True victor in the face of violation

19th November 2004 at 00:00

Mango trees and cotton fields in bloom surround the Punjabi village of Meerwala. Oxen stroll between one-room houses, and children with ruffled hair run barefoot through their doorways. It could be almost anywhere in Pakistan's agricultural heartland.

But guards with guns propped against one home offer a sign of one resident's extraordinary life.

Mukhtar Mai is a small woman with a bright smile and cautious eyes. Three years ago, she survived an ordeal that led her to become one of the most influential figures in the fight for Pakistani women's rights via education.

In February 2002, Ms Mai was gang-raped on the orders of a panchayat (tribal court).

The government later awarded her pound;5,000 in compensation, money she used to build two schools in her underprivileged village.

"My school was the first one I ever saw," she says.

Hours before she was attacked, Mukhtar Mai saw her 12-year-old brother, Shakoor, abducted by three men from the village's dominant Mastoi family.

He was locked in a room for six hours and repeatedly raped. The police refused to help as his captors had lodged a fabricated charge of rape against Shakoor himself. In the evening, the Mastoi demanded that Ms Mai apologise on behalf of her brother before a panchayat. Later, they promised she could take Shakoor home.

"As soon as I entered the panchayat, I felt that it was out of my control.

I thought of running away, but there was no chance," she says.

A Mastoi jury, including Shakoor's attackers, decided he should be punished for his alleged crime with a reciprocal attack on the "honour" of his sister. Some 150 people watched her being dragged away by the four men designated to mete out the sentence of gang rape.

In much of Pakistan, women who are raped are expected to commit suicide from shame. Few ever call the police.

"The first day after the attack, I did want to die," she says. "But the next day, between 200 and 250 people came to my home and said they were ready to help me."

With their support, she says, "a passion grew in me to fight back".

The four rapists and two other panchayat judges received death sentences and Shakoor's three attackers were each sentenced to two years in prison.

The verdict prompted such anger among the attackers' relatives that the Punjab government allocated Ms Mai a 24-hour guard.

Within seven months of the attack, she had opened the Mukhtar Mai school for girls and the Farid Gujjar school for boys, named after her father.

They are simple concrete buildings with no desks or chairs. Children sit on wheat sacks and proudly show off their books and slates.

These schools have been nothing short of a revolution in Meerwala. Women here were once seen only in the home or picking cotton. Now, girls such as 13-year-old Shahana Kohsar have ambitions to continue Ms Mai's work. "I want an education," says Shahana. "I'd like to be a doctor."

The schools also helped Ms Mai recover. "Because of the girls, the students, there are colours and light in my life," she says.

There is still a resistance to education. Some 270 children from the village attend the schools, but another 600 do not. Poverty is one reason, on top of which many are fearful of the rapid change.

"The men are absolutely scared of educating their women and children," says Ms Mai. "They think it will lose them power."

In early November, Uqsa, a seven-year-old pupil, came to her teacher with bruises on her face and arm. "My father beat me for going to school and forbade me from coming," she says. But Ms Mai confronted the father and Uqsa is now back in class.

Ms Mai hopes that education will eventually change society. "God willing, (these children) will be more open-minded than their parents," she says.

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