Wednesday 4 May 2011

Ten years later, justice denied

On April 22nd, 2011 Pakistan’s Supreme Court struck a death knell to the rights of women in a country whose rape rates jumped by double digits last year. In the face of overwhelming evidence, hundreds of witnesses, and even a signed confession, the court, all men, acquitted five out of the six men convicted of the gang rape of a lone woman. The decision marked a bitter end to the victim’s decade long struggle for justice, during which time she endured harassment, illegal detainment, and psychological torture.

Today, I write as a Pakistani mother’s son to voice my outrage over Mukhatar Mai’s case. This story is personal for me, and is personal for all sons who have mothers, and all brothers who have sisters. The story of Mukhtar Mai is that of all women--and men--who have experienced or witnessed sexual violence.

Mukhtar Mai comes from a dusty farming village in Punjabi, a province which straddles the dividing line between India and Pakistan. Home to most of Pakistan’s military and civilian elite, Punjab is the wealthiest and most densely populated region in the country. It is also an area steeped in cultural tradition; it is this culture, on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, that often encourages suicide as a fitting response by a rape victim to her plight---it is, after all, a way to save her family’s honor.

Last year, reports show a double digit increase in gang-rapes across the country, and approximately one-third of all victims were raped by not one, but two or more men. Nearly half of the women subjected to these attacks are under the age of 16. As if being taken advantage of in the most violent and intimate way possible is not horrifying enough, these girls must cope with the psychological and physical aftermath in their tender childhood and adolescent years. Let those statistics sink in for a moment.

For all such young women, the international spotlight on Mukhtar Mai’s case brought hope, and had Pakistan’s highest court found her rapists’ guilty, these women would have shared her vindication as their own. Instead, Mukhtar Mai’s body has become the latest casualty in a high-stakes match with justice and rule of law on one side and technical legalities and male privilege on the other.

To add insult to injury, Jamshed Dasti, the man who represents MukhtarMai’s district in Pakistan’s National Assembly, denies her gang rape even took place, calling her harrowing story a conspiracy to denigrate Islam. Last year the Supreme Court tried Dasti for forging a degree in Islamic Law; six justices heard Dasti’s political ethics case while only three were assigned to Mukhtar Mai’s case---one in which capital punishment could have been doled out. Such is the dismissive treatment given to a woman who risked her and her family’s life to see her rapists brought to justice.

Today Mukhtar Mai is an honorary PhD, and has setup a school for girls in her native village of Meerwala, as well as a women’s rights organization. She herself never received formal education because there were no schools for girls in Meerwala while she was growing up; hers is the first.

While exasperated, Mukhtar Mai will not be deterred and plans to file a review of the Supreme Court’s decision. Likely, the same men who denied her justice over a week ago will hear her appeal, and we can only hope that this time around popular opinion does sway the Supreme Court’s decision , for the sake of women and good men everywhere.

Hamza Khan is a writer based in the Washington, DC area.

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