March 21, 2009
The Canberra Times

Two wrongs, no rights

I suspect that, like most women, Mukhtar Mai doesn’t like it when people tell her she’s courageous. Telling a woman she has courage just makes her nervous. Telling her she’s brave is even worse. Women just do what they feel needs to be done. Often it’s about doing what seems obvious.

She may not be able to read or write, but Mukhtar knows when she has been wronged. And she knows when a woman must take a stand, regardless of the danger, or personal threat to her safety.

Back in 2002 Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped by order of a tribal council in southern Punjab, Pakistan. It was a hideous punishment, for a trumped-up crime. Her 12-year-old brother was accused of having an affair with a woman of another tribe, and the punishment was a brutal assault on his sister. She later described the moment when she was ”dragged away like a goat to the slaughter”.

The unbearable shame of such a rape in that society would usually lead a woman to kill herself: suicide being considered the only honourable thing left to do. But Mukhtar didn’t.

Instead this illiterate and horribly shamed woman pursued justice, and committed herself to bringing her rapists and the corrupt system to account.

When the charge against her brother was proven false, and investigations found he had been the victim of sexual assault by the accusing tribesmen, Mukhtar’s story gripped Pakistan. By the time she finally won her case against the rapists, Mukhtar Mai was internationally celebrated for her exceptional bravery and courage in naming the men, and speaking out.

Now in her mid 30s, Mukhtar is a leading advocate for women’s rights. She has opened a girl’s school in her village, Meerwala, and started up a number of women’s centres in rural Pakistan.

When her rapists were released from jail, after a short imprisonment, Mukhtar fought for a retrial. And for the past several years nothing, and no-one, has been able to thwart her determination to see justice done. In 2005 the American magazine Glamour named Mukhtar Mai ”Woman of the Year”. Now there’s even talk of a Hollywood film about her life.

So with all of this behind her, I suppose it’s not surprising the international media wanted a happy ending. And what could be happier than a marriage? A smiling bride and a smitten groom.

This week that’s what we got. Photos of the newly betrothed sitting together at a simple marriage ceremony, held last Sunday in Mukhtar’s village. The groom, police constable Nasir Abbas Gabol, looks rather pleased. And so he should. He’s scored himself a national celebrity as a wife.

Nasir Abbas was one of the policeman assigned to protect Mukhtar when relatives of her rapists threatened to kill her. Despite being married, with four children, Nasir Abbas became besotted and pursued her for years. He asked her to become his second wife. She said no. Soon he started to beg.

Finally the ultimatum – marry me or I’ll kill myself.

While such a demand is hardly romantic, it’s not much of a choice either. But what a clever way to corner a good-hearted woman.

The constable was true to his word and attempted suicide. Naturally he failed. But the scare was enough to kick everyone into action. His parents, sisters, even his first wife, Shumaila, went running to Mukhtar to plead with her to marry him. And there was a new threat. If she said no again, he would divorce Shumaila, and abandon his children.

Now this is where the role of ”choice” in a woman’s life gets tricky. When told she has a ”choice” a woman is supposed to feel empowered. The decision is hers, and she is free to wield her power.

But what do you do when the choice on offer is lousy – no matter which way you look at it.

If Mukhtar disappointed the pleading delegation before her and said no, she wouldn’t marry this man, Shumaila would be thrown on to the scrap heap of destitute women. If she said yes, she then takes her place as a number two trophy in her husband’s collection of wives. The fact that she’s not in love, doesn’t raise a mention.

When the choice available is a lose-lose scenario, there’s little a woman in Mukhtar’s situation can do. So, she cut a deal. The marriage was agreed on the condition constable Nasir Abbas transferred ownership of his house to his first wife Shumaila, as well as give her a plot of land and a monthly stipend.

Mukhtar signed the marriage contract for the sake of Shumaila. ”She is a good woman” she told journalists, explaining that she didn’t want to break up a family.

So what does the heroine Mukhtar get out of all this? A husband she didn’t want and doesn’t love, who now has legal rights over her. Mukhtar has no intention of leaving her home, or her village, but says, ”He can come here whenever he wants and finds convenient.”

Convenient! No wonder there are so few heroines left in the world.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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