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An Unspeakable Nightmare, AnUnstoppable Dream
After she was brutally assaulted, the illiterate Pakistani was supposed to restore her family's honor by killing herself. Instead, Mukhtar Mai chose to live, to fight for justice and to find a better life for women like herself.
BY ROBERT KIENER
C RED I T G OES HERE

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Night of Betrayal
June 2002 was oppressively hot in Meerwala, a tiny rural village in the south of Pakistan’s Punjab province. There was no wind, no rain, no merciful break from the summer sun that baked the tumbledown dirt roads and parched the wheat fields to a dusty brown. On the evening of June 22, Mukhtar Mai, a 28-year-old villager, walked along a dusty path with her father and uncle to the home of their higher caste neighbors, the Mastois. The powerful clan claimed that her 12-year-old

Mukhtar Mai and her father leave court after she gave her statement to a judge; two of the accused rapists (inset) are led out of court.

brother Shakoor had been seen in public with a Mastoi woman. They said that Shakoor had brought shame to their family, even charging that the boy had raped the woman, and they were demanding punishment to restore the family’s “honor.” Earlier in the day the traditional village council, or panchayat, had decided that Mukhtar could appease the Mastois by apologizing for her brother’s alleged crime. According to ancient custom, forgiveness should be given to those who apologize sincerely. Clutching her Koran tightly, Mukhtar trembled as she approached the Mastoi’s walled compound. Surely they won’t harm me, she told herself. I have done nothing wrong. Facing a group of Mastoi men, some brandishing rifles and pistols, the fivefoot-seven-inch soft-spoken woman spread out her shawl at their feet, a sign of submission and humiliation. With her long, slender fingers wrapped around the Koran, she recited a verse she had memorized from the sacred text. The Koran will protect me, she thought, keeping her deep black eyes cast downward. Suddenly, as she looked up into the wild eyes of the Mastois, Mukhtar realized they had no interest in apologies; they wanted revenge. They grabbed her father and uncle and held them at gunpoint. Then several men lunged for her and pulled her by her long black hair into an empty stable. As Mukhtar was dragged along the ground, she cried out, “Let me go, in the name of Allah!”

A Simple Life
They were a poor family in one of the poorest villages in Pakistan. Mukhtar Mai’s family, lower-caste Gujars, scratched out a meager living from the sugar cane and wheat fields that flanked their mud-brick home in Meerwala. They owned only a few goats and oxen, a cow and a bit of land. They had no electricity, telephone or running water. No one in the family could read or write, or had ever been to school. Yet they were deeply devout Muslims, praying five times a day. Mukhtar excelled in memorizing sections of the Koran. Although she sometimes helped her father and two brothers in the fields, Mukhtar mostly stayed behind the walls of their home with her two sisOPENER PHOTO: © ROBERT NI C KELSBERG/GETTY IMAGES; O P P OSITE PAGE: © A P P HOTO/ KHA L ID TA NV EER (X2)

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Mukhtar with her brother Abdul Shakoor, whose innocent encounter with a young woman from the powerful Mastois clan set off a horrific series of events.

ters, cleaning, helping their mother cook chapattis, rice and lentils in the outdoor fire pit, or doing embroidery to sell for a few rupees in the market. When the women ventured outside, they covered themselves in hijabs (headscarves) or flowing burqas, so they would not make eye contact with male villagers. Modesty was not just a virtue, it was a commandment. According to shariah, or traditional Islamic law, it was forbidden for a female to walk with any male outside their family. Violations of traditional laws were treated severely, with punishments handed down by the local panchayat. Mukhtar had grown up with a strong sense of right and wrong. Her father Ghulam taught her to respect her elders and forbade her to lie. “We have little, but we have our honesty,” he told her. One day as she was running through the courtyard teasing her sister and sending the animals scurrying, her mother Bachual grabbed her by the arm and sat her down. “Watch out, Mukhtar!” she said waving her long brown finger at her, “God sees everything you do!”
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© ROB ERT NI C KELSBERG/G ETTY I M AG ES

