We hope again: Mukhtar Mai, Kristof and activists

Isa Daudpota writing for The Friday Times (current issue)

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On the rare occasions when courage and perseverance triumph in the face of tragedy and overwhelming odds, the occasion revives your faith in humanity. In the face of such heroic successes, lesser mortals are encouraged to excel in our own small ways. The media should therefore regularly highlight such stories to help reduce our national depression.

The bitter seed of one such heart-warming story was planted in 2002. I have just learnt that Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani rape victim who waged a legal battle against her attackers and the justice system that sanctioned the crime, will be the subject of a feature Hollywood film. Funding is partly through ARY Digital, an independent Pakistani TV network, which will show this controversial movie nationally.

When her younger brother went before a council of tribal elders in the Southern Punjabi village of Meerwala after he was accused of being seen with a girl from a rival tribe, Mai pleaded for his release. They spared him – but ordered that she be gang-raped in public to shame her family. While most victims of this authorized crime commit suicide rather than live on as a pariah, Mai fought back.

She took her case to Pakistani authorities, and her ordeal drew international attention, particularly stories written by New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who may become a character in the film.

The press attention shamed the government into prosecuting her attackers, and Mai emerged as a galvanizing figure in a crusade to reform women’s rights. Thanks to the international publicity, Mai also wrote a book about her ordeal. The announcement of the film in a US magazine shows her standing next to Hilary Clinton.

Among those who have consistently reminded us about the seven-year-old Mai case pending in the Supreme Court of Pakistan are commentator Naeem Sadiq, founder member of the NGO, War Against Rape, and Rauf Klasra of The News.

A Feb 8 report by Klasra says that Mai has accused Federal Minister Qayyum Jatoi, resident of her area, of pressurizing her and her family to withdraw the case against 13 accused of the rape crime. This case has been pending in the Supreme Court for the last three years that included Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s tenure.

International attention has largely ensured financial support and security for Mai’s schools and women’s crisis relief center, which takes care of and protects victim of crimes. Kristof’s Sept 2004 column about Mai persuaded his readers to send generous contributions. In March 2006 he reported that $290,000 had been received as a result largely of his 2004 piece. His video, “The Courage of Mukhtar Mai” is a must see.

The government of Pakistan had earlier provided her the equivalent of about $8300, which she used to set up two schools. When Kristof wrote his 2004 piece, the promised operating cost for her schools by the government had failed to appear and Mai was using her own meagre funds to feed the police who had been provided to protect her.

Kristof’s consistent support for Mai’s work has helped provide her protection and continued attention, which has stopped anyone harming her physically despite her being surrounded by enemies. In the 2007 video, “Mukhtar’s Refuge”, Kristof issues an explicit warning to the then President Musharraf to the effect that if any “accident” should befall Mai, Musharraf would be held responsible.

To keep the international audience up to date about Mai, Kristof came to Pakistan in February and Nov 2008. His hope-filled videos of the two trips are: “The Courage of Mukhtar Mai” and “From Victim to Heroine”. These are supplemented by a photo-story, “Women Giving Hope to Women in Pakistan”, that shows stills of a few women who have been saved by Mai’s Crisis Center.

Kristof’s last visit highlighted the work of two other remarkable Pakistani women. The short video about Shahnaz Bukhari of the Progressive Women’s Association, “Acid Attacks”, relates to the incidence of acid throwing, and is worth the undeleted expletive alone. It shows the passion and the strength of women’s rights activists who are working to bring about change.

The second video, “Books not Bombs”, focuses on Tauseef Hyat of the NGO, Developments in Literacy, and shows how expatriate Pakistani are supporting 150 schools around the country. [There is reference provided here to the new controversial minister of education, Hazar Khan Bijrani; we turn to him later.] The money spent on education for such an effort is miniscule compared with the billions that America wastes in its war in northern Pakistan. The message conveyed is that the US would do better to support such activities to create friends and generate goodwill in this country. Compare the $290,000 that Mai got with $80 million that Pakistan wastes on buying a single F-16 warplane!

Mr Bijrani as head of a counsel of elders (jirga) had ‘resolved’ a decade long dispute of Sung Chatti (Sindhi word; Swara in Pashtu and V ani in Punjabi) through an order to have five infant girls transferred from the murderer’s clan to that of the aggrieved clan. This degenerate, outdated custom prevails in the all the rural areas of Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Film-maker Samar Minallah has highlighted the case, and the issue of Swara in which Bijrani was implicated in the Supreme Court. Her film “Swara, a Bridge over Troubled Waters”, is also a must see. Her related work appears at the Ethnomedia and Development website: http://tinyurl.com/al2hwa.

It is exemplary film makers and researchers like Minallah who need to be assisted by TV channels. They could support young talented film students to work with her and other socially conscious film-makers. Kristof takes on a student each year to work with him, and this is a model which each TV channel in Pakistan could emulate.

Because he did not move on the Mukhtar Mai case, it was felt that Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry might have been restrained by political pressure. That’s in the past. Had he and his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan (incidentally also Mukhtar’s advocate) however visited her in Meerwala, a small town near Multan where the CJ had gone to address the lawyers, he might have gained more brownie points for democracy and human rights than merely addressing a gaggle of the black coats.

Brave women such as Mukhtar Mai and Minallah, backed by women’s organizations such as Women’s Action Forum, work to highlight and undo prejudice and diabolical customs. PPP office holders such as Sherry Rahman, Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Shazia Marri, Sassui Palejo, Farzana Raja and, ace-researcher on Karo Kari, Nafisa Shah must speak out in public forums against guilty fellow legislators and ministers. To date, however, their silence is deafening.

The author is an Islamabad based physicist and environmentalist.




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