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Mukhtaran Mai: No country for wronged women

The author is a Lincoln’s Inn barrister practicing in Islamabad and holds a degree in literature and economics from Bryn Mawr College, US

As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.

– Virginia Woolf

My most enduring image of Mukhtaran Mai is of her gazing out of the cover of her book In the Name of Honour. I remember staring at this picture, trying to understand who Mukhtaran Mai really was and why her mere mention drew such strong and opposing reactions. With its recent judgment in this matter, the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan, much to the dismay and disappointment of many thinking people, appears unmistakably to have joined the ranks of those who dismiss her as fake and a pawn in the hands of women’s rights groups.

To place the SC’s judgement in perspective, I made an effort to remind myself of her book. Whilst I remember being shocked, even moved to tears at the indescribable cruelty of the rape and her sheer helplessness in its aftermath, I remember equally that her narrative had failed to satisfy my curiosity about what or