It was something the young girl never forgot. Many nights she would lie awake on her crude straw mattress wondering if God was looking down at her. Eventually, she decided she knew what God must look like. She told her sister, “He is tall like a king. He rewards those who do good and sends those who do evil to hell.” Mukhtar married a man from a nearby village when she was just 18. It was an arranged marriage and not a happy union. Unlike many women in her position, Mukhtar decided to not stay with a man she did not love. One day she broke down and told her father that she could not go on with her marriage. Ghulam, his deep brown skin weathered by years under the relentless sun, told her, “Your heart will tell you what is right and wrong.” Mukhtar cried as he continued, “You will always have a home here with us.” Divorce was rare in rural Pakistan – a divorced woman was often looked on with shame. But Mukhtar’s parents backed her fully. In less than a year she had received the talaq from her husband, officially releasing her from the marriage, and moved back with her family in Meerwala. Childless, divorced and illiterate, her choices in life were limited. But she felt stronger for taking her life into her own hands. She worked hard embroidering and teaching children the Koran to earn money to help pay her parents for her support. By the time she reached her late 20s, Mukhtar had resigned herself to living in her childhood home, finding joy in the simple life of being a daughter, sister and aunt. Then, on that hot, still night, everything changed.

What Honor Demanded
Four Mastoi men raped Mukhtar Mai on the hard dirt floor of the pitchblack stable. Her father and uncle stood outside, helpless, listening as her screams cut through the night. When Ghulam cried, “Have mercy on us, please!” the Mastoi men merely laughed. After the rapists had finished with Mukhtar, they threw her outside, nearly naked. The Mastois feared no one, especially a peasant like Mukhtar. Ghulam covered her with a shawl and bundled her home. Raped, defiled and shamed in front of her village, Mukhtar felt she had only one option. Going to the police would only bring more shame, more
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dishonor to her family. Like countless other rape victims before her in Pakistan, she was expected to commit suicide. Honor demanded it. For three days she lay on her straw-filled bed, too shocked to get up, too devastated to eat or drink. Over and over, she recited verses from the Koran, but one thought filled her mind: I have to kill myself. Bachual begged her daughter to live, never leaving her side. “You have to eat, Mukhtar,” she implored, but Mukhtar was lost in grief and ate nothing. She lay in bed, her legs drawn up to her chest, her shawl pulled tight around her. I’m already dead, she thought as she wept. I’ve lost all honor. When Mukhtar asked her mother to bring her pesticide, Bachual fell to her knees, threw her hijab at Mukhtar’s feet and cried, “Please, Mukhtar. No! I will support you in whatever you do, but you must not take your own life.” With her mother at her side, Mukhtar recited more passages from the Koran. Now both her parents were willing her to live. “You are our daughter,” they said. “Don’t leave us.” As she lay in the bed she had slept in as a child, she decided to ask God for help. The answer came a day later. The local mullah, Maulul Abdul Razzaq, delivered a sermon at the Meerwala mosque condemning the rape. He said it was evil; it disgraced the village and should not be covered up. “The police should be notified,” he bravely told the shocked congregation of male villagers. Finally, four days after she had been raped, Mukhtar broke down and began crying. But these tears were not tears of shame. The sorrow she had been feeling gave way to anger, then a longing for justice. Mukhtar Mai made a fateful decision: with Maulul Abdul Razzaq’s backing she would tell the police what had happened to her on that dark stable floor. Summoning her last bit of strength she vowed, “I will fight them.” Let the Mastois kill me, she thought. But I won’t give them the satisfaction of doing it myself. She chose justice over death.

