From AFP, with thanks to Ali Dashti:
On a stifling summer afternoon two years ago, the cotton fields next to Mukhtar Mai’s mud-walled home echoed with the brutal gang-rape of the young woman, ordered by an unofficial tribal jury to atone for a crime alleged to have been carried out by her 12-year-old brother, Abdul Shakoor, himself raped by the thugs 12 hours earlier.
That was June 2002. Today, the same fields echo with the innocent chorus of 115 grotty-faced little angels: girls, 3 to 12 years old, in the first school the 3,000 inhabitants of the dustbowl village of Mirwala, 460 kilometers (285 miles) south of Islamabad, have ever seen.
The 12 hours that followed Shakoor’s gang-rape scorched Mai’s soul forever.
In a perversion of the eye-for-an-eye concept of justice, still enshrined in Pakistani law, the leaders of the local Mastoi clan, falsely calling themselves a tribal jury or jirga, ordered four of their own men to do to Mai what they alleged her brother had done to their sister: rape.
The jury-decreed rape of Mai threw the international spotlight on to the scourge of ‘honor’ punishments in Pakistan, where, according to records, at least 2,774 women have been killed over the past four years by fathers, husbands, brothers, sons and neighbors accusing them of bringing shame on their families.
It also shed light on the frequency of gang-rapes in the rural belt and the arcane tribal justice system.
In the first six months of this year, 268 women were raped or gang-raped in southern Punjab, according to records. Another 52 women were killed in honor punishments by their husbands, brothers, and fathers. Some 18 women and children were burned in acid attacks, the records show.
Most victims have trouble getting police to hear their tales, let alone file charges, and often their families forbid them from going public.
In the case of Shakoor and Mai, the story began on the long hot day of June 22, when a group of clansmen gang-raped and abducted Abdul Shakoor, and, when confronted by police, defended their actions as retribution for his allegedly “molesting” their sister.
At sunset they sent a delegation to the mosque to direct his father and uncle to bring Mai to them to apologize on behalf of the family, in front of 200 fellow tribesmen, for her brother’s “illicit” behavior.
“I went with my father and uncle to the Mastois’ place. The jirga leaders said: ‘Lay your hand on the Koran, make an oath, and apologize for your brother’s sin. I felt safe because they had made a promise to my father and uncle in the mosque,” Mai said.
“I did as they said. I apologized in front of all the people of the jirga. Then they snatched the Koran from my hands and the head of the jirga commanded the Mastois: ‘Go and do unto her, what her brother did to your sister’.”
As the crowd fell away in the deepening summer dusk, Mai’s protesting father and uncle were tied up, she was dragged screaming into an unlit hut, and four men took turns raping her….
When she emerged near midnight, her rapists untied her father and uncle. The two men said nothing as they walked her back home through the lanes of the empty village, her clothes in shreds.
“In that 12 hours my life totally changed,” Mai said.
“I will never forget that experience. This is a lifetime trauma.”
People respond in different ways to any trauma. According to Mai, “some do it with art, some through property or wealth. But I decided, with the help of God, to do something that gives me mental satisfaction and spiritual calm”.
So instead of allowing herself to be the victim, she embarked on a mission to bring learning to girls who would otherwise only ever know cotton fields and domestic chores, in the hope that society will change.
“She saved my respect,” her mother said later. “We love her even more since the attack.”
Mai has turned her fate around from that of victim to facilitator. News of her case was picked up by the national and then the international media and, with the spotlight on her, she received $8,300 in compensation from the government, a massive sum in Pakistan.
This enabled her to become one of the most powerful advocates of girls’ education in a country where 72 percent of women cannot read or write, according to Unicef.
“My first priority after that experience was to educate the next generation, because if I had been educated then that attack would never have happened,” she said. She would not have allowed it to take place.
Two summers on from that dreadful day, Mai is running Mirwala district’s first-ever school for girls, set up with the compensation money, where the village girls study math, science, the Koran, English and the national tongue, Urdu, from early morning to just after midday, six days a week. Boys learn the same lessons at another school she funded about two kilometers (1.2 miles) up the road.
“Life has no charm for me… but I must live until I die. So I want to develop this region, raise awareness and educate the people of this region,” Mai said.
“If I can achieve that, then my life will be a success. If there was no ignorance among our people, that incident would never have happened. I want to educate every girl so that if she has a husband who gives her food twice a day but beats her three times, she can leave him and earn for herself and protect herself and will never be helpless.”…
Rights activists in Pakistan say honor killings have flourished in the past because killers know they can buy their freedom after a murder conviction.
That is not the case today and nor have Mai’s four rapists and their three accomplices been treated lightly. They are on death row, awaiting an appeal.
She is unforgiving.
“I want all of them to die,” she said.
“I will never forgive them. They can cut off my limbs, but I will never compromise.”