was announced late last month, influential feudal leaders of the region have redoubled their threats against Mai and her family, and she has come under enormous pressure to reach some kind of settlement with her accused rapists. A climate of fear has also taken hold at some of Mai’s schools: Student attendance has been halved, and several teachers have stopped showing up for their classes.
Mai remains stoic in the face of such intimidation tactics. “Yes, I do feel that there is a looming threat to my life. Anything can happen; I am aware of this possibility,” she said, speaking in Urdu over the phone from Meerwala. When asked about the larger implications of the acquittals, however, she sounded a note of dejection. “I feel like there is no hope for women or poor people in Pakistan,” Mai said.
Despite Mai’s lack of faith in Pakistan’s justice system, she does not see emigration in her future. “I get strength from the knowledge that the people are with me, in fact the entire world is with me. And, no, I have never even thought about leaving my village, let alone Pakistan. No, this would never be.”
Mai and her lawyer recently announced that they will challenge the Supreme Court verdict.