July Issue 2005

By | Editorial | Opinion | Published 19 years ago

The news is that two intelligent, articulate and empowered young women have been appointed to head image-makeover cells in Islamabad to peddle Pakistan’s “soft image” to the world.

A tall order, indeed, when your head of state issues statements that are out of sync with the image. At a meet-the-press in Auckland, General Musharraf proudly proclaimed that it was he who stopped Mukhtaran Mai, that symbol of resistance against women’s oppression, from proceeding to the US to speak at a forum of Pakistani-American physicians. Why? Because it was tantamount to washing one’s dirty linen in public and would serve no purpose.

On his return home, the general ordered that an international conference of all female victims of abuse be convened. Presumably, so that they could “wash their dirty linen” in Pakistan, instead?

The manner in which the Mukhtaran Mai case has been handled is outrageous.

Firstly, all but one of the rapists were ordered to be released by the Multan bench of the Lahore court for lack of evidence. A helpless woman is publicly gang-raped on the orders of a jirga in Southern Punjab and around 200 plus people are a witness to the hapless woman being dragged by the accused and there is NO evidence? Not even the victim’s evidence?

Then the New York Times reporter whose coverage of the case fetched donations worth 100,000 dollars for a girls’ school and rehabilitation centre in Mukhtaran’s village, was not allowed into Pakistan a second time as punishment for “sullying” Pakistan’s image. But the choicest abuses were reserved for the NGOs who highlighted Mukhtaran Mai’s plight and brought her case centrestage. Besides being equated with religious extremists, they were referred to as ‘vultures’ and ‘crows’ who were pursuing western agendas for their own ends. NGO-bashing has become this government’s favourite pastime. The media was not spared either — it was accused of sensationalising the issue.

Instead of putting its own house in order, the government has gone on the offensive to silence the NGOs, the media and the victim herself. In a gross display of insensitivity, Mukhtaran Mai’s name was put on the Exit Control List, her passport was impounded, and the PM’s adviser on women’s affairs took over as Mukhtaran’s official spokesperson in a desperate attempt to silence her.

The establishment is treating the victim as it should the accused.

Is the government really serious about improving the status of women or is it merely paying lip-service to the cause of women to forward its own agenda of “enlightened moderation”? All the discriminatory laws remain on the statute books, women continue to be abused and killed in the name of honour. Mukhtaran Mai is just one of the thousands of women who face abuse on a daily basis.

The only difference is that Mukhtaran Mai refused to disappear into the darkness of the night or take the first flight out of the country. She stayed on and stood up to her tormentors. And for that she needs to be applauded. Not silenced

Rehana Hakim is one of the core team of journalists that helped start Newsline. She has been the editor-in-chief since 1996.