South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Much has been written about the famous Mukhtar Mai case in the print, online and broadcast media. This case has captivated the media and masses attention for about nine years and has been keenly monitored by local and international observers. After the recent announcement of the Supreme Court verdict , a fresh debate has started, exploring its different aspects. This case is no more a simple rape case as it has become a catalyst to define the status of women and gender relations in Pakistan.

Recently, this scribe visited Meerwala Jatoi, the infamous village in the distant hamlet of Southern Punjab to interview Mai. It was an eye-opening visit as it provided a rare glimpse on the lives of women in the rural setting. This settlement has been in the news since 2002. The reason being, a frail and resilient woman who defied the existing norms of a  patriarchal society and chose to stand up and seek justice. In a complex tribal system where low cast women are considered as an easy prey, she refused to be violated and spoke up in a society where rape is still considered as an R-rated word.

The highway journey from Multan to Meerwala was an exhilarating experience in itself. Wheat cutting had begun and the sunflower fields were in full bloom, adding colour to the otherwise monotonous landscape. There were many women working in the fields which in itself explained the complex gender relations and convoluted class differences in society. Apart from these working women, all others were covered in the different forms of burqas and chadders, another stricture of gender relations in the rural hinterland.

When we reached Meerwala, people guided us eagerly as they were accustomed to visits by media personnel. It seemed that she has become a household name here and it was the beginning of an eventual day. The office of the organisation Mai has set up was inspiring and the staff was very competent. Mai and her team have been working tirelessly to bring about a silent change in the system.

Education is the vehicle of change, according to the international development jargon but witnessing its miracle in this far flung place is truly incredible. The girls’ school has been functioning for almost a decade and nearly 800 students are enrolled here. Four of them have been admitted into the girls’ college in Jatoi and they vowed to serve their community after completing their studies. Educated girls are resisting the age-old notions such as forced and child marriages, watta satta, wani and honour killings. They are learning to stand on their own two feet and face the world. This is a scenario which frightens the local elites and they are unanimous in condemning it. They believe when all the disadvantaged sections like low caste tribes, women and the poor stand up for their rights they lose control over them.

I met Mai after a gap of five years; we had invited her to the Karachi Press Club to celebrate Women’s Day with us. There was a heated debate among the Club’s managing committee over this invitation and the late Ghausi Sahib had to use his influence (as president) to endorse it. This example clearly illustrates how the patriarchal conditioning and mindset prevails even in the so-called educated and supposedly enlightened sections of society.

Mai has gained confidence  over the years but was clearly very disheartened over the recent decision. The sadness and the sense of loss was so deep and profound that you can almost touch it. However, the fighting spirit was still there and she vowed to continue fighting and plans on filing a review petition.

Elaborating her ordeal, she said, “The most difficult moments of my life were in the court room. It was humiliating beyond the human endurance level as the general attitude was very hostile and outright disgusting, especially when they were discussing the explicit details. There came a point when I told my lawyer (Aitzaz Ahsan) that I couldn’t bear it any more and won’t attend.” However, he persuaded me to come regularly to show them our resilience. So I attended the sessions but would wear ear plugs to avoid hearing the gory details, Mai added.

When asked what motivated her to set up a girls’ school and a welfare organisation, she said, “We can only fight against the injustice and oppression through education as it gives awareness and consciousness about one’s rights and duties. I had set up a boys’ school as well as it will teach them to learn to respect their womenfolk and give them their due rights.” All my welfare work has been geared to change the mindset and bring the much needed break in our lives, she added.

Her response let me dumbfounded. I wondered how this woman, who has been through so much, remains so positive and is ready to give society her best. All terms such as inclusive development, gender equality, distributive and social justice, and egalitarianism have been covered by her despite lacking a formal education. I believe that she has learned the lessons of life in a hard way and instead of becoming malicious and vengeful, she has diverted her energies to expose the hypocrisies of this crumbling tribal and feudal system.

According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), women face difficulty at every level of the judicial system in bringing their case to trial. It also says that the police is reluctant to take the complaint and are sometimes abusive towards the victims. There are 2,903 cases of rape in the country in 2010, nearly eight cases daily, as mentioned in the

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report, State of Human Rights in Pakistan. If the high profile case like Mukhtar Bibi’s can face such enormous difficulties, what can the other victims expect from the police and the judicial system.

When I returned to Multan after spending a day in Meerwala there was a deep feeling of anguish and betrayal. Day in and day out we talk about the religion and wear it on our sleeve. However, all our national institutions work against the interest of the poor, women and minorities. It is about time that we start working to build a new Pakistan in which every citizen has equal rights regardless of their caste, colour, creed and gender.

Moniza Inam works for daily Dawn.

Source: Dawn – 10.05.2011