Wednesday, February 20, 2008

By: Nicholas D. Kristof

Around Mukhtar Mai I can feel true greatness. Her village of Meerwala is an unassuming collection of huts, and she can be shy and quiet, but you follow her through the village and you sense that she is leading a revolution—against rape, illiteracy, and the repression of women—that is reverberating through all of Pakistan and indeed the entire world.

The backdrop of Mukhtar’s story is well-known: Her young brother was accused (wrongly) on having an affair, and so a tribal council decided to punish her family by ordering that she be gang-raped. The sentence was carried out then and there, and she was forced to walk home nearly naked before a jeering crowd. She was meant to commit suicide, and initially she thought she would—but then she became more angry than humiliated. Instead of killing herself, she prosecuted her attackers and told her story.

If Mukhtar’s story had ended there, it would have been one more tragedy in a world full of them. Fortunately, that was just the beginning, for Mukhtar used her compensation money from the rape to start a school in her village. Ultimately, she believed that the only way to fight feudal attitudes was to educate people.

I had heard of Mukhtar’s story, and in 2004 while on a visit to Pakistan I traveled to Meerwala to meet her. (Back then she mostly went by a variant of her name, Mukhtaran Bibi.) Visiting her involved a succession of flights from Islamabad to Lahore to Multan, and then a drive for several hours through the Punjab countryside, ending up on a dirt road. Meerwala then had no electricity, and when I finally got to her house her father and brothers were introduced to me but she hung back. If I had expected a magnetic and charismatic leader, that wasn’t her—she struck me instead as retiring and a bit traditional. She didn’t seem to think it was appropriate for a woman to do much talking, and so at first her brothers and father spoke.

Gradually, though, she began speaking to me more. She spoke bluntly of her shame at being raped, of crying endlessly, of having disgraced her family. She spoke passionately about her school, and increasingly she dominated the room. Mukhtar told me that her school was running out of money, so she was selling family jewelry to pay the teachers; she was at her wit’s end. The police who were supposedly protecting her were losing interest, and she feared she would soon be killed.

I wrote a column about Mukhtar and the responses deluged my office. American readers were moved by her story and wanted to help. I blithely told readers they could send checks, and I would forward them to her. Eventually, I was able to arrange to do so through the aid group Mercy Corps, and in the end readers sent more than $ 160,000, which she used to buy a van to function as an ambulance and school bus, and to start a high school.

Since that first trip, I’ve seen Mukhtar repeatedly—both in New York and in Meerwala. In the U.S. she appears at banquets, is hailed at the White House, and is feted at luxury hotels—and yet she is always counting the days to return to Pakistan.

For all the acclaim and goodwill that Mukhtar has won for Pakistan, she has had mostly trouble from Pakistan’s leaders. I think the problem is twofold. First, they feel she is displaying Pakistan’s dirty laundry in public, embarrassing her country. Second, they’re resentful that an uneducated peasant woman from a Punjab village is celebrated as a hero, getting more attention than they are. The upshot is the government has repeatedly tried to muzzle her.

In Pakistan the government has applied constant pressure on Mukhtar. Her mail is confiscated, her phones are tapped. Newspapers close to the government constantly publish disparaging articles about her, suggesting that she is an unpatriotic woman who allows herself to be used by foreigners to make Pakistan look bad.

Mukhtar is sensitive, and these criticisms really sting her. But over time, I’ve watched her mature and toughen. When I first visited her, she was still asking her brothers for permission every time she wanted to leave the house. That became ridiculous as she began to jet around the world and be feted by foreign ministers, so Mukhtar just breached tradition and came and went as she saw fit.

In March 2006 I visited Meerwala again, and I was impressed by Mukhtar’s school. They are much better equipped today. The high school was under construction, and at the elementary school graduation there was a wonderful school play in which the kids acted out the dangers of early marriage (the main danger turned out to be that the wide is murdered.) But what struck me the most in Meerwala was how Mukhtar tirelessly browbeat parents to keep their daughters in school.

That is why Mukhtar keeps refusing to move to safety in the city, or even to a haven in the West. Life might be more comfortable, but she would lose that sense of fulfillment that she now finds. This is a woman on a mission.

Most poignant of all is the scene in Mukhtar’s home. Desperate women from across Pakistan arrive in buses and taxis and carts, for they have heard of Mukhtar and hope that she may help. The worst cases have had their noses cut off—a common Pakistani punishment administered to women in order to shame them forever. So Mukhtar hears them out and tries to arrange doctors or lawyers or other help for them. In the meantime these women sleep with Mukhtar on the floor of her bedroom (she gave the bed to the principal of her elementary school, Naseem Akhtar). So every night, there are up to a dozen women sleeping with Mukhtar in her bedroom, lying all over the floor, huddled against one another, comforting one another. They are victims with wrenching stories—and yet they are also symbols of hope, signs that times are changing and that women are fighting back.

Women who were raped simply killed themselves, but increasingly they are following Mukhtar’s example. Gradually, Mukhtar is chipping away at the old repressive way of life, and helping to usher in a new Pakistan.

As you read In the Name of Honor, I think you will find a story that is tremendously inspiring. By the alchemy of her courage and stubbornness, Mukhtar has taken a sordid tale of gang rape and turned it into something heartwarming and hopeful. And that is one more reason why, when I’m around Mukhtar, I sense that this shy peasant woman is truly a great and historic figure—and why she’s one of my heroes.

[Abridged from the Foreword to In the Name of Honor: A Memoir by Mukhtar Bai, p. 172, 2006]

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