Women who Named the Unnamed
Honor/Cherish the Continuity
Reclaiming the Narrative
By Aamna Rashid
‘Today, we must remember and remind ourselves to be like her ~ fearless.’
There is power in speaking up against injustice, there is courage that comes through in standing up against an oppressive system. There is an indomitable resilience and the will to fight that carries forward such a struggle. It is all this and more that we see within the figure of Mukhtar Mai. In the backdrop of a country where honour is rooted in the woman’s body, where women are bartered as objects to settle disputes, where allegations of rape are swept away to protect the perpetrator and where vendetta rapes and honour killings are rampant, her story becomes an exceptionally powerful force.
She was born in the village of Meerwala, Muzaffargarh district, in the South Western region of the Punjab. Her family is from the Gujjar tribe, a ‘lower’ caste in the tribal system of her village, a place, which like most rural areas in Pakistan, follows a strictly demarcated hierarchal caste system. The politics of this system determines the everyday reality and customs of people upholding structural biases as it attempts to hold its power in place, the same politics that uses gendered violence against those who threaten it. It was under this that her story came to light when news of her attack ordered by this system, and her decision to fight it, were brought to public attention.
Mukhtar Mai was gang raped on 22 June, 2002, on the orders of the Panchayat or Jirga- the local village council. The decision was made to allow the members of the Mastoi tribe to ‘avenge’ the damage to their ‘honour’ caused by a supposed offence enacted by Mukhtar’s brother – an offence that proved to be false. They claimed he had an affair with a woman from their tribe who was of a higher caste, something which was not allowed by the stringent caste system as it would threaten its foundations, and so they took the case to the local village council. Keeping in mind both the position of the village tribunal as being outside the country’s judicial laws, and the prevalent customs where the female body was seen as a site to be conquered and violated to enact revenge, the verdict given to Mukhtar Mai protected both as she was ordered to go to the Mastois for punishment.
According to the dictates of the ‘tradition’, she had only two options – to live life in shame and never speak of it, or to commit suicide – but she refused to be silenced, instead she held back and forged a third one. She and her family reported the case to the police and went to pick up their son from jail only to find that he had committed no crime. The story reached national news when a sermon of the Imam of the local mosque critiquing the public gang rape was picked up by a journalist. Encouraged by the support she was receiving on a national level, she petitioned to have a case filed against her perpetrators, levying an attack against the same tradition that had resulted in the violence against her.
The cult of shame and silences that is forced upon a woman in Pakistan if they are raped or assaulted, was thrust off by Mukhtar Mai’s actions as she stood facing the village elders on one level and the entire hegemonic patriarchal force on another, fighting simultaneously on the social, legal and political battlegrounds. Each level tried to silence her. The court attempted to brush away her case by acquitting her attackers in 2005 and granting them complete exoneration in 2011. In addition to the troubles at court, she and her family received countless threats for following through with the case and she was even put on the Exit Control list by General Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorial regime to prevent her story from spreading to international level ‘tarnishing’ Pakistan’s image. But despite these attempts, she continued to press forward with unwavering determination, continuing her fight and remaining outspoken about the injustices in a system built to hinder retribution for women.
She became the first woman in Pakistan to put a tribunal justice system on trial and to advocate to have her rapists sentenced to death. This brought the news to the international media and garnered her support across the board, ensuring the government took notice of the case. The intricacies of power, caste and sexual politics all came to a head with her story, where through prosecuting her rapists, she levied a blow to all three when finally in 2019, 17 years after the event, the case was finally ruled in her favour.
Following the aftermath of the rape and the legal proceedings, she became an advocate for women’s rights and sought to improve conditions within the village. She used the money she had received through the settlement of the case to construct two schools for girls within her village setting up the Mukhtar Mai Girls Model School and established a crisis centre in her own home for women subjected to violence to provide them with shelter and legal counselling. She also set up the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organisation to help support and educate women and girls. She was invited to numerous talks, both at a national and international level and became an important figure in raising awareness of the rights of women and in attempting to change the tribunal system borne through caste and gendered hierarchies.
She was accredited with the title of Woman of the Year by Glamour magazine in 2005, and she received Fatima Jinnah gold medal for bravery and courage in the same year. In 2006, her autobiography In The Name of Hon-our – A Memoir was released and reached number 3 in the best seller list in France. Her story was featured internationally in both the news, the media and the arts. It became the subject of a book Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, an opera Thumbprint, and a documentary Shame by Muhammad Naqvi.
Her continued presence and involvement in public and political events acts as a rebuttal against the stigma of rape and against the traditional mandate of hiding women away in the confines of the private sphere. It lays down a new precedent that breaks away from the many pronged patriarchal beast, putting a crack in its edifice, paving the path for more and more women to speak out and be heard.
We see in Mukhtar Mai’s story signs of struggle and resilience, of perseverance and retribution, of a reclaiming of narrative. We see through her story a subversion and attack against the oppressive norms of the society. But more than anything, we see through her story an alternate path to that of shame and silence laid out for women – we see the path of resistance.
And that is why we must speak of her, to highlight her power in breaking the silence, in breaking the bonds that shackle despite continued attempts to silence her. We seek to recognise and appreciate her strides for women and to hope through it all for a future where attacks against women would not go unpunished, a future where rather than elicit cries of shame, there would be cries of outrage against the injustice, a future where women will no longer be considered objects of men and a future where the judicial system isn’t borne of selective justice that benefits only the perpetrators.
Today, we must remember and remind ourselves to be like her ~ fearless.
Aamna Rashid recently finished her BA Honours in Literature from the Lahore University of Management Sciences with a focus on feminist politics, questions of identity and resistance. She pursues photography and art in her free time and has a keen interest in art history and film.
Women Who Named the Unnamed
Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes
Saturday, September 28, 2019
6 – 9 PM
Surrey City Hall
13450 – 104 Avenue
Surrey, BC, Canada V3T 1V8
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Box Office : 604-501-5566
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