By Thor Halvorssen and Pedro Pizano
They raped her.
Fourteen men raped Mukhtar Mai. And this was not a criminal act; the village council authorized it. You see, rape is standard punishment in Pakistan for women and girls who have brought dishonor to their families or communities. But Mukhtar, a fragile and soft-spoken woman, refused to live by the cultural norm -- in Pakistan the victim remains silent or commits suicide. Mukhtar challenged tradition and waged a one-woman campaign against this most horrific of crimes that Pakistani men continue to carry out against their mothers, daughters, and sisters.
Mukhtar Mai was a 30-year old woman living in Meerwal, a remote village in Pakistan, when in June of 2002, her 12-year old brother Abdul Shakoor was allegedly seen walking with a girl from the higher-caste tribe, the Mastoi. The Mastoi took it as an offense and demanded that Muhktar be raped to avenge their honor. The Jirga or high court of Meerwal ordered the rape. Fourteen "volunteers" went to her house and while her family watched, they dragged her out and gang-raped her. She was then paraded naked in front of onlookers.
One month later, investigators found that Mukhtar's brother Abdul had never actually been walking with any girl, never mind one from the Mastoi. In fact, he had been kidnapped and raped by three men from the Mastoi, and they claimed he was walking with the girl to cover up their crime.
Violence of this sort is common practice in Pakistan, considered part of an ancient ethical code, commonly referred to as "honor revenge" and "honor killings." They are perpetrated at the very perception of dishonor, such as: engaging in homosexual acts, dressing in an unacceptable manner, or having an inappropriate non-sexual relationship (such as walking down the street with someone). The Jirga -- an all-men council -- analyze the situation and enforce the tradition, and its victims are almost always women and girls.
We had the opportunity to meet Mukhtar last year at the Oslo Freedom Forum. She spoke with a quiet but intense demeanor. "Usually a question that I'm asked is: why did I take a stand against the oppression and raise my voice for myself and for women's rights? To raise a voice against oppression is my basic or fundamental right. I have raised my voice for women's rights so what happened to me, may have happened, but it should not happen to any other woman."
After almost 10 years of bitter legal proceedings, Mukhtar's case made its way to the Supreme Court of Pakistan. On April 21, 2011, the verdict was handed down. It acquitted five of the accused and convicted just one of them, upholding an earlier decision. Thirteen of the 14 men who gang raped her went free and the reaction of the assembled crowd (including the Pakistani media present at the court) was applause.
"April 21, 2011, will be remembered as a black day in Pakistan's history," a Pakistani human rights defender, wrote us in a recent email. "Not because this was the day when the Supreme Court acquitted the alleged rapists of a poor, marginalized woman. It will be marked as the day when, once again, Pakistan's colonial criminal justice system failed to protect the vulnerable, thereby rendering a heinous crime such as gang rape almost unpunishable."
There was one brave and dissenting opinion, though. In the words of Mukhtar, who wrote to us five days after the verdict, this means that there "is a ray of hope to ask the court for review, though I hold no optimism that justice will be dispensed in review, but I want no stone unturned in my struggle for justice and realization of women rights in Pakistan."
Mukhtar Mai is a simple woman from a small town and her resolve, given enough attention across the world, could inspire men and women who believe in dignity and human decency to dramatically expand Mukhtar's effort. One of them is already doing so in Pakistan.
Veena Malik, has taken a stand, in a entirely different arena, against those who believe women are objects and should be treated like doormats. An entertainment personality famous for starring in a reality TV series in neighboring India, she engaged an Islamic Mullah, on national Pakistani TV during an interview where she was ambushed. She was accused of dishonor -- the old faithful ploy -- for her actions and style of dress. She was even told that her own son should be ashamed to see pictures of his mother. Like Mukhtar, she refused to remain silent and accused the Mullah of hypocrisy, told him that she did not regret her actions, and turned the accusations around on him using the Holy Koran. The footage of the interview is a triumph in that it succinctly captures the challenges faced by the women of Pakistan.
The men of Pakistan are not going to wake up one day and give women their inalienable rights and their dignity. Women there must be organized, assisted, but most of all, they must know that they are not alone or abandoned.
We invite you to stand with Mukhtar Mai and Veena Malik. Circulate their videos. Highlight the truth about what is going on in Pakistan today. Animate this fight in such vivid color that it becomes impossible for the world to ignore. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option.