Mukhatar Mai — Survivor Who Chose Not To Back Down
This piece is part of a series recognising the efforts and struggle of Pakistani women who challenged the status quo and paved the way for other women.
In a society where survivors of rape and sexual assault are supposed to kill themselves, Mukhtar Mai, a woman from a native village of Meerwala in Muzaffargarh, Punjab, reported her rapists and courageously pursed the case against them. She was gang-raped after a verdict of a jirga (tribal court) in 2002 about her brother’s alleged crime.
Initially when Mukhtar identified the suspects, fourteen of them were arrested by police. That is when the case began to get the attention of international media.
Mukhtar’s willingness to report the crime uncovered another crime as an investigation ordered by the Punjab governor in July 2002 revealed that Mukhtaran’s brother Abdul Shakoor, then 12 years old, was raped by three men from the influential Mastoi tribe. The rapists then threatened the boy to keep silent about the incident. Upon his refusal, one of the perpetrators accused him of having sexual relations with his sister, Salman. Mukhtara’s family was forced to seek a settlement after the accusation against their son.
The Mastoi clan said that they would pardon Shakoor only if Mukhtara comes to their house and apologises on his brother’s behalf. When she reached their house to apologise, she was gang raped by four men and then paraded naked in the village.
Mukhtara has received recognition for her bravery at home and abroad, but she has not been fully served justice.
In March 2005, the Lahore High Court (LHC) acquitted five convicts in the case, while one accused’s sentence was converted into life imprisonment. In a 2019 interview with DW, Mukhtara spoke about the justice system’s failure to punish all her rapists. “It saddened me. A 2011 verdict was also against me. Then I kept appealing against the decisions. Now it is 2019. It has been very disheartening,” she said.
She also shared how court appearances were difficult for her. “When I go to courts, I hear obnoxious things about me. It has been very difficult for me. But I haven’t lost hope,” she was quoted as saying.
Alongside her legal struggle, Mukhtara also began education her villagers about their rights through various educational and awareness campaigns. Mukhtara’s experience made her realise that lack of education is the reason why they continue to be mistreated. She then set up a girls’ school, initially in a single room of her family home with a just one teacher and three students, including herself.
“The first school I attended was my own school,” Mukhtara had told CNN in 2013.
The school continued for three years without any external funding before it gained global coverage in 2005. She began to receive donations and government’s help following the coverage. The Mukhtar Mai Girl’s Model School now provides free education, books and uniforms to 550 girls up to high school.
“I am doing this for the future generations. I don’t want any woman to go through what I’ve been through. I launched an awareness campaign in my Mirwala town hoping that there won’t be another Mukhtaran Mai ever,” she says.
Mukhtara says that at one point even her family stopped supporting her, saying that highlighting this issue would bring dishonour to them. “It is a strange argument that those who committed such crimes are not condemned, but the victims. So all my initiatives and projects are aimed at changing this environment,” she said.