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02.11.09

Does Pakistan Have No Shame?

Is Pakistan trying to force rape victim Mukhtaran Mai to drop her case? Fatima Bhutto reports on a campaign of intimidation.

In 2002, an illiterate woman named Mukhtaran Mai was punished for something her brother did. He committed the unforgivable crime of falling in love with a young woman outside his tribe. So, in accordance with tribal tradition, a local council of elders decided that instead of punishing him directly, his sister Mai would be gang raped and paraded across her small village of Meerwala half naked.

Five days after this rape occurred, Mai did the unthinkable: She pressed charges.

In parliament, a month after the women were buried alive, Zehri defended the killings as “part of our traditional customs.”

Her defiance of custom—reporting the rape instead of silently accepting it—made headlines worldwide. Nicholas Kristof and Time magazine championed her case. Glamour magazine declared Mai “Woman of the Year.” But now, the Pakistan government has shown that it holds her in considerably lower esteem.

A few days ago, Mai announced that Pakistan has been quietly pressuring her to drop her case against the men who raped her. Qayyum Jatoi, the Federal Minister of State for Defense Production (ignore the silly title, we have 60-odd redundant ministers in our bloated cabinet) wants Mai to quit her six-year battle, now in the Supreme Court. According to Mai, the minister telephoned her uncle and warned him that should she persist, the ministry would ensure that the court rules against her. Minister Jatoi has denounced Mai’s allegations as a ploy by her to garner “cheap popularity” in the media. He denies pressuring Mai to drop the case, of course. The trial is scheduled to start today.

Given Pakistan’s recent history, I’d give Mai the benefit of the doubt. This is a government that has only grown more sinister when it comes to the cause of women. The Pakistan People’s Party, of which Minister Jatoi is a member, has twice put a female prime minister in office, Benazir Bhutto, and still has fully never repealed the anti-women Hudood Ordinances, which were reformed by President Pervez Musharraf but still allow women to be imprisoned for crimes like adultery and premarital sex.

Responding to the government’s pressure, Mai said in a statement to The News, one of Pakistan’s leading English newspapers, that it was ironic this injustice was being meted out to her by Benazir’s party. But it’s not so ironic. In fact, for the PPP, it’s par for the course.

Sardar Israullah Zehri, a tribal leader and senator from Balochistan and a member of the PPP, took to the floor of parliament this past August to defend violence against women. Five women in his province had been buried alive for staining their family’s honor. (Reports from various human-rights groups indicate the number of women buried may actually be as high as ten.) No one knows who the women were; we have snippets—a first name here, a date of birth there—but they’ve been murdered terribly well, erased from public record.

In parliament, a month after the women were buried alive, Zehri defended the killings as “part of our traditional customs.” Three months after his atrocious declaration, he was appointed the Federal Minister of Postal Services (see?) and made an adviser to the prime minister’s cabinet. When criticized for his statements, Zehri shrugged off his critics—five women died and the sky didn’t fall, the charming minister is reputed to have said.

Then, in November, the PPP and its president, Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Zardari, appointed Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani as Federal Minister of Education (a cabinet post with actual heft to it). Any Pakistani with a memory should have alarm bells ringing in his head at the mention of Bijarani’s name. In 2007, the chief justice of Pakistan ordered his arrest after he decreed that five girls be handed over, like currency, to the family of a murdered man to settle a feud between their two families. Bijarani was acting as head of a local tribal council similar to the one that had Mukhtaran Mai gang raped. The eldest of the girls was age six, and the youngest were only two years old.

But under this present government, not only is Bijarani is a free man (with an impressive government portfolio to boot), but the chief justice who ordered his arrest now finds himself unconstitutionally unemployed.

Today’s PPP bears absolutely no resemblance to the party that brought Pakistan’s first democratically elected government to power in 1971 and wrote our country’s constitution, yet it is feted across the West as an ally in the War on Terror. If Vice President Joseph Biden has his way, Pakistan will receive a whopping $7.5 billion in nonmilitary aid as part of the Biden-Lugar Act.

This for a country with an impressive vernacular for crimes against women. We have barely two words for “school” in Urdu: madrassa, and the bastardized eskool. But we have an entire language for the official ways in which you can victimize women. Swara, noun: the practice of settling disputes by giving away female children as compensation (see Bijarani); Karo Kari, noun: the murder of a male and female who have stained their respective families' honor; watta satta, the exchange of brides between one family and another; sang chatti, the forced marriage of women and girls to resolve tribal disputes. The vocabulary goes on and on.

Even longer is the list of men, politicians, and ministers who have been rewarded by the state of Pakistan for their misogyny. Mukhtaran Mai’s allegations have been quietly buried in the week since she openly accused the government of meddling in her rape case. As her case goes before the Supreme Court today, there’s little hope for a fair trial. The newspapers have been silent in Karachi, there are no protest rallies in Lahore, and there have been no repercussions against the state in Islamabad.

A few days ago, a friend of mine arrived at Karachi International Airport after a business trip abroad. As she waited in line to have her passport stamped at immigration, a man in his thirties turned to her and sneered, “How can you stand here in a line with all these men?” He called her shameless and said she should separate herself. But he underestimated her docility. She stood firmly in place and told him if her presence bothered him so much, he should ask the government to build a separate airport for women. I wouldn’t put it past them.

Personally, I’d prefer our own country.

Fatima Bhutto is a graduate of Columbia University and the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is working on a book to be published by Jonathan Cape in 2010 and writes regularly for the New Statesman among other publications. Fatima lives and works in Karachi, Pakistan.