March issue 2011

By | News & Politics | People | Profile | Published 9 years ago

Mukhtaran Mai is a paradigm of courage and resolve for women across the world. A resident of Meerwala, Muzaffargarh district, she lived a normal life in her village until a bestial act changed her life forever.

On June 22, 2002, Mukhtaran was gang-raped by men from the powerful Mastoi tribe as punishment for her younger brother’s alleged affair with Salma, a woman from their clan. A jirga had prescribed the punishment. Subsequent reports indicated that the police knew about this incident but failed to register a case for several days.

It was only after activists and journalists created a hue and cry that the government finally took notice and offered Mukhtaran money as compensation. However, no further effort was made to ensure the legal requirements for a successful prosecution, resulting in very poorly conducted trials. After the initial trial in August that year, the D.G. Khan anti-terrorism court (appropriate for Mukhtaran’s case as the Mastoi clan blatantly intimidated and terrorised her and her family) convicted six men in the case and sentenced them to death on August 31, 2002, while acquitting eight others. Of the six men convicted, four of them were actually involved in the gang-rape, while the other two purportedly helped persuade the panchayat to rape Mukhtaran as “badla” for her brother’s relationship with Salma, explains Aitzaz Ahsan, Mukhtaran’s pro-bono lawyer since 2005. However, while the anti-terrorism court was efficient in making the convictions, a ruling in 1998 allowed verdicts to be appealed in Pakistan’s regular court system, and hence the case was retried in the Lahore High Court. On March 3, 2005, the Lahore High Court reversed the judgement by the trial court on the basis of “insufficient evidence” and subsequently acquitted five of the six men previously awarded the death penalty.

According to the evidence that was found, at least one man had had sexual intercourse with Mukhtaran, and hence he was convicted. “However, the man alleged that he was Mukhtaran’s husband as they had entered a verbal nikahnama as per Mastoi custom. But when a maulvi was called in as a witness, he denied that any suchnikahnama existed, thus negating his claim,” says Ahsan.

However, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) decided to overrule the decision of the Lahore High Court and all the accused were arrested again. But the very next day, the Supreme Court overruled this decision claiming that the FSC did not have the authority to intervene, and decided to hear the case and appeals of all 14 of the originally accused men. And ever since then, the case had been pending in the apex court.

In the meantime, international donations approximately amounting to $160,000 as reported by New York Time’s journalist Nicholas Kristoff, poured in for Mukhtaran. In line with her determined attitude, Mukhtaran used the money to open two schools in her village, “a village where no girl was educated before,” she says proudly in conversation with Newsline. The children of her rapists were also allowed admission in these schools. Furthermore, she opened a shelter for abused women and provided her village with a much-needed ambulance. She has set up a website where her supporters from around the world can make online donations, and has acquired the help of US aid organisation Mercy Corps to manage her funds.

Viewed as the symbol of courage at home and abroad, Mukhtaran began to receive invitations from the United States to share her inspiring story. However, the Musharraf government stopped her from travelling abroad for fear that she would malign the country’s image abroad. On June 10, 2005, as she was preparing to fly to London at the invitation of Amnesty International, Mukhtaran was put on Pakistan’s Exit Control List. After strong protests by her supporters, Mukhtaran Mai’s passport was finally returned to her on June 27, 2005.

In the following years, as she waited for the case to reopen, Mukhtaran went on to win awards in recognition of her hard work. In August 2005, the Pakistan government even in a change of heart, honoured her with the Fatima Jinnah gold medal, and in November that same year, she was named US Glamor magazine’s Woman of the Year. The following year, she launched her memoir, In the Name of Honour, a well-received book that inspired several documentaries on her life.

In June 2010, Mukhtaran alleged that PPP legislator, Jamshed Dasti, began threatening her to withdraw her appeal in the Supreme Court and to reach a compromise with the Mastoi biradari, or else she and her family members would face dire consequences. Dasti took the plea that “the persons imprisoned in jail are innocent and the court has no justification giving the death sentence to the accused persons in a gang-rape case.”

On November 30, 2010, Mukhtaran Mai’s Twitter feed finally indicated that the case had been resumed in the apex court. Barrister Ahsan presented the details of each appeal at the hearings over the course of six weeks. The final decision has been withheld, but Ahsan seems hopeful that justice will finally be delivered to Mukhtaran. “In the cross-examination, the accused admitted to the [award of the punishment by the] panchayat, they admitted to taking her into a room, they admitted to her coming out of the room without any clothes on, and they admitted to her walking in public without any clothes on,” he says. But a more despondent Mukhtaran sighs and says, “We’ve done everything we could, we’ve worked hard on this. All we can do is wait and see what happens now.”

This article was part of a special report examining the status of women in Pakistan in the March 2011 issue of Newsline.