July issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

It was a scene from hell. A young woman, her screams of terror drowned by the jeers and raucous laughter from a 500-strong crowd, was dragged to a mudhouse by armed men. Her father, a poor farm worker and an uncle looked on in anguish, helpless to come to her aid in the midst of armed, hostile tribesmen. Inside, while one of them held a gun to her head, the others tore off her clothes. Four men gang-raped her. This was no ordinary crime: it was justice — tribal style.

Mukhtar Mai had been gang-raped on the orders of a tribal jirga as punishment for her brother’s alleged affair with a woman of a higher caste. One of the jirga members also participated in the rape. It was around midnight when a battered Mukhtar emerged from the house almost naked. The crowd started to disperse as she crawled back to her house a few hundred yards away, helped by her father Ghulam Fareed.

Wrapped in a brown shawl, the 18-year-old village teacher wept incessantly as she recounted her ordeal. “I begged and pleaded with them but they were like animals,” said Mukhtar, who looked pale as she struggled to come to terms with her ordeal.

For more than a week after the gang-rape on June 22 in this small village in the feudal-dominated southern region of the Punjab, no one took notice of the heinous crime that had been committed. The poor farmer could not dare to challenge the powerful and politically influential tribal jury. “They threatened us with dire consequence if we reported the crime to the police,” said Ghulam Fareed, who is totally distraught by his daughter’s humiliation. Another version of the story holds that the boy had been sodomised by a member of the Mastoi clan and the allegation of illicit relations was concocted to preempt the boy’s family from lodging a complaint.

It was only after a local newspaper reported the crime on June 30 that the administration finally took some action. The police, which had earlier tried to cover-up the crime, made a belated attempt to apprehend the culprits which, not surprisingly, was unsuccessful. The main accused, including the members of the tribal jury, had already fled. Six people who abetted the crime were arrested after the Punjab provincial government sacked the local police chief.

The ordeal of Ghulam Fareed’s family, who belongs to a socially inferior Gujjar tribe, began when his 12-year-old son, Abdul Shakoor, was accused of having an affair with a 22-year-old woman of the higher caste Mastoi tribe. The boy was brutally beaten and detained by the woman’s family. Alleging that their honour had been violated, they called for revenge. “Our honour can only be restored if we disgrace one of the boy’s sisters,” they reportedly told the tribal jury. Shakoor denied the allegation of having ” illicit” relations with the much older Salma Bibi. But his plea of innocence was rejected.

The jury, dominated by the Mastoi tribesmen, ordered Fareed to produce one of his daughters. The hapless man had no choice but to accept the ruling. Mai, the eldest of his five daughters who gave Koran lessons to the village children, agreed to go with her father. “I never thought they will give such a ruling,” said Mai. As the jury passed the order, she pleaded in desperation, “I am like your daughter, your sister. Don’t do this to me.” But her entreaties fell on deaf ears. An elderly jurist joined two brothers and a cousin of Salma in carrying out the inhuman verdict.

“My life was destroyed after that humiliation. I thought of committing suicide,” said Mukhtar. But the nationwide protest and the government’s promise to take action has given her some ray of hope that she might receive some justice. ” I want them to be publicly hanged,” she said.

The military government has ordered the arrest of the culprits and tough action against the police officers involved in the apparent cover-up. The villagers however, are skeptical that the main accused will ever be punished. Despite the government’s instructions, the police is reluctant to take action against an influential feudal and tribal lords who are allegedly providing shelter to the criminals. Instead, it is reported that Fareed and Mai are being pressurised by the police to change their statements. Villagers maintain that gang rape is a common method of avenging “honour” in the area, although the police deny this. Given that honour killings of women — sometimes merely on the basis of suspicion — are particularly common in tribal areas, the use of such bestial means of avenging honour do not seem implausible.

A tribal jirga ( jury) may not have any legal sanction, but it continues to operate in many parts of Pakistan where tribal and feudal systems remain predominant. In remote rural areas, where people, with good reason, have little faith in the police or the legal system, people appeal to the jirga for resolution of inter tribal disputes and matters related to “honour”. Under a tribal code, women are perceived as men’s property and the repositories of their honour, and thus a legitimate sacrifice where dishonour is to be redressed. An inter tribal dispute is often resolved under the jirga system by giving a woman in marriage to the rival group. In such a social milieu, a woman’s life, let alone her happiness, has little worth.

The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.