Call for Justice
When the Mastois learned that Mukhtar was going to report the rape, they threatened to kill her. The police took the family to the provincial police station in nearby Jatoi. As the police car trundled out of Meerwala, two
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of Mukhtar’s cousins ran alongside and begged her, “Don’t do this. Don’t tell the police anything. The Mastois will kill you.” She ignored them. There is nothing more they can do to me, she thought as the taxi honked to move oxen from the dirt road. The Mastois have to be punished. Having to tell the story of her rape to strangers – especially men – was almost more than Mukhtar could bear. But she was strengthened by the presence of her mullah and her parents. As they walked into the Jatoi police station, Bachual put her arm through her daughter’s, supporting her and helping her summon the strength to tell her story. Her voice just above a whisper, with her face half covered by her hijab, Mukhtar told police officers the details of that horrible night. She was too ashamed, too embarrassed, to look them in the eyes. Giving an account of her rape was almost like reliving it, and over the next few weeks she would relive the terror many more times. Thanks to her brave decision to report this crime to the police, Mukhtar Mai’s story made the news, receiving first regional, then national and international coverage. No other Pakistani woman, especially an illiterate peasant, had ever stood up like this against her attackers. Mukhtar Mai’s courage resonated loudly. Her picture, her haunted black eyes peeking out from behind her light green hijab, appeared in newspapers and on television screens around the world. Pakistani human rights supporters marched in her honor demanding justice. For centuries sexual assault and violence against women has been widespread in Pakistan. The country’s often-brutal tribal laws, handed down by village councils, have long condoned these attacks on women as “repayments” for alleged wrongs. Even in these modern times, over 100 Pakistani females are gang-raped and more are killed each year in the name of “honor.” Most of these crimes go unpunished. But Mukhtar Mai was about to break that tradition. Suddenly Mukhtar had become a heroine, a symbol for women’s rights. After seeing the publicity she generated, the national government supported her by guarding her simple mud-brick home in Meerwala around the clock. The government also decided to represent her against her alleged rapists and promised a speedy trial. Visitors, including other women who had been raped, flooded into
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Meerwala to meet her. Each story she heard gave her new strength to keep fighting. A female minister came to Meerwala and reassured her, saying softly but firmly, “You will get justice. Be brave.” Meanwhile, Mukhtar recalled something she had always believed: “Whenever Allah gives you a hard thing, he also gives you courage to fight it.”

Surprising Verdict
“The government has instructed me to give you this check for half a million rupees,” said Attiya Inayatullah, Pakistan’s then federal minister for women. “It is in no way a compensation, but rather a small token of our identifying with all the suffering you have been through.” Mukhtar was speechless as the minister handed her the check. Although she could not read it – she had never even seen a check before – she knew it was more money (around US$8200) than her father could earn in decades. But Mukhtar looked up and told Inayatullah, “No. I don’t need money.” The minister was shocked. “Please,” she continued. “Take this.” After a pause Mukhtar explained, “I don’t need money. What I really need is a school.” The idea had come to her over the last few weeks. She realized that so many of the people who had come forward to support her were educated. “It is their education that gives them their power,” she told her mother one evening. Unable to read or write, she herself had felt powerless. Mukhtar agreed to take the check if she could use it to build a girls’ school. “Then maybe girls won’t have to go through what I have,” she said. The more support Mukhtar Mai got, the stronger she felt. Thanks first to her mother, then her father, then the village mullah, and now from all these strangers, she felt strong enough to face her attackers in court. And so on a sweltering hot July morning, 14 handcuffed Mastois were led into court. Mukhtar barely looked at them. Nine were accused of threatening Ghulam’s life, the other five of raping Mukhtar. “Liar.” The word burned in Mukhtar’s ears. Over and over again one of the Mastois’ nine lawyers accused her of lying. “Nothing happened,” they would tell the judge. “She is making it all up!”
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Mukhtar has established a school in her village to educate illiterate Pakistani girls so they don’t have to go through what she did.

