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Sunday Apr 14, 2024, Shawwal 5, 1445 Hijri

Bury my Heart at Meerwala

02 May, 2011

By Anwaar Hussain

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Meerwala is a small, dusty village in the mostly rural Muzaffargarh District in the south of Punjab province of Pakistan. This small, nondescript village has produced a personality whose name has been reverberating across the globe for some years now.

The name of this person is Mukhtaran Bibi (also known as Mukhtar Mai).

In 2005, Glamour Magazine named her “Glamour Woman of the Year”. According to the New York Times, “Her autobiography is the No. 3 best seller in France … movies are being made about her, and she has been praised by dignitaries like Laura Bush and the French foreign minister”. She also won the North-South Prize in April 2007. The prize is awarded annually by the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe to two public figures who are recognized for their deep commitment, outstanding achievements and hope they have generated mainly in the field of protection of human rights. Mukhtaran spoke at the United Nations headquarters in New York where she was earlier welcomed by UN Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor. In October 2010, Laurentian University of Canada decided to award an honorary doctorate degree to Mukhtaran Bibi. So fearful of her work and publicity was the then President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf that, by his own admission, he placed restrictions on her movement to prevent her from ‘hurting the international image of Pakistan’. Despite intense opposition, she started the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization to help support and educate Pakistani women and girls. She continues to be an outspoken advocate for women’s rights.

How did this illiterate village girl come to be where she is today?

Mukhtaran Bibi’s ordeal started on a hot June afternoon in the year 2002.

Her adolescent brother Shakoor, reportedly 12 years old at the time, was suspected and accused by some influential people (of Mastoi Clan) of her village of committing fornication with one of their women. Early in the afternoon of Saturday, June 22, 2002, the boy was abducted by three Mastoi men. They later sodomized him in a sugarcane field as a punishment.

The boy’s cries for help were loud. Mukhtaran, her mother, and other women of the house rushed outside and appealed to the men to release the boy. Their pleas, of course, fell on deaf ears. Mukhtaran’s mother sent her brother to get the police. There were no telephones or police in Meerwala with the nearest police station some 18 km away over dirt roads. The police arrived close to sunset and freed Shakoor from the Mastois. They took him to the police station and held him there pending a possible sex crime charge against him.

In the meanwhile a Mastoi tribal council was formed. Mukhtaran’s family proposed to settle the matter with the Mastoi by marrying Shakoor to the Mastoi woman, and marrying Mukhtaran to one of the Mastoi men, and – if Shakoor was to be found guilty – to give some land to the woman’s family in addition. This proposal was conveyed to the Mastoi elder who refused and insisted that illicit sex must be settled with illicit sex according to the principle of an eye-for-an-eye. Some Mastoi men then came to Mukhtaran’s family and told them that the Mastoi would accept the proposed settlement if Mukhtaran would personally come and apologize to the woman’s family and the Mastoi council. She proceeded to the Mastoi assembly with her father and maternal uncle.

Immediately afterward, on the orders of the village council and less than a hundred meters from the council, the Mastoi woman’s brother, armed with a 30-caliber pistol, forcibly took Mukhtaran into a nearby stable. There she was gang raped by him and his side kicks. After about an hour of torture, she was pushed outside wearing only a torn shirt and no trousers. She was then paraded naked in front of hundreds of bystanders on the orders of the council to make an example of her. None of the onlookers came to her help. Her father and maternal uncle too looked on powerlessly. Later, the father covered her up with a shawl and took her home.

The following week, a local imam (mosque prayer leader), condemned the rape in his Friday sermon. He brought a local journalist to meet Mukhtaran’s father and persuaded the family to file charges against the rapists. Mukhtaran and her family went to the police station on June 30, 2002, eight days after the incident, to file charges. Thus started her long quest for justice.

A helping hand in her journey came in the following days when the story became headline news in Pakistan. International media too was not far behind. By 3rd July, the BBC had picked up on the story. Time magazine ran a report on the case in mid-July. Mukhtaran’s case shocked the world by revealing the cruel side of Pakistan’s traditional tribal culture in which women are often punished or sold as brides to compensate for the perceived sins of their relatives. For months to come, Mukhtaran’s incident refused to die as major international newspapers and networks continued to report on developments in the case. Prudently, Pakistan’s slumbering governmental and judicial systems chose to become alive to the situation. Early in July, 2002, Pakistan’s Chief Justice called Mukhtaran’s rape the most heinous crime of the 21st century. He rebuked the senior police officials for incompetence in their handling of the case. The government of Pakistan promptly announced financial help for Mukhtaran.

With a welcome speed, the first court which Mukhtaran had appealed to convicted six men (4 rapists and 2 of the village jurors) and sentenced them to death on 1st September 2002. However, eight other accused men were released. Mukhtaran filed an appeal in the Multan bench of the Lahore high court against the acquittal of the eight men. On 3 March next year, the Lahore High Court reversed the judgment by the trial court on the basis of “insufficient evidence”. The Court not only upheld the eight acquittals but also overturned five of the six convictions. The death penalty for the sixth man, the main accused, Abdul Khaliq, was commuted to life in prison. This time the Pakistani government decided to appeal the acquittal. Mukhtaran too requested the court not to order the release of the five men as she felt intimidated by them.

However, her rapists were found not guilty and the accused were released. The Federal Sharia Court in Pakistan decided to suspended this decision of Lahore High Court on March 11 arguing that Mai’s case should have been tried under the Islamic Hudood laws. Three days later the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Sharia Court did not have the authority to overrule the decision. Mukhtaran finally appealed to the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court of Pakistan. All 14 were retried in the Supreme Court and on April 21, 2011 the Supreme Court upheld the Lahore High Court verdict. All the accused were freed and the death sentence of the main accused was commuted to life imprisonment for “lack of sufficient evidence”.

“This is not justice that I received today, but I have faith in God and … I believe He will give me justice,” she said.

While Mukhtaran awaits justice from God, a few questions regarding “insufficient evidence” in the case and the case itself do arise. Did the courts mean that she was not sufficiently raped? Or, in other words, was she not raped enough? Or that out of the hundreds of cowardly spectators, a sufficient number of witnesses did not come up to the stand to fulfill the technicality? Were their lordships not convinced of the monstrosity of the crime? Or was the case not gruesome enough?

Universally, justice is the concept of ethical rightness based on morals, reasonableness, law, natural law, religion, fairness, or equity, along with the punishment for the breach of said ethics. In a country like Pakistan, however, where religion encompasses all aspects of Pakistan’s society, justice is thought of more as a divine command than a man made function. The question that arises then is, if goodness is the very nature of God and is necessarily expressed in His commands, have their lordships, in following those commands, delivered a ‘good judgment’ for the victim? After all trained Pakistani judges are presumed to be God fearing Muslims having an ethical relationship not just with the accused but with the victims too. Have they served the cause of justice in Mukhtaran’s case or have they been “grossly unfair” to the victim?

Who was it that said, ” I don’t know what justice is but I do know what justice is not.” If what has been dealt to Mukhtaran Bibi by their lordships is justice then bury my heart at Meerwala.

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