Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The First Step Causes the Most Trouble

On March 2nd, the Pakistani government, allied with Islamists in Parliament to defeat a bill which would have strengthened the legal sanctions against honor-killings.
...declaring it to be "un-Islamic," the bill was defeated by a majority vote. Law minister Wasi Zafar told parliament that there was no need for further amendments in the country's penal code after an amendment bill was passed last December.
This so-called "amendment" was simply a twist in the old law which allowed killers to seek or to buy pardon from the families of the victims of honor killings. Once pardon is bought or obtained, there is no criminal matter to be resolved. Life goes on, albeit not for the woman who has paid the honor-price with her life, with gang-rape, or with disfigurement. Any particular woman's fate is up to the whim of those meting out her punishment. The only limit seems to be the depth of their rage and the creative breadth of their sadism.

Several days after the legislative defeat, thousands of women rallied in eastern Pakistan on behalf of Mukhtar Mai, a provincial school teacher who sought justice for her ordeal at the hands of the village council -- the panchayat -- which directed that she be gang-raped in retribution for a supposed crime by her twelve-year old brother.

The panchayat in Meerwala, southern Punjab, had found Ms Mai's younger brother, Shakoor, guilty of raping a girl from the village's powerful Mastoi clan.

It was later revealed in a conventional court that the 12-year-old had in fact been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by the same men who later made up his jury.

... Ms Mai was then taken away to be raped in revenge for her brother's supposed crime. None of the 150 men present responded to her pleas for mercy, she said.
Mai then did a courageous and unprecedented thing: she sought legal prosecution of her rapists. Six men were found guilty of the crime, which occurred in 2002. This week, co-incidentally with the defeat in Parliament of sanctions for these kinds of crimes, convictions of five of the rapists were overturned on appeal. The judges found the police at fault for not having followed proper procedures.

Meanwhile, Mai has been re-building her life. With the backing of a minority of her community, she sought legal help. And then, with the compensation she received for her ordeal, she has built two schools in her village: the Mukhtar Mai School for Girls is the first. The school for boys is named for her father, Farid Gujjar.

Pupils sit on wheat sacks because there are no chairs or desks. The school has no electricity, so they learn in the shade of the classrooms in summer and take classes in the bright winter sun of the courtyard when it gets colder.
However, things have not been easy.

For each of the 270 pupils in school, two more of the village's children are kept away by their parents.

Mukhtar believes men are scared of being undermined by a better-educated new generation, including stronger young women.

"They think it will lose them power," she says.

"Even if I don't succeed in my struggle," she says, "I'll keep trying until my death."
She is starting with the girls of her own village.

"School is the first step to change the world," says Mukhtar. "It's always the first step that causes the most trouble, but it's the start of progress."
May Allah bless her undertaking to wipe out ignorance in her small corner of the world. It is an ignorance which has cost her dearly.