For the next three days Mukhtar Mai endured the agony of retelling the story of the night she was gang raped. But she never faltered. As she stood before the 14 shackled Mastois, she told the judge how she was raped and tossed out of the stable to the ground. She appeared calm but as she would note later, “My heart and stomach were aching with shame.” The verdict came on August 31, 2002, just two months after the rape. Six of the Mastois were convicted and sentenced to death for their part in the assault. The other eight were set free. Mukhtar Mai had made history. But she and her family were in no mood to celebrate. They knew the case had split the village, with some residents
© ARI F ALI /AFP/G ETTY I M AG ES

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accusing her of lying and bringing dishonor on Meerwala. Yet everyone, even her supporters, realized that the family’s, and Meerwala’s, simple life would never be the same again.

Fulfilling the Promise
No one would have blamed Mukhtar and her family if they had moved away from Meerwala after the trial. They could start anew, far away from the Mastoi clan that continued to threaten their lives. But Mukhtar had her dream. “A school can change lives,” she insisted to her mother. Mukhtar believed that if there was a way to educate the girls in Meerwala, none of whom had been to school, perhaps they wouldn’t have to go through what she did. Her mother reminded her that the men in their village would see no reason to send their daughters to school. “You’re just asking for trouble, Mukhtar.” But Mukhtar was determined. She purchased land near her home and enlisted workers to help build a primary school. She pitched in with others, making mud bricks under the scorching sun and hauling them to the building site. Villagers looked on in astonishment as Mukhtar Mai Model Girls School rose up in front of them and opened in December 2002. The government paved the road into Meerwala and brought in electricity and telephone lines. Mukhtar Mai was making a difference. Building the school was one thing, filling it with students was another. As Mukhtar soon learned, Bachual was right. It was difficult getting villagers to allow their daughters to enroll. Accompanied by a police bodyguard, she went door to door in Meerwala, asking parents to send their daughters to the new school. Time after time she heard excuses like, “Girls have no need to learn to read,” or, “Only boys need to be educated.” But she was persistent. If a family had several daughters, she would ask that just one be sent to school at first. She promised to arrange for a van to pick up every girl. Eventually, a handful of girls trickled into the school. Then more came. The school had no frills; students sat on wheat sacks instead of chairs. Not quite believing her dream was coming true, Mukhtar eagerly sat alongside her young students and learned to read and write with them.
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Mukhtar led an International Women’s Day rally in Multan less than a week after a high court acquitted five of her six alleged attackers.

When money ran low Mukhtar sold what few possessions she had – her earrings and her cow – but as news organizations reported her story, donations began pouring in. Finally she could afford to hire carpenters to build wooden chairs and desks for the students. Ceiling fans helped make the sweltering classrooms tolerable. Best of all, Mukhtar now had enough money to add more classrooms. Within a year she opened a boys’ school in Meerwala and another girls’ school in a nearby village. Eventually, more than 700 children of every caste mixed freely in the schools including, remarkably, several from the Mastoi clan. The schools were only part of Mukhtar’s miracle. As her story spread to even the smallest villages in Pakistan, women began appearing on her doorstep. Some had been raped, others beaten or mutilated for so-called “honor” crimes. They arrived with horrifically scarred faces, victims of acid attacks; or they had their ears or noses cut off, a common punishment for supposed adulterers. These women sought shelter, refuge and, most of all, justice from the person who had come to be the embodiment of women’s rights. Mukhtar opened her heart and wallet to these poor people and established the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Crisis Relief Center alongside her first school.
© M OHAM M AD M ALI K/AFP/G ETTY I MAGES

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Mukhtar with students at her school in Meerwala. “These girls, my little sisters, now have a future, “ she says.

