Meerwala, Pakistan – It was in this dusty village that Mukhtaran Mai, then an illiterate Pakistani villager, was gang-raped by up to 14 men on the orders of a village council in 2002. Her infraction? Her brother had allegedly committed adultery with the daughter of an opposing clan’s feudal lord.
It’s also where she set up a women’s welfare organization, a women’s shelter, and three of the best schools in the area a year after her ordeal.
But now, says Ms. Mai, as a police guard stands close by, everything her organization has achieved could be threatened by a Supreme Court decision in late April to acquit all but one of her attackers. Amid death threats from powerful feudal lords in her area, several parents have pulled their children from her schools, and Mai is concerned for her own safety as well as that of her staff. Despite it all, or perhaps because of it, she’s determined to continue her work.
“The [court’s] decision empowers those who oppress women,” says the tall, thin Mai, wearing a simple blue traditional dress and flip-flops, as her eyes well with tears.
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Her organization has offered some measure of solace to women in an area where feudal lords have ruled with impunity. “They beat people with the help of the police and make the lives of ordinary people miserable,” she says. “They hold all power; they are in government and control the courts.”
Her shelter has helped thousands of women flee violence and rape since 2003, she says, while the center’s outreach work has sensitized people’s attitudes in an area long governed by patriarchal feudal traditions. In fact, hundreds of men and women held southern Punjab’s first-ever women’s rights march in the nearby town of Jatoi last March, a sign of the gradual change in attitudes here.
Mai used the money she collected from her work as a seamstress to open her organization. Mukhtar Mai Women’s Organization (MMWO) received its first major donation from the Canadian Embassy in Pakistan in 2003. Last year, money from private donors – including the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, as well as Canada’s development agency (CIDA) and its State Department – totaled more than $200,000.
More than 800 students are currently enrolled in her girls’ school. Nasreen Kausar, the school’s principal, proudly reports that the first batch of 16-year-olds are to graduate this year and look set to attend university.
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In a country where public education is widely regarded as broken, the school offers an unrivaled opportunity in the area. Students are taught in Urdu, Arabic, and English. (Fourth-graders showed proficiency in English, in this reporter’s opinion.) The school has a science lab as well as a computer lab.
The school’s reputation is so good, in fact, that about a dozen children and nieces of Mai’s accused rapists are being educated here, though “they are never made to feel any different,” says Naeem Malik, a program officer with MMWO.
Mai says the school gives girls here a chance she never had. “I was only schooled till primary level, though now I have a doctorate degree,” she says, referring to an honorary doctorate awarded to her by Laurentian University in Ontario. “But it’s a fake degree, just like Jamshed Dasti’s,” she jokes, referring to her area’s parliamentarian, a powerful ally of Faiz Mastoi, who was accused of orchestrating the rape. He was freed by the Supreme Court’s recent decision. Mr. Dasti, who was thrown out of parliament for having a fake degree last year but then won reelection, has long been Mai’s detractor.
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Mai is revered by her staff, many of whom had to overcome resistance within their own families, wary of the international attention, to start working here.
“Before working here, I came to visit this place,” says Kaneez Kausar, a young English teacher who has been with the school for 18 months. “I was so inspired, despite people telling me to not to work there. That’s why I’m still here. People start rumors about other people who are internationally known.”
Mai’s women’s shelter is currently home to five women seeking refuge from their families or husbands. The women can stay as long as they need to and are provided with legal assistance. The organization also runs a help hot line and a mobile rescue unit. Last year, the shelter served 526 women, as well as many others who had been displaced by the catastrophic flooding in the region.
For Mai and her supporters, who include many of Pakistan’s progressive civil society and rights groups, the next step is a soon-to-be filed review of the Supreme Court decision. Legal opinion is split as to whether Mai’s rapists were acquitted because of poor police work, or because the judges failed to look at all the relevant evidence on file.
Mai has been buoyed by support from some of Pakistan’s top women politicians, including liberal icon Sherry Rehman and Shamaila Farooqui.
But it’s Mai’s desire to give women a chance that keeps her here: “Back in 2002, I got many offers to go abroad for asylum, including Canada and the United States,” Mai recalls. She was pressured by her extended family to accept a place to stay in the capital, Islamabad. “All my extended relatives began acting like they were my close family…. I told them, ‘Whoever wants to go to Islamabad, let them go. But I will live here in Meerwala,’ ” she says.