It is a measure of just how terrible what happened to Mukhtar Mai was that news of the attack on her sent shock waves across Pakistan, where sexual assault and violence against women is commonplace. Mai, a 30-year-old woman who lives in the remote hamlet of Meerwala, was brutally and publicly gang-raped in June 2002 by four volunteers on the orders of a village court, or jirga. Mai’s then 12-year-old brother Abdul Shakoor (pictured behind her) had been seen walking with a girl from the more influential Mastoi tribe; they demanded Mai’s rape to avenge their “honor.” Mai’s family sat helplessly while she was dragged into a room, even as she screamed and pleaded for mercy. To further humiliate her, and make an example of those who would defy the power of local strongmen, she was paraded naked before hundreds of onlookers. Her father covered her with a shawl and walked her home.Mai’s case is hardly unique in Pakistan. During the first seven months of 2004, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 151 Pakistani women were gang-raped and 176 were killed in the name of honor. The vast majority of perpetrators go unpunished. Yet Mai refused to remain silent. She said she would rather “die at the hands of such animals” than “give up her right to justice” and pursued her case despite the threat of further violence. Against the odds, she won. Six men involved in her rape have been punished, with two of them sentenced to death (although Pakistani human-rights groups and I oppose the death penalty), and the government awarded her compensation. Mai has used the money to open a school in her village so that the force of education can wash away this crime perpetuated in the name of tradition.
As long as the state refuses to fully challenge the brutality of tribal law, the plight of Pakistani women will continue. Mukhtar Mai is a symbol of their victimhood, but in her resilience she is also a symbol of their strength.