Women Suffer As Brutal Rapists Walk Free
York Times, March 6, 2005
By Nicholas D. Kristof
One of the gutsiest people on earth is Mukhtaran Bibi.
And after this week, she’ll need that courage just to survive.
Mukhtaran, a tall, slim young woman who never attended
school as a child, lives in a poor and remote village in the Punjab area of
Pakistan. As part of a village dispute in 2002, a tribal council decided to
punish her family by sentencing her to be gang-raped. She begged and cried,
but four of her neighbors immediately stripped her and carried out the
sentence. Then her tormenters made her walk home naked while her father tried
to shield her from the eyes of 300 villagers.
Mukhtaran was meant to be so shamed that she would commit
suicide. But in a society where women are supposed to be soft and helpless,
she proved indescribably tough, and she found the courage to live. She
demanded the prosecution of her attackers, and six were sent to death row.
She received US$8,300 in compensation and used it to
start two schools in the village, one for boys and one for girls, because she
feels that education is the best way to change attitudes like those that led
to the attack on her. Illiterate herself, she then enrolled in her own
I visited Mukhtaran in her village in September and wrote
a column about her. Readers responded with an avalanche of mail, including
1,300 donations for Mukhtaran totaling US$133,000.
Power of education
The money arrived just in time, for Mukhtaran’s schools
had run out of funds. She had sold her family’s cow to keep them open
because she believes so passionately in the redemptive power of education.
Now that cash from readers has put the schools on a sound
financial footing again. And Mercy Corps, a first-rate American aid group
already active in Pakistan, has agreed to assist Mukhtaran in spending the
money wisely. The next step will be to start an ambulance service for the area
so sick or injured villagers can get to a hospital.
Down the road, Mukhtaran says, she will try to start her
own aid group to battle honor killings. And even though she lives in a remote
village without electricity, she has galvanized her supporters to launch a Web
site: www.mukhtarmai.com. (Although
her legal name is Mukhtaran Bibi, she is known in the Pakistani press by a
variant, Mukhtar Mai).
Until two days ago, she was thriving. Then—disaster.
A Pakistani court overturned the death sentences of all
six men convicted in the attack on her and ordered five of them freed. They
are her neighbors and will be living alongside her. Mukhtaran was in the
courthouse and collapsed in tears, fearful of the risk this brings to her
“Yes, there is danger,” she said by telephone
afterward. “We are afraid for our lives, but we will face whatever fate
brings for us.”
Mukhtaran, not the kind of woman to squander money on
herself by flying, even when she has access to US$133,000, took an exhausting
12-hour bus ride to Islamabad on Friday to appeal to the Supreme Court. Mercy
Corps will help keep her in a safe location, and those donations from readers
may keep her alive for the time being. But for the long term, Mukhtaran has
always said she wants to stay in her village, whatever the risk, because
that’s where she can make the most difference.
I had planned to be in Pakistan this week to write a
follow-up column about Mukhtaran. But after a month’s wait, the Pakistani
government has refused to give me a visa, presumably out of fear that I would
write more about Pakistani nuclear peddling. (Hmm, a good idea. )
Mukhtaran’s life illuminates what will be the central
moral challenge of this century: the brutality that is the lot of so many
women and girls in poor countries. For starters, because of inattention to
maternal health, a woman dies in childbirth in the developing world every
In Pakistan, if a woman reports a rape, four Muslim men
must generally act as witnesses before she can prove her case. Otherwise, she
risks being charged with fornication or adultery—and punished with a public
whipping and long imprisonment.
Mukhtaran is a hero. She suffered what in her society was
the most extreme shame imaginable—and emerged as a symbol of virtue. She
took a sordid story of perennial poverty, gang rape and judicial brutality and
inspires us with her faith in the power of education—and her hope.
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