Three days after the Supreme Court upheld the Lahore High Court’s verdict and released five defendants and commuted a sixth defendant’s death penalty to a life sentence in the Mukhtaran Mai rape case, the Pakistan Women’s Foundation for Peace (PWFP) organised a protest in front of the Karachi Press Club.
“We don’t think rapists should be free,” said Shameem Noorani, a member. “Mukhtaran has to live in that village. It’s unfair and it’s dangerous for her. Crimes against women are increasing, and this sets a bad precedent. Women will feel more stigmatized, they will report crimes even less often.”
Saturday’s impromptu protest was planned at Friday’s PWFP meeting and was advertised via social networking and text messages. By 3pm, only about a dozen women and a handful of men had gathered, representing organisations such as the foundation, Citizens for Democracy and National Students Federation. They positioned themselves under the watery red shadow of a makeshift awning, while waving homemade flags and clutching hastily marked signs. One of them read, “Shame on the nation that allows its daughters to be raped publicly, repeatedly.”
At first the group chants of “Give her justice, give her justice,” were drowned out by passing traffic. But as the group swelled in numbers and diversity, their demands grew more aggressive and more hypnotic. There were dupattas where there had been none. A teenage boy in a black t-shirt, cargo pants and velcro sandals held up a sign from the front row. Every time he opened his mouth, he flashed silver braces. In particular, a large man’s booming voice rang above the roar of non-muffled engines. In about an hour, the group had grown to nearly 40.
The protesters were outraged on behalf of Mukhtaran, but also on behalf of her young brother, who claims he was sodomized by the accused rapists. It’s a crucial detail in the case – her brother’s refusal to keep the abuse secret is why Mukhtaran believes she was targeted. And it’s a detail that has been all but buried in nine years of legislation and a media barrage focused almost exclusively on women’s rights. One activist spoke loudly and vociferously against the abuse, referring to the fact that what happened to Mukhtaran’s brother was not treated as a crime.
The conversation quickly grew heated.
“Where did this question today arise from?” asked Nuzhat Kidvai, a PWFP member, wagging her finger. “We want an explanation, not just for Mukhtaran but for this boy. What started it all?”
The focus briefly shifted, as a woman in a blue and white dupatta pushed her way to the front of the group. Sakina is just past middle aged, with permanent lines etched between her bushy eyebrows. Teary eyed, she faced the photographers, hiding her face behind a newspaper. She has been protesting in front of the press club daily for 10 months because she claims feudal lords took her land. After a few moments, she was ushered aside by the other protesters, and quietly returned to her blanket on the sidewalk.
As protesters gave news statements, they sounded like a record on repeat. Over and over again, bewildered activists uttered the phrase: “Why? We want to know why!”
Naushaba Burney, an 81-year-old teacher at Darus Salam school, a retired journalist, and the vice president of PWFP, took her place among the younger protesters, as sweat plastered locks of hair to her face. “We are shocked beyond measure at the injustice that has allowed Mukhtaran’s rapists to go scot-free. The whole village witnessed this act, but the police ruined everything,” she said. “You can’t blame the court for the judgment they made based on the evidence that was presented. The truth wasn’t there.”
Mohammed Naqvi followed Mukhtaran for four and a half years, from a month after her rape until late 2006. He watched her build community schools with her court settlements that are now educating over 1,200 children, including the relatives of some of her accused rapists. He was one of the first men to join the protest.
“Mukhtaran is a personal hero of mine,” he said. “A lot of us had general optimism for our country because of Mukhtaran. Having her fight snatched away like this is really heartbreaking, for victims of violence all over the world. When I spoke to her this morning, she said, ‘I’ve been made a fool for the last five years. Is there any court in this world that will give justice?’”
According to Naqvi, Mukhtaran’s hopelessness stems from the idea that women are not only marginalised in rural areas and tribal courts, but also in urban courthouses with educated lawyers and judges. “They held high tribal positions,” said Burney, referring to the accused rapists. “Mukhtaran’s a good woman, and she had no voice.”
Salman Javaid, a clean-shaven man in his twenties, quietly hung back from the other protesters. He seemed to have come alone, but he said he felt extreme empathy for Mukhtaran and the countless other women in her situation.
“There were 200 people there who actually witnessed this event. Mukhtaran was taken around the village naked, it was there for all to see,” he said. “Women are 50 per cent of our population and they are not represented in society and institutions. Life for a woman is tough in Pakistan. My father died 14 years back, my mother raised us alone. I know how difficult it is for a single woman to take responsibility.”
Naqvi echoed other protesters when he added, “There were faulty reports based on fiction that the police were making up, not based on Mukhtaran’s statements, and they were introduced as evidence…”
Prizewinning author H.M. Naqvi joined other protesters in expressing disappointment. “Islam gave women rights 1,400 years ago. It’s the responsibility of every Muslim in this state, 1,400 years later, to champion women’s rights,” he said. “I don’t have much expectation of the religious parties – though they should be here – but where are the other people?”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 24th, 2011.
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