HER AGE OF INNOCENCE
Mukhtaran Bibi was born in the village of Meerwala, in the Punjab, Pakistan; on an unknown date in the early Seventies. She was the daughter of Bachual Haton and Ghulam Farid Jat, a woodcutter.
Today, Mukhtaran is Meerwala’s most famous citizen, having certainly put the little village on the map. In addition she has brought to town electricity, paved roads and social services. She has also provided two girls’ schools, where there were none before.
Mukhtaran’s early life was as a peasant girl in an obscure village. She never went to school and was married as a teenager. Her marriage broke up after a few years, Mukhtaran returning home after the divorce. She then worked hard around the village doing embroidery, until she could buy some livestock of her own.
Mukhtaran may have been illiterate, even in her minority language Saraiki. However she showed her capacity for learning by memorising the Quran, becoming a hafiza. She would often teach it to the children of the village.
She would later tell Glamour magazine, who made her their Woman of the Year 2005; “I liked my life before the incident.” [http://www.glamour.com/magazine/2006/10/mukhtar-mai-update?]
The event that would change Mukhtaran Bibi’s life, quite literally without her consent, began with her younger brother Abdul Shakur. He was accused of having an affair with a girl from the Mastoi clan. Considering he was then only 12 and Salma was about 20, it would probably have been no more than an innocent crush.
In fact there is a much darker side to the story. An investigation by the Punjabi governor found that Shakur had been abused by the Mastoi, even before being kidnapped on 22 June 2002. After being abducted he was sodomised by three men in a sugarcane field.
This was confirmed by a doctor and the men later convicted of that assault. At the same time, Shakur was found to have no case to answer for inappropriate behaviour.
On that fateful June day, it was a different story. Shakur was being held by the Mastoi – and the finger of blame pointed at Mukhtaran Bibi’s family.
A large crowd gathered around the house of Mastoi leader Abdul Khaliq, where the boy was. This included many of the Tatla clan, who were demanding his release. The Mastoi refused because they accused him of impropriety with Salma.
At some point a Jirga (village council) was formed, dominated by the Mastoi. Mukhtaran’s family tried to negotiate; suggesting a marriage between Shakur and Salma. In exchange, she would marry one of the Mastoi men. The clan rejected this, they had a much more sinister verdict in mind.
In the meantime, an uncle had called the police. The nearest station was at Jatoi, about 19km over dirt roads. The police arrived that evening and took Shakur into custody, pending a sex crime charge against HIM.
Mukhtaran herself now enters the scene for the first time. The Tatla were told that Shakur’s captors would release him if his older sister apologised on his behalf. She set off for the village, along with her father. She spread a shawl out at their feet, symbolising humility and recited a sura from the Quran.
For the innocent Mukhtaran, the sentence had already been decided. They only wanted to lure her there.
Now Abdul Khaliq pointed a pistol at her, while the Mastoi men dragged her into a nearby stable. Here she was raped by four men, as per the verdict of the Jirga.
Afterwards she was thrown out of the stable, wearing only a torn kameez. As an added humiliation, Mukhtar was paraded naked through the village. Finally her father covered her up and took her home.
Shakur was released about 2-3am the next day. Having ravaged their way through the family, the Mastoi told police any claims against their clan were settled.
After being so disgraced, a woman like Mukhtaran had no option but to commit suicide, usually by poison. Her mother foiled this by watching her throughout the worst of her trauma.
On the following Friday, the local imam Abdul Razzaq condemned the rape in this sermon. This makes him one of the good guys in this story. He also encouraged the family to charge the Mastois, and was the first to contact a journalist.
On 30 June 2002, Mukhtaran travelled to Jatoi and pressed charges.
The climate of 2002 would be to her benefit. It may be difficult to prove sexual assault in a country like Pakistan.The four rapists and ten accomplices were tried in a terrorism court at Dera Ghazi Khan. On 31 August 2002, eight would be acquitted and six men were sentenced to death.
It seems amazing that some so evil as sexual assault could lead to ANYTHING good. Many women would have been totally destroyed by an ordeal such as Mukhtaran went through. That she has been able to do so much really is a testament to her character. It is as if Mukhtar Mai has produced beautiful garden, from the filthiest of manure that she was handed.
In 2003, Mukhtar received criminal compensation from the Pakistani government of Rs 500 000, about $8 000. She has spent this money on working towards the rights of other women, establishing an organisation called the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organisation.
It makes Mukhtar so admirable, that she has devoted her life to helping other unfortunates. There are many of them in the Punjab and the abuses are endless. There are other victims of rape, domestic violence, abductions, burns, acid attacks, nose amputations and forced marriages which sometimes involve children, under a custom called vani. There there’s karo kiri, which is “honour” attacks or even murder.
In the early days, victims slept on Mukhtar’s floor. Since 2006 she has set up a women’s shelter in nearly Multan. This accommodates 40, not including children; it is always filled to capacity.
In 2008, the Women’s Resource Centre was established in Meerwala. This also provides comprehensive social services to these women; including support, medical care, psychological counselling and legal advice. The MMWWO also aims to educate the authorities handling cases.
As her fame spreads, new abused women keep arriving every day. Mukhtar turns nobody away, she knows she may be their last chance.
MUKHTAR MAI GIRLS’ MODEL SCHOOL
The first project Mukhtar was interested in was a school, the first for the girls of Meerwala. This school began in 2003, in a room of Mukhtar’s home. There was only one teacher and three students, including her.
It was the schoolchildren who first began calling her mai – which means “respected older sister”. Fittingly, it is now known as the Mukhtar Mai Girls’ Model School.
It is interesting to look at the way education is viewed by a then illiterate peasant woman, living in a third world Muslim country.
She sees the school as her dream, believing that lack of education makes women powerless and contributes to their poor treatment. Mukhtar certainly found this out in her dealings with police after the assault.
From their website: “MMWWO believes that access to quality education for girls is essential for guaranteeing women full exercise of their civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights.”
In the early days, Mukhtar had a hard time persuading parents to send their daughters to school. Some were keen to see them educated, thinking they would have a life better than theirs. Others were reluctant, thinking that education would somehow spoil their girls; making it difficult to find them husbands.
Mukhtar is pleased to be taking these girls away from the drudgery of housework, or the fields. Now they have more of a future, than just an early marriage. However, she does have trouble keeping some of the students in school.
In 2005, the international press found out about the school and donations began pouring in. She also received some funding from the Pakistani government.
Today there are two schools and over 500 students, from kindergarten to the end of high school. The Mukhtar Mai Girls’ Model School provides free education; along with books, uniforms, etc. There is also a free bus service.
Mukhtar Mai is probably the least educated headmistress in the world. “The first school I attended was my own school.” [http://tribune.com.pk/story/154316/mukhtaran-mai-a-story-of-extraordinary-courage/]
- Mukhtar Mai (3quarksdaily.com)