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08 March, 2009

Exposing humanrights violations In Pakistan


On the rare occasions when bravery and perseverance triumph in the face of tragedy and overwhelming odds, the spine-tingling sensation revives your faith in humans. Shown such heroic successes lesser mortals are encouraged to excel in our own small ways. The media should therefore regularly highlight such stories to help reduce the depression and despondency one sees around us today.

The bitter seed of one such heart-warming story was planted in 2002. Today, Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani rape victim who waged a legal battle against her attackers and the justice system that sanctioned the crime, will be the subject of a feature Hollywood film. Funding is partly through ARY Digital, an independent Pakistani TV network, which will show this controversial movie nationally.

When her young brother went before a council of tribal elders after he was accused of being seen with a girl from a rival tribe, Mai pleaded for his release. They spared him -- but ordered that she be gang-raped in public to shame her family. While most victims of this authorized crime commit suicide rather than exist as a pariah, Mai fought back.
She took her case to Pakistani authorities, and her ordeal drew international attention through press attention and particularly stories written by New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who may become a character in the film.

The press attention shamed the government into prosecuting her attackers, and Mai emerged as a galvanizing figure in a crusade to reform women's rights. Thanks to the international publicity there is a book out by Mai. The announcement of the film in a US magazine shows her standing next to Hilary Clinton.

Among those who have consistently reminded us about the seven-year-old Mai case pending in the Supreme Court are commentator Naeem Sadiq, founder member of the NGO, War Against Rape, and Rauf Klasra of The News.

A Feb 8 report by Klasra says that Mai has accused Federal Minister Qayyum Jatoi, resident of her area, of pressurizing her and her family to withdraw the case against 13 accused of the rape crime. This case has been pending in the Supreme Court for the last three years that included Chief Justice Chaudhary Iftikhar’s tenure. Naeem Sadiq’s 19 Feb op-ed covered similar ground.

International attention has largely ensured finance support and security for Mai’s schools and women’s crisis relief center, which takes care of and protects victim of crimes. Kristof’s Sept 2004 column about Mai persuaded his readers to send generous contributions. In March 2006 he reported that $290 thousand had been received as a result largely of his 2004 piece. See his video, “The Courage of Mukhtar Mai”. The full import of this article will require the reader to view the videos.

The government had earlier provided her the equivalent of about $8300, which she used to set up two schools. When Kristof wrote his 2004 piece, the promised operating cost for her schools by the government had failed to appear and she was using her funds to feed the police who had been provided to protect her.

Kristof’s consistent support for Mai’s work has helped provide her protection and continued attention, which has stopped anyone harming her physically despite her being surrounded by enemies. In the 2007 video, “Mukhtar’s Refuge”, Kristof issues an explicit warning to the then President Musharraf to the effect that if any “accident” occurs to Mai, Musharraf would be held responsible. That the world will be watching him!

To keep the international audience up to date about Mai, Kristof came in February and Nov 2008. His hope-filled videos of the two trips are: “The Courage of Mukhtar Mai” and “From Victim to Heroine”. These are supplemented by a photo-story, “Women Giving Hope to Women in Pakistan”, that shows stills of a few women who have been saved by the Mai’s Crisis Center.

Kristof’s last visit highlighted the work of two other remarkable Pakistani women. The short video about Shahnaz Bukhari of the Progressive Women’s Association, “Acid Attacks”, relates to the incidence of acid throwing, and is worth the undeleted expletive alone! It shows the passion and the strength of women’s rights activists who are working to bring about change.

The second video, “Books not Bombs”, shows Tauseef Hyat of the NGO, Developments in Literacy, which show how expatriate Pakistani are supporting 150 schools around the country. [There is reference provided here to the new controversial minister of education, Hazar Khan Bijrani; we turn to him later.] The money spent on education for such an effort is miniscule compared with the billions that America wastes in its war in northern Pakistan. The message conveyed is that the US would do better to support such activities to create friends and generate goodwill in this country. Compare the $290 thousand that Mai got with $80 million that Pakistan wastes on buying a single F-16 warplane!

Mr Bijrani as head of a counsel of elders (jirga) had ‘resolved’ a decade long dispute of Sung Chatti (Sindhi word; Swara in Pushtu and Vani in Punjabi) through an order to have five infant girls transferred from the murderer’s clan to that of the aggrieved clan. This degenerate, outdated custom prevails in the all the rural areas of Pakistan and in Afghanistan as well. Film-maker Samar Minallah has highlighted the case, and the issue of Swara in which Bijrani was implicated in the Supreme Court. See her film “Swara, a Bridge over Troubled Waters”. Her related work appears at the Ethnomedia and Development website:

It is exemplary film makers and researchers like Minallah who need to be assisted by TV channels. They could support young talented film students to work with her and other socially conscious film-makers. Kristof takes on a student each year to work with him, and this is a model which each TV channel in Pakistan could emulate. See “Win a Trip With Nicholas Kristof, 2009”.

By not moving on the Mukhtar Mai case, it was felt that Chief Justice Chaudhary Iftikhar might have been restrained by political pressure. That’s in the past. Had he and his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan (incidentally also Mukhtar’s advocate) however visited her in Meerawala, a small town near Multan where the CJ had gone to address the lawyers, he might have gained more points for democracy and human rights than merely addressing the black coats.

Brave women such as Mukhtar Mai and Minallah backed by women’s organizations such as Women’s Action Forum, work to highlight and undue the prejudices and help outdated and diabolical customs. PPP women such as Sherry Rahman, Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Shazia Marri, Sassui Palejo, Farzana Raja and, ace-researcher on Karo Kari, Nafisa Shah must speak out in the public forums against guilty fellow legislators and ministers. They have seriously violated the human rights and particularly that of women. To date, however, their silence is deafening.

Videos referenced in the text
“The Courage of Mukhtar Mai”
“Mukhtar’s Refuge”
“The Courage of Mukhtar Mai”
“From Victim to Heroine”
“Women Giving Hope to Women in Pakistan”
“Acid Attacks”
“Books not Bombs”
“Swara, a Bridge over Troubled Waters”
“Win a Trip With Nicholas Kristof, 2009”

The author is an Islamabad-based physicist and environmentalist.

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