The Nov. 4 Diplomatic Dispatches column incorrectly quoted a petition signed by U.S. Muslim organizations as referring to "secular violence." The petition said, "Sexual violence is not, nor has ever been, a legitimate means of punishment in Islam." (Published 11/10/2005)
Mukhtar Mai's dark, chiseled features and glossy black hair stood out against the pale terra cotta shawl draped over her shoulders. When she spoke, her words came out in barely a whisper.
Her shyness seemed to be a strange blend of pained cynicism and tearful vulnerability. As she told her story, she occasionally laughed defiantly. "If I cried all the time, no one would show me sympathy and stand by my side," she said Monday. Instead, "Everyone stands behind me now because God has stood by me."
Three years ago, Mukhtar was gang-raped in Pakistan on the orders of an all-male tribal council. But unlike many hushed-up cases, hers elicited national outrage and gained international attention after an imam denounced her treatment as un-Islamic.
Her bitter experience put her village on the map, spotlighting the harsh existence of its residents, defined by poverty, gender and class. Mukhtar has drawn unforgettable lessons from the ordeal, and she looks upon men and the laws they dictate with studied suspicion. She is learning as she goes along.
Most of the residents of Meerwala, Mukhtar's village in eastern Pakistan, eke out a living picking cotton or chopping wood for landowners. Harvests and cotton-picking season conflict with the school year, so most of the girls and boys -- and the men and women -- are illiterate. For centuries, disagreements over property, crops and cattle, even domestic disputes, were settled by the tribal council.
In June 2002, Mukhtar and her father were summoned to a tribal court after her 13-year-old brother was detained for allegedly flirting with a 28-year-old woman. As punishment for her brother's alleged crime, the five-man tribunal ordered Mukhtar to be gang-raped that same day. After it happened, Mukhtar was sent home naked and shivering as villagers looked on.
The village imam later chided the community after Friday prayers and reprimanded village elders for the tribunal's dictate. A reporter for a regional newspaper happened to be among the worshipers and reported the imam's rebuke. The national news media picked up the story, and international correspondents based in Pakistan followed with their own reports.
In traditional Muslim societies, a woman who is raped is usually regarded as a shame to her family and community. Adding to her debasement, Mukhtar has been divorced and has no children.
Yet Mukhtar's status has transformed, from pariah to savior and protector. Her modest home has become a shelter for abused women in search of a haven. Her police and government contacts help her mediate on behalf of helpless, landless peasants. Men seek her intervention in land disputes, and parents beg for her help in finding out if their abducted sons or daughters are dead or alive.
After her case gained attention, a female official from Islamabad, the capital, offered Mukhtar a check as compensation for the damage to her family, and to help Pakistan's image.
"Just build me a school. This is too much money for me and my family," Mukhtar said she told the official about the offer of half a million rupees, or about $8,300.
Mukhtar said the official told her she could keep the money and that she would also get her school. Mukhtar bought a plot of land, and the government built not one but two new schools. Mukhtar became the founder of the Mukhtar Mai Girls School as well as one of its 200 students.
"I was illiterate. I am attending my own school, and I am now in third grade," Mukhtar said.
She has gone door to door encouraging reluctant mothers to enroll their sons in the Gholam Farid School. About 160 boys now attend the school.
Mukhtar arrived in the United States last week to receive Glamour magazine's Woman of the Year award in New York, to raise money for victims of the powerful earthquake that struck Pakistan last month and to ask for funds to help educate women in her country.
On the surface, Mukhtar said, Pakistani authorities treat her with respect. But in June, the government tried to prevent her from traveling to the United States at the invitation of a rights group, fearing it would bring bad publicity. After a chorus of protests, the government relented.
Still wrestling with her own trauma, Mukhtar is somewhat bewildered by her effectiveness.
"I don't think I am powerful, and I tell them: I am a poor person just like you. I still get nightmares. I don't know if I have been able to turn things around in my life. A woman who goes through what I did never recovers. My mind will never be able to forget," she said, tears welling in her eyes.
Yet she has made a tremendous difference. Meerwala's tribal tribunal has been dissolved, "because they are scared," she said. Twenty-seven Muslim organizations in the United States signed a petition in support of Mukhtar saying, "Secular violence is not, nor has ever been, a legitimate means of punishment in Islam." She also has an appeal pending in Pakistan's Supreme Court against a court order to free men accused of involvement in her rape.
Mukhtar explained that she is focusing on changing the age-old custom of tribal justice into a process in which "police stations and the law" become the only recourse.
"We are trying to overcome the old ways," she said. "I just see myself as someone trying to fight the oppression."