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Vol. 6, No. 1, 2007
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interviewed by

Mukhtaran Bibi is known as Mukhtaran Mai, which means big sister. Fareeha Khan, of Islamica Magazine, where this interview originally appeared, discusses with Mukhtaran Mai the challenges she has faced since her brutal rape in 2002.

On June 22, 2002, Mukhtaran Mai was brutally gang-raped on orders of a local tribal council. The council, or panchayat, had decided upon this ruling as punishment for allegations of inappropriate conduct with an upper-caste girl levelled against Ms. Mukhtaran’s brother. The details of the appalling crime are indeed startling, but what has further garnered the world’s attention is the tremendous courage of Mukhtaran Mai. Instead of quietly submitting to the panchayat's verdict, she decided to stand up against her perpetrators by waging a legal battle which has now reached the highest levels of the Pakistani court system.

FAREEHA KHAN: What happened to you was indeed appalling and disturbing, and you mentioned that initially after the event you went through a period of deep depression. What was it that gave you the strength to move beyond this initial stage?

MUKHTARAN MAI: The support of so many people like yourself and of course the strength I received from God.

FAREEHA KHAN: Initially there weren’t so many people supporting you. Who/what was there for you in those days?

MUKHTARAN MAI: God was there for me. He’s always been there for me.

FAREEHA KHAN: It seems in many cultures the woman herself gets blamed for the crimes that are committed against her. How did your family and your fellow villagers treat you after the incident occurred?

MUKHTARAN MAI: [Initially] only my parents were with me, and no one else. The others were afraid. They would think “we’re poor, and maybe if we stand up the tribal lords will abuse us in the same way.” In their hearts these people were with us, but they were scared to show this.

FAREEHA KHAN: Could you please talk about your parents and others who gave you support, like the local imam? Given the cases of karo kari (honor killings) and things you hear in Pakistan, it seems women do not usually receive such support.

MUKHTARAN MAI: Of course they were all with me. Everyone knew what had happened to me, and they knew it wasn’t my fault.

FAREEHA KHAN: Could you tell me a little more about the local imam? We hear a lot in the press that Islam and the ulama (scholars in Islamic law) are oppressive to women. What are your thoughts on this?

MUKHTARAN MAI: Where does it say [in the religious texts] that Islam supports violence against women? The local imam supported me starting from my home [before any of the court cases had begun] all the way to the courts, and he spoke against the incident and what happened in his sermons. He was a continuous source of support.

FAREEHA KHAN: It seems that, especially at first, the Pakistani government was not really interested in dealing with your case. Could you talk a little about this please? How does the Pakistani government fare when it comes to dealing with such issues as abuse or violence against women?

MUKHTARAN MAI: Only when the international media picked up my case, that’s when the police and government got involved. They never pay attention when such things happen to poor people.

FAREEHA KHAN: Is this how women are always dealt with?

MUKHTARAN MAI: How can a poor woman get any justice? I have the whole world behind me, so I have much support. But many women don’t have such resources at all. Many women kill themselves after such incidents. Their family thinks “Well, at least we won’t have to worry about this now.”

FAREEHA KHAN: Didn’t you also consider suicide?

MUKHTARAN MAI: Yes, I did. But eventually, I realized that I should stand up for justice. I figured, if I am going to die anyhow [because of suicide], might as well die trying to fight for the Truth.

FAREEHA KHAN: I remember in one interview you gave, you mentioned that at first you had consoled yourself with the fact that the men who did this to you were ignorant, and that somehow because of this it was perhaps understandable. But once you started being turned away by the courts, you began thinking that even the educated do not care about what happened to you, and you started losing faith in education itself. What are your thoughts about this now?

MUKHTARAN MAI: It’s not that I thought badly of education itself. But yes, I had initially told myself, these people did what they did because they are jahil (ignorant). But after going to the courts, and the High Court gave the decision that it did, then I wondered about how even the educated could deal with me in this way. If even these people do not mete out justice, then where can we turn?

FAREEHA KHAN: What eventually happened with your court case?

MUKHTARAN MAI: The Special Court (khususi court) had given six of them a death sentence. Then the High Court upon appeal reversed the sentences for five of them, freeing them completely, and one of them was given a life sentence. So now the case has been petitioned in the Supreme Court, and we’ll see how they will deal with the decision of the High Court.

FAREEHA KHAN: And that initial ruling of the khususi court, had that been given before all the media’s reporting of the story, or was it after?

MUKHTARAN MAI: No, no this was given after the media had already publicized the case. The case had reached the media as soon as it had been filed with the police. In fact, many Pakistanis only found out about the case when BBC and CNN had broadcast it. Many local papers found out when it had been featured by them.

