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The rape victim who fought back

By Chiade O'Shea in Islamabad

Mukhtar Mai at Islamabad press conference 5 March 2005
Mukhtar Mai decided to go public about the rape

When Mukhtar Mai was gang raped in Pakistan in February 2002, she lost her so-called "honour" and, along with it, her chance to lead a normal life in her village.

She comes over in most photographs as a fragile and frightened woman, but those who have met her speak of a strength and faith not visible on the surface.

Many expected Ms Mai, 33, to commit suicide, as is all too common after rape in Pakistan.

But she refused and started what has become a three-year legal battle against her alleged rapists.

She also built her village's first two schools with her compensation money and now campaigns internationally for women's rights.

'Living in danger'

Ms Mai's first test of courage was to survive her initial suicidal feelings. She recounted that "a passion grew in me to fight back" when more than 200 villagers offered their moral support.

This was a small minority of her community, but enough to convince her that there were some who wanted to change the status quo.

I won't leave Pakistan or my village - I will continue my work in the schools
Mukhtar Mai

Meerwala, in southern Punjab, is in many ways a typical Pakistani farming village. Women often work as hard as men in the fields and always far harder at home.

Government services such as education and basic health care are considered rich people's luxuries. Justice can be a scarcer commodity still.

Mukhtar Mai says she was gang raped on the orders of a tribal council, called to settle allegations that the influential Mastoi clan in the area had levelled against her brother, Shakoor.

The Mastois had alleged that they had seen the 12-year-old Shakoor in the company of a Mastoi woman. This, they said, had brought shame to the entire clan.

The council then allegedly ordered the rape of Mukhtar Mai to avenge the wrong that her brother had been accused of committing.

It was later found in a conventional court that the story against Shakoor had been fabricated to cover up a sexual attack against the boy himself. The three men who attacked him were imprisoned for sodomy. Their convictions still stand.

Four men were sentenced to death for raping Ms Mai and two others for participating in the decision. Five of these convictions have since been overturned and one man's death penalty commuted to life in prison. The Pakistani government has said it will appeal against the decisions.

Now Ms Mai must face the possibility that the men she accused of raping her will be free to return to their village. "There is a danger to my own life and also to my family," she said at a press conference in Islamabad.

Although she is visibly shaken by the prospect of the men's return, she refuses to flee her home. "I won't leave Pakistan or my village. I will continue my work in the schools."

Improving minds

Mukhtar Mai credits her strength and successes to God, but always reserves a mention for the children of the two schools she has founded.

Pupils at Mukhtar Mai's school
Pupils at Mukhtar Mai's school in Punjab

"Because of the girls and the students, there are colours in my life," she says.

Although she had never seen a school before she built one, Ms Mai's expression of the value of education rivals most education ministries' spin.

"Education can change people through awareness of their rights and duties as well," she said. "We must improve the minds of both the boys and the girls if we're to improve women's rights."

Easily underestimated as an illiterate village woman, Mukhtar Mai's articulate, concise answers are the first clue to how media savvy she is.

In fact, she took a strategic decision after her attack to put herself in the public eye.

Although drawing attention to her rape went strongly against her culture, she judged that the media spotlight could help ensure her a fair trial and keep her safer from the threats she says she regularly receives against her life.

Fame

Ms Mai courts publicity in order to raise money for her charity work. She has worked with a number of NGOs, some of which have funded her campaigning trips abroad, and she has received many donations from the public.

After an article written about her in the New York Times, readers were so moved that they sent in $133,000 (£69,000) for her schools. This is a phenomenal sum in Pakistan where, at the last census, the average monthly income was a mere $65.

Her original schools were built with $9,400. The US aid organisation Mercy Corps has been drafted in to help manage the influx of cash.

In November, Mukhtar Mai was planning to install electricity in her school, but wasn't sure if she could afford the bills. This is no longer a worry as she plans to build schools for other villages and set up local medical services.

She recently set up www.mukhtarmai.org where her supporters around the world can make credit card donations online.

Mukhtar Mai has long been characterised by events beyond her control - as an illiterate village woman, the victim of gang rape and brutal tribal justice.

But her recent charity successes are testament to some of the underlying mettle that has been sustaining her for the past three years.



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