Last edited: March 27, 2005

Redeeming a Horrible Violation in Pakistan

Woman Uses Her Own Tragedy to Prevent Others

ABC News, November 3, 2004

In the remote Pakistani hamlet of Meerwala, there is no electricity, running water—or modern law.

Feudal clans run everything. Disputes are settled by an all-male tribal council. Women are often seen as property, and can even be given away to avenge a family’s honor.

A woman named Mukhtar Mai was called to one of these councils two years ago—not for any wrongdoing she had committed, but for the supposed sins of her brother, who was 14 at the time.

What happened to her was so brutal and terrifying that it made waves around the world.

But Mai’s journey back from that horrifying day has been equally eye-opening, and she now leads a life that not long ago was impossible to even imagine.

Multiple Indignities

Mai, around 30 years old at the time, was called to the council because her brother was accused of having sex with a girl from another, more powerful, clan. Despite his denial, it was considered a grave insult to the girl’s family.

Mai was a teacher of the Koran, Islam’s holy book. She thought tradition would allow her to seek pardon for her brother, and she went to meet the council.

“If a lady goes there then [the head of the council] places his hand on the head of the woman. And he says, ‘OK, you are like my daughter, you are excused,’ “ she told Primetime Live’s Chris Cuomo.

But it was a terrible trick. When Mai reached the clearing, she did not get a chance to ask for forgiveness. Four men dragged her into a house, where they gang-raped her for over an hour as the entire clan cheered them on.

“In the presence of 200, 250 people those four men took me and they abused me,” Mai said.

The men were armed. Her father and relatives were outnumbered 4 to 1. They could do nothing, only listen to her pleas and screams.

“I told them they’re like brothers, not to do this. I told them for the gods not to harm me, but they did not listen to that,” Mai said.

After the gang rape, Mai was forced to walk home, half-naked, in front of the entire village. It was another degrading punishment because she would now be seen not just as a victim, but also possibly as an outcast.

In rural Pakistan, a woman is prized for being untouched, and women who have been raped have no future—many receive death threats, live in hiding or commit suicide.

Righteous Call

The story might have ended at that point if not for a local holy man, the imam. Mai says she wouldn’t have come forward because she received threats that she would be harmed.

But the imam heard about her ordeal and condemned it during prayers at the mosque. He acknowledged revenge is a tradition in the area, but said, “Something like this had never happened, this is cruelty.”

He convinced the villagers to report the incident to the police.

At the time, Pakistan had become a new American ally in the war against terror, and it was being watched closely.

Word of the gang rape spread in the media, and women in Pakistan and around the world rallied to Mai’s cause, embarrassing the Pakistani government.

President Pervez Musharraf swiftly had the rapists arrested and brought to trial.

Choosing to Stay

Emboldened, Mai broke with tradition and spoke out against her attackers in court, though still behind the veil. The men were found guilty and are now in prison, awaiting their appeal. If their appeal is denied, they could be put to death.

Musharraf ordered that bodyguards protect Mai 24 hours a day, and awarded her more than $8,000 to help her rebuild her life.

It is a princely sum in Pakistan, where the average annual income is $2,000. But Mai can never buy back her perceived honor in tribal society.

“When a woman has lost her honor, what else does she have left?” she said.

Mai could have taken the money and moved far away. But instead, she chose to remain in Meerwala and defy all expectations.

She used the money and built the first school in her hometown. She hopes with education, her countrymen will never visit such a fate on another person again.

“Where there’s education you don’t have such incidences taking place and also women can stand up and take revenge for all the ill treatment and abuse,” she told Cuomo.

Mai is now trying to open up a women’s hospital in the area. For more information on her project, you can e-mail her at Her assistant, Nasreen, responds in English.

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