She Turns No One Away
Meerwala is home to about 5000 villagers and is spread out across some 50 square miles. Whitewashed mud-brick homes shimmer beneath the midday sun. The wheat fields are dusty brown. Regal date palms stand tall in the summer heat. Behind black iron gates stands a compound surrounded by six-foot-high walls. This is Mukhtar Mai’s home, school and rape crisis center. In one of the six, 400-square-foot, ground-floor classrooms children recite the English alphabet while in another a teacher guides them through an Urdu-language science textbook. A poster on a wall pictures two Pakistani girls with the caption, “Why don’t you send us to school? Think about it. It will be good for you too.” Goats and dogs amble through the compound. Construction workers are building more classrooms that will soon form a new high school. In a second-floor office Mukhtar Mai, wearing a yellow shawl, yellow pants and flowered white slippers, listens attentively as a sobbing Punjabi woman, Nasreen Bibi, explains how her seven-year-old daughter Quasar was raped and killed by neighbors. “Quasar was going out to buy candies,” says her mother through her tears. Mukhtar gently reaches out to hold her thin hand. “I never saw her alive again.” She begins begs Mukhtar to help her make sure the killers are prosecuted. Her brother Jam takes up the story as Nasreen looks on, still tightly clutching Mukhtar’s hand. “Before they buried her body, they poured acid on it, trying to disguise it.” Several days later the family found their daughter buried in a shallow grave. “Her face was burned by acid. So they didn’t even let me see my daughter’s face in death,” cries Nasreen. She wraps her hands around Mukhtar’s, as if in prayer. “Please, help me.” Mukhtar asks one of her assistants to give Nasreen and her brother the name of a lawyer they employ to advise on such cases. She herself will call the police to see if they are following up on the murder. The grief-stricken mother thanks her. “There is no one else,” she tells Mukhtar. On average, five victims come to the crisis center each day, seeking help.
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Yet Mukhtar Mai’s own search for justice was not over. One day she received a call from her lawyers. “The Lahore High Court is going to hear an appeal from the Mastois,” they told her. On March 3, 2005, she listened in disbelief: Five of the six convicted Mastois (four convicted of rape) had been acquitted. They were being released. The sixth had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Two days later she gathered the courage to tell reporters that she would appeal the new verdict. Although she was still terrified the Mastois would kill her, she also vowed to stay in her hometown. “This is my country, my village,” she insisted. Women’s rights activists protested the verdict and carried signs with messages like, “Courage Mukhtar Mai. We are with you!” After an international outcry the Pakistan government intervened and the Mastoi men were re-arrested and ordered to be retried. They remain in prison, awaiting a new trial date. In the meantime Mukhtar Mai has continued to receive death threats and is under around-the-clock police protection.
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© FA R H A N A H MED KH A N FOR MUKH TA R MA I WO M AN WELFARE ORGANI ZATI ON

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Mukhtar Mai turns no one away. Today there is a woman whose husband has beaten her and kicked her out of their home. She had nowhere else to go but Mukhtar’s center. Three rape victims, all terrified they will be killed by their husbands if they return home, have been living with their children at the center for months. All of this takes a toll on Mukhtar Mai. After hearing the story of a 16-yearold girl, Nasima Labano, who was gang raped by eight men in nearby Sindh province, she nearly collapsed. The case was so chillingly similar to her own. She offered Nasima refuge and help with her legal and medical bills. Mukhtar is soft spoken and rarely looks a stranger in the face. Although she has traveled widely and achieved international recognition, she is painfully shy and prefers others to talk for her. But there is elegance, even grace, in her simplicity. Her gentle manner commands respect. When she walks into her schoolyard, students come up and politely touch her shawl or shake her hand. “When I am around my students, I am at peace,” she says as she walks through the schoolyard. “This is my dream.” Mukhtar beams when she spots Sidra Nazar, one of the smartest students in the school. The bright-eyed ten-year-old says she wants someday to be a doctor. A year ago Sidra’s parents threatened to pull her out of school because they had promised to marry her to a 30-year-old man. Mukhtar confronted the family, and they backed down. Sidra is still in school, free to pursue her dream. “These girls, my little sisters, now have a future,” she explains. With her schools and rape crisis center Mukhtar Mai rescues countless Pakistani women from the stranglehold of traditional justice, the same outdated system that resulted in her being gang raped. Now women are turning to her for help instead of surrendering themselves to their local panchayat. Says Pakistani human rights activist Rashid Rehman, “Against all odds, this humble peasant has led a quiet revolution.” As Mukhtar Mai herself often says, “I am just the first drop of water in this village, but then the rains will come. And many drops of rain make a big river.”

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