A straw breaking the camel's back, a pebble triggering the avalanche, a drop causing the cup to overflow: Choose your own image for Mukhtar Mai and the troubles she creates for her country's frightened and duplicitous leadership. If there is justice, any of those images will fit.
Mai is the courageous Pakistani woman who has refused to be silenced after being gang-raped as a tribal "punishment." She has also refused to knuckle under to the unconscionable shut-up-or-else treatment inflicted on her by President Pervez Musharraf's government.
By standing up and getting her story noticed at this particular moment, Mai may have dealt a crippling blow to the credibility of Musharraf, who has buffaloed the Bush administration into deluging him with fulsome praise, money and arms in return for Pakistan's incomplete help in fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The sordid details of the campaign to break Mai's will are emerging at a moment of strategic change in South Asia. The Bush administration is greatly expanding the bet it initially put down on India, while beginning to hedge its investment in Islamabad's military-dominated regime. The effect is to free U.S. relations with India from decades of "tilt" toward Pakistan.
So the ears of Bush officials are more open to hearing about the limitations of Pakistan as an ally. It may also count that Musharraf no longer deals with a fellow career military officer, retired Gen. Colin Powell, as U.S. secretary of state. Instead, Condoleezza Rice, a woman sensitive to the humiliations and personal destruction aimed at Mai, who is in her early thirties, now runs U.S. diplomacy.
In this easily understood case, Musharraf's eagerness to cover up the reprehensible behavior of other officials cannot be escaped or glossed over, even in Washington.
President Bush has decided not to call Musharraf on his fairy tales about Pakistan's reckless nuclear proliferation being the work of one man -- scientist A.Q. Khan -- or to press the general publicly on Pakistan's support for terrorism in Kashmir or its manifest unwillingness to do everything it can to capture Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies.
What Bush would not do in those cases, Mai has done in hers. She has spoken truth to power and let the consequences fall where they may. Aided by Pakistani reformers in her village and abroad, she has challenged the inhuman conventions of her country's misogynist rural society, forcing Musharraf to take sides. To his eternal shame, he backed the primitive conventions instead of her.
In June 2002 Mai -- whose name is rendered Mukhtaran Bibi in the outstanding, detailed opinion columns on this case by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times -- was raped by four men. They had been given license to assault her sexually by a tribal council charged with retaliating against an alleged social infraction by her brother. In the normal course of things, Mai would have been murdered by her family as a matter of "honor" or expected to commit suicide.
Instead she went to court and secured the conviction of her rapists. They were briefly imprisoned, then freed after Mai accepted an invitation to speak in the United States this month. When this intimidation did not work, the central government put Mai on a restricted travel list and confiscated her passport.
Musharraf acknowledged his involvement in blocking the trip to reporters on Friday, two days after the Pakistani Embassy in Washington implausibly denied that and much more. Rice authorized a tough scolding of Pakistan by the State Department's spokesman, and other officials finally began to speak critically of Pakistan's tolerating al Qaeda's presence in its border regions with Afghanistan.
These are signs that the State Department is breaking out of an old pattern. It no longer holds U.S. policy in South Asia hostage to the Indo-Pakistani confrontation and a perceived need to cater to Islamabad. The Bush administration seeks a strategic partnership with India independent of what the United States does or does not do with Pakistan.
Pakistan is the ultimate hard case for U.S. strategy: As a persistent critic of the Bush team's hype about Musharraf and of the general's own shortcomings, I have to acknowledge that the Pakistani leader is less corrupt and more courageous than the weak civilian governments that preceded him, including the one that forced him to take power in 1999 to save his own life.
And Musharraf does put limits on the extremists who control Pakistan's malignant intelligence services. A new and revealing-if-true account of Pakistan's active role in jihadist terrorism is contained in an interview with former intelligence officer Khalid Khawaja that is posted on the Asian Times Online site. But one Pakistani woman has shown that, like all autocrats, the general needs to be constantly monitored and challenged, not conspired with and consoled with rewards. Getting Pakistan to face and change its own grim reality should be an urgent American priority.