Pakistan: Back to the Dark Ages?
How does the plight of Mukhtaran Mai illustrate the tensions between Islam and globalization?
On a sweltering day in June 2002 in Muzaffargarh, one of the remotest districts in the Punjab province of Pakistan, three armed men of the Mastoi tribe walked purposefully up to a young man of the Tatla tribe named Shakoor and dragged him into a sugarcane field.
Unable to resist the stronger men, Shakoor cried for help as they pulled him into the tall stalks under the blazing sun, just reaching its zenith. Once away from prying eyes, they forced Shakoor to lie face down in the hot soil and took turns sodomizing him.
Mukhtaran Mai, Shakoor's elder sister and a teacher of the Quran to Mastoi children, had heard that he was in danger and in desperation ran about trying to get help from the elders of her tribe. As is often the case in rural Pakistan, the nearest police station was miles away and connected to the district by poor dirt roads.
Members of Mukhtaran's smaller and weaker Tatla clan now began to gather in numbers, as did other men of the Mastoi tribe. The Mastoi accused Shakoor of talking to a woman from their tribe in public and therefore of dishonoring the entire tribe. He was also accused of committing zina, adultery, which carries the death penalty in tribal custom.
Shakoor continued to struggle against the men late into the evening. When the police finally arrived, they took him, not his assailants, to the local station on charges of improper sexual conduct. Because the Mastoi had influence in the area, the police accepted their version of the story.
Elders from the Tada clan then proposed a settlement with the Mastoi elders, suggesting that young Shakoor marry the Mastoi girl and, in keeping with tribal tradition, that Mukhtaran marry one of the Mastoi men to prevent more violence.
Some members of the Mastoi tribe appeared receptive to the suggestion. Groups of people continued to talk late into the evening, and people soon drifted back to their homes to think the matter over.
Not long afterward — while negotiations were under way in the Mastoi area — Abdul Khaliq, an elder of the Mastoi tribe, armed with a pistol forcibly took Mukhtaran into a nearby home with a dirt floor. Along with two other men, Khaliq raped her while her father and uncle despairingly tried to enter and stop the crime but were held back by other Mastoi tribesmen.
After an hour of this ordeal, the men pushed Mukhtaran outside to face the shocked and distraught onlookers. Her traditional shirt had been ripped apart and the loose pants covering her legs had been torn off her now battered and bruised body.
In a final sign of humiliation, the men threw her clothes out the front door. Her father attempted to cover her with what he could and hurried her back to their home in the Tatla area.
That Friday, the local imam condemned Mukhtaran's rape in his sermon, then invited a journalist to meet Mukhtaran's father and encouraged her family to file official charges against the rapists. Within days, the story became headline news in Pakistan, soon circulating in different versions.
Almost two weeks after it took place, the BBC, on July 3, 2002, covered the story — and a few days later, Time magazine picked it up. Pakistan's chief justice called Mukhtaran's rape “the most heinous crime of the twenty-first century."
On July 5, President Musharraf announced Mukhtaran would receive a half million rupees (about $8,000) in compensation.
Mukhtaran emerged from the incident as a symbol of the plight of women. She used the money to build two local schools, one for girls and one for boys. Before this, there had been no girls' school in her village, and she had taught herself how to read.
Western donors also saw her as a courageous symbol of women's rights and supported her educational program.
Mukhtaran's rapists and those who had conspired with them were sentenced to death by a local anti-terrorist court, which specializes in prosecuting cases relating to "terror" or "mass intimidation." It was a new kind of court set up after 9/11 and is widely viewed as an instrument misused by the government.
In all, six Mastoi men were sentenced to death. A higher court overturned the judgment, however, and the matter is now caught up in court battles.
Exactly three years after the incident, Mukhtaran was invited to fly to London as a special guest of Amnesty International. When checking in at the airport, she was informed that she was on Pakistan's notorious Exit-Control List, which bars Pakistanis from traveling abroad and is widely seen as a weapon the government uses to intimidate its citizens.
At a press conference on a visit to New Zealand, the matter was brought to the attention of President Musharraf, who now made the first of several public relations blunders: Musharraf stated he was personally responsible for putting a stop to Mukhtaran's trip because the intention of its organizers was to "bad-mouth Pakistan." He went on to attack her hosts as "Westernized fringe elements," which he considered “as bad as the Islamic extremists."
When the New York Times and the Daily Times of Pakistan strongly condemned the treatment of Mukhtaran in a series of articles, Musharraf backed down with the following message on his personal website: "Mukhtaran Mai is free to go wherever she pleases, meet whoever she wants, and say whatever she pleases." He even awarded Mukhtaran a medal for bravery and courage.
But a few days later, on a visit to the United Nations headquarters in New York, Musharraf appeared to backtrack. In a long interview with the Washington Post on September 13, 2005, he dismissed rape cases in Pakistan with shocking callousness, explicitly suggesting that women arranged to be raped: "This has become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped."
Probably realizing the tastelessness of these remarks when they were condemned as scandalous, Musharraf then denied ever having made them. This induced the Post to put the audio interview online, in which Musharraf speaks these very words.
As if to further snub Musharraf, the U.S. magazine Glamour named Mukhtaran "Woman of the Year." Her memoir, titled “In the Name of Honor: A Memoir,” was published in 2006.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from JOURNEY INTO ISLAM: THE CRISIS OF CIVILIZATION by Akbar Ahmed, copyright 2007. Published with permission of Brookings Institution Press.