Dates and developments

March 2005 - Lahore high court acquits five men, and reduces death sentence on sixth to life in prison
March 2005 - Shari court suspends Lahore high court decision
March 2005 - Prime Minister Aziz orders re-arrest of four of the accused
March 2005 - Punjab government arrests 12 men originally implicated in case
June 2005 - Lahore high court says 12 men must be released
June 28, 2005 – High court decision overturned: 12 men returned to custody

On 15 November 2006, Pakistan's lower house of Parliament voted to alter its rape laws to move them from religious law to penal code, effectively separating rape from adultery. It also modifies the law to no longer require that the victim produce four witnesses of the assault, and it allows circumstantial and forensic evidence be used for investigation. The change requires approval of the upper house of Parliament before it becomes law. The changes were hailed by civil rights groups as a positive step.

FAREEHA KHAN: You used the money you received with the initial court settlement to establish a school in your village. Could you tell me about this school? What do you teach there? Why did you choose to found a school with this money? Is it only for girls? Is there such a school for boys in your village?

MUKHTARAN MAI: We have five teachers in the girls’ school and one in the boys’ school. We teach math, science, Urdu, English, Islamic Studies, and Social Studies in the girls’ school. We teach Qur’an. We fund and support the girls’ school. The government runs the boys’ school. There’s only one teacher in the boys’ school, and they have very limited supplies. The teacher there often comes to us in the girls’ school to ask for coloring books, supplies.

FAREEHA KHAN: It is really admirable that you have taken on the task of educating others about the abuses that occur against women. Some people in Pakistan however do not like the fact that you are here in the U.S. on this speaking tour. They feel that you are “airing Pakistan’s dirty laundry in public” by doing this, and that you somehow are being disloyal as a Pakistani. What do you have to say in response to such sentiment?

MUKHTARAN MAI: The people who say this, I say to them that such bad things do not remain hidden. It’s not that we have come outside [of Pakistan] to publicize our faults. We [as Pakistanis] shouldn’t be concerned about whether others find out about our faults. Our concern should be to end the bad things in the first place, to wash the “dirty laundry.” We should want to end these injustices, and all women are calling for the same thing, that such injustices be stopped.

FAREEHA KHAN: Could you please comment on the infamous quote of General Musharraf concerning rape when discussing your case with The Washington Post?

“This has become a moneymaking concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”

MUKHTARAN MAI: It’s so strange that General Sahib, being the leader of Pakistan, would say something like this against a woman. And he didn’t just say it against one woman, but against so many women. A poor woman has only her honor. Why would she ever jeopardize it?

FAREEHA KHAN: Do you feel that your trip to America, and your participation in such events, will have any benefit, either here or in Pakistan?

MUKHTARAN MAI: From doing these things, I get emotional support. From seeing everyone with me in this cause, I get strength to continue and do good work.

FAREEHA KHAN: What do you think we as Americans can do to put pressure on the Pakistani government to bring about the types of reforms you desire?

MUKHTARAN MAI: You as Americans can put pressure on our government to bring about the desired reforms.

FAREEHA KHAN: And what can Pakistanis themselves do?

MUKHTARAN MAI: It’s obvious that even our own people in Pakistan can put an end to unjust and feudalistic practices, but that can only be if people take the side of the oppressed. Unfortunately instead, what oftentimes happens in Pakistan is that people give support to the tribal leaders. Instead of giving them support, support should be given to the oppressed.

FAREEHA KHAN: Mukhtaran Bibi, because of the strength you have displayed, do you feel you have given courage to others?

MUKHTARAN MAI: Many women come to me now. Not just because of rape, but also for other reasons such as domestic violence, or their husbands have kicked them out of their homes. Sometimes I can help them with their problems, sometimes I can’t.

FAREEHA KHAN: The “punishment” that had been given to you was meted out by an illegal panchayat set up by the tribal lords. What can we do as individuals to get rid of tribalism/feudalism, especially since it infects every strata of Pakistani society, up through the highest ranks of government?

MUKHTARAN MAI: Well, I can only tell you about Meerwala (Mai’s village). For the last three years, there has been no panchayat in Meerwala. Now, people go to the police when they have an issue. And when there are domestic disputes [Mukhtaran Bibi smiles], the women tell their husbands “I’m going to Mukhtaran Bibi!”

FAREEHA KHAN: So tribalism will end because of Mukhtaran Bibi?

MUKHTARAN MAI: It will not end because of me, but it will end if these girls and boys who are getting an education (in the schools we’ve set up), will grow up to be people who will act with more sensitivity. = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
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