Friday, April 22, 2011

The Vulnerability of Pakistani Women

A Pakistani woman whom village elders in southern Punjab ordered gang-raped as punishment has, since that event 9 years ago, become a passionate and assertive spokesperson on the plight of women in Pakistan. She wrote her autobiography, and European readers made it a bestseller. She took it upon herself to open schools for Pakistani boys and girls in her home village of Meerwala, and initiated a shelter for battered women in her village.

From the desolation of personal suffering inflicted upon a young woman was born the desire for courage to enable her to do what few other Pakistani women might, after having been horribly assaulted. The village council, on the orders of their wise and elderly studying the precepts of the Koran, determined that Mukhtar Mai, who was 30 years old at the time, be punished because of her young brother's alleged liaison with a woman from a wealthy family.

The social infliction of a grievously ruinous retaliatory sexual assault in that society is tantamount to social death. Many such victims who have been subjected to the scorn and derision and isolation that results from such an occurrence prefer to take their lives rather than live them out in their villages thereafter. They are viewed as 'unclean' and unfit for civil company.

The stigma is such that it never leaves them. They are considered ineligible for marriage, for no self-respecting Muslim man would love, let alone take under his wing and into his home to be the mother of his children, any woman who had been raped. She is persona non grata anywhere she goes.

But Mukhtar Mai decided this would not be her fate. And when she publicly revealed what had occurred to her the world's attention was turned on Pakistan for its atrocious treatment of women. Notoriously, in Pakistan few men accused of rape or domestic violence are ever convicted of their crimes.

There were no fewer than fourteen men involved in Ms. Mai's rape, six of whom were charged and convicted and sentenced to death, while the remaining eight were acquitted. In 2005, the high court in Lahore acquitted five of the convicted men, then commuted the death sentence of the remaining man to life imprisonment, citing lack of evidence.

Now, Pakistan's Supreme Court has freed the five men, and a shocked Ms. Mai calls the ruling "a sad day for Pakistani women". "I wasn't expecting this. I've been struggling for nine years for women's rights and was expecting the Supreme Court to give me justice. And it hasn't." She has new concerns, now. Fearing her safety and that of her family.

The freed accused, she feels may yet exact vengeance against her for daring to make public the gang rape she suffered, and inflicting a prison term on her rapists, while looking for justice for herself and by extension other women in Pakistan. "Absolutely, I feel threatened, and my family feels threatened. The government of Pakistan and the Supreme Court will be responsible for any kind of violence that occurs against me or my family."

One has the impression that they couldn't care less. One can only wonder why the village elders were not also held responsible. And why the death penalty is seen as a just sentence for rape. And whether the country ever considers the potential good to society of educating its males against institutionalized violence.

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