A long, inspiring road

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

“ON the night of June 22, 2002, our family reaches a decision.” In these words begins the story of Mukhtar Bibi (now called Mai, in veneration), a household name in Pakistan today. This ‘decision’ changed Mukhtar’s life for ever. She was deputed to appear before the powerful Mastoi clan in her native village of Meerwalla (in southern Punjab) to seek forgiveness on behalf of her family for a ‘wrong’ supposedly done by her younger brother, Shakur. The boy, a low-caste Gujjar, had spoken to a girl of the Mastoi clan who kidnapped him, beat him up and accused him of theft and illicit conduct that called for atonement. The charges were false, but such are the ways of power relationships not just in the backwaters of Pakistan but also in the most modernised of cities. The upper-caste Mastois had to be appeased.

Mukhtar had to pay the price. On the order of the village jirga dominated by the Mastois, she was gang raped. Thereafter, Mukhtar had a choice between suicide and revenge. “I have made up my mind: I want to kill myself,” she writes (through the pen of the writer of this book Marie-Therese Cuny). And then a ‘surprising fit of anger saves’ her and she decides to fight back. In the Name of Honour is a sordid tale of rape, oppression and subjugation of women under patriarchy. It is also an inspiring story of a woman’s fight against these evils which makes her an icon of the women’s struggle in Pakistan.

The course the legal struggle takes makes familiar reading for a Pakistani reader. A newspaperman picks up the story and the publicity the case receives forces the administration to send the police to Meerwalla to have the case registered a week later. A long road lies ahead involving police pressures and manipulations, the start of the case with a kind judge in the chair, detention of the rapists, police protection for the victim, and the judgment sentencing six men to death and acquitting eight others. Then starts the second round of the legal battle -— appeal in the High Court and the reversal of the judgment in March 2005. The five of the sentenced men are acquitted.

No sooner than they are out of jail that Mukhtar is in mortal danger again. In a dramatically narrated account of her meetings with the interior minister and the prime minister in Islamabad, she tells the readers of her race against time to have those men hauled back into prison. That is where the matter stands today. Mukhtar’s appeal is before the Supreme Court which decided to re-open the case.

The story of the legal processes, which is central to Mukhtar’s fight against her rapists, is interestingly told. For foreigners and many of our own readers not fully familiar with Pakistan, it is also instructive. But that is not the only struggle this simple illiterate peasant has waged — and that too with a marked degree of success. She was intelligent enough to realise right at the start that her biggest handicap was her inability to read and write. Not wishing the other girls in her village to fall victim to many social evils that are the bane of Pakistani society, Mukhtar used the funds she was given to open a school primarily for girls but boys have also been enrolled. Today there are over 300 children in her school.

In the Name of Honour is not just a story of a woman who has been raped. It is a spirited account of Pakistani society and sheds ample light on the low status of women, the unequal power structure that divides the various classes and the sluggish and corrupt working of the machinery of the state. It is a book for sociologists, lawyers and women counsellors to read if they really wish to understand Pakistan. Here they will see how the wealthy exercise their power and control over society; how women resign themselves to total submission to the men in their life; how religion subtly moulds the mindset of people; how jirgas dispense summary justice in a state where the judicial machinery can be excruciatingly slow but they also have a positive dimension when they seek to create bonds between deadly enemies forced to live as neighbours by reconciling their differences.

And how does Mukhtar, the central character in this inspiring tale, emerge? Reading the brisk and direct narration full of lively comparisons one gets the impression that she is sensitive, intelligent, imaginative, deeply religious, and has an unbounded stock of humanism and empathy in her heart — Mastoi children are enrolled in her school. The book is interspersed with remarks such as, “I am a fatalist.” “You have to struggle against yourself and break out of your own prison.” “I am a divorced woman, which places me in the lowest rank of respectable females.” “I’d no idea that speaking about one’s pain, about a secret that feels shameful, can set both mind and body free.” “I wasn’t an ardent feminist. I became one through experience because I am a survivor.”

One important factor that Mukhtaran refers to repeatedly but implicitly is the sisterhood of women. She recalls the support she has received from many women activists and human rights supporters in Pakistan and abroad. This has sustained her in her hour of trial, although there were times when her passport was taken away and she was not allowed to travel. This book is one product of this process of joining of hands.

A joint project undertaken by Mukhtar, the French writer Marie-Therese Cuny and her translator Linda Coverdale, this book wouldn’t have been possible if they had not worked jointly on it. Naseem Akhtar, Mukhar’s close friend and confidant, and Mustafa Baloch and Saif Khan, two social activists, also pitched in to help with the translation since the only language Mukhtar speaks is Seraiki. This posed a challenge, especially to the writer whose knowledge of the local language, culture and geography is minimal. Punjab has been referred to as ‘a remote province’ and the ‘Nanny’ is described as a paternal grandmother. But these are minor problems for a reader engrossed in the text. One may also add, Mukhtar emerges as the “empowered” one, as her name implies.

In the Name of Honour: A Memoir
By Mukhtar Mai
With Marie-Therese Cuny and translated by Linda Coverdale
Available with Liberty Books,
Park Towers, Clifton, Karachi
Tel: 021-5832525 (ext: 111)
ISBN 1-84408-409-8
172pp. Rs595