ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — When Mukhtaran Mai, a simple, uneducated peasant of a small village, was gang raped on the orders of a local council, her life was supposed to be over. In Pakistan's tribal and feudal culture, rape victims are usually ostracized. But Ms. Mai refused to back down, dedicating her life to social work and to changing attitudes about women.
"I had only three choices. Either to commit suicide by jumping in a well or shed tears all my life like any other victim in such cases. Or I could challenge the cruel feudal and tribal system and harsh attitudes of society," says Mai in a phone interview with the Monitor.
For three years, Mai has been fighting an uphill battle for justice against the culprits. Monday she is set to appear in Pakistan's Supreme Court to seek punishment for 12 men, including four alleged rapists. Lower courts put one of her attackers behind bars for life, but five other convicted men were freed on appeal because of a "lack of sufficient evidence."
Her case has garnered national and even international attention, thanks to her willingness to speak out both here and abroad. Concerned that she would tarnish the country's image, the government recently banned her from foreign travel, only to back off amid protests. But her greatest impact may be at home, where her boldness has helped change people's perceptions of rape victims, say rights activists.
"She has become a symbol of resistance and defiance in the country," says Farzana Bari, a leading women rights activist who has worked closely with Mai. "For the women's movement, her case is significant as she is showing the cruel face of a system which considers women as property."
The fate of 32-year-old Mai changed when she was allegedly raped by several men on the orders of a self-styled community justice council, known as a punchayat, in the Punjab village of Meerwala. The councils consist of tribal elders and influential feudal lords.
She was punished for no crime of her own. A rival clan went to the punchayat claiming that Mai's teenaged brother allegedly had a sexual relationship with a girl of their clan. Villagers say the boy was merely seen walking with the girl. The punchayat ordered that Mai be raped by the rival clan members to settle the score.
Mai says she shouted and screamed for help while she was dragged in front of hordes of villagers for rape. She walked back to her family house in front of the villagers, shivering, with tears in her eyes. But nobody came forward as a witness in her case.
Initially her parents refused to register a complaint with the police, saying it will bring dishonor to the family and disrepute to the tribe, an attitude no different from traditional practice. But they eventually agreed, due to Mai's commitment to fight.
"I pray to God to get justice as my victory will be the victory of suppressed and oppressed women," says Mai. "God forbid if I lose. Then it will be a defeat for everyone who believes in social justice."
When the case hit the headlines of national and international media, Mai became a celebrity and visited several countries in the West.
Using money she raised abroad, she now runs a primary school for girls and boys. Within two years, the enrollment increased to 350 and she plans to construct two more classrooms. The school's success shows that the villagers trust her, even to teach their kids the Koran.
"I want to see girls of peasants study and make their own identities rather than being caught in the vicious cycle of this feudal system," she says. "I am at peace whenever I see them studying."
Mai also lends a hand to other victimized women, to whom she has become a hero. Though she has helped embolden women in Pakistan, the fragile women's movement has a long road ahead. During seven months last year, 151 Pakistani women were gang-raped and 176 were murdered, victims of the centuries-old tribal custom of honor killings, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
A fortnight ago, human rights activists had wanted Mai to go to the US to speak on the issue but the government took her passport and restricted Mai to her house. During a recent trip to New Zealand, President Pervez Musharraf reportedly said Mai was being taken to the US by foreign nongovernmental organizations "to bad-mouth Pakistan" over the "terrible state" of the nation's women. He said NGOs are "Westernized fringe elements" which are "as bad as the Islamic extremists."
Islamabad lifted the travel ban after protests from rights activists, international media, and perhaps most significantly, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Mai, who has postponed her trip until after the court verdict, met with General Musharraf a couple of months ago.
"Someone must have tried to create a misunderstanding as he has always been kind to me," Mai says. "But how could he even think that I will bad mouth Pakistan? I love my country as much he does. I could have sought asylum, but I belong to this country and the land belongs to me."
Mai acknowledges that the pressure on her is daunting at times. "Even some people in the community taunt me, but I don't cry anymore. I only cry when the darkness hides my face. I curl up in my mother's lap but smile with sunrise with more vigor and courage," she says.
Mai wants to get married and she says lots of men have proposed to her. "But they seem to be interested more in money. I could see dollars flashing in their eyes. I tell them if you want to marry me then live with me in the village and serve people. Then they don't return," she says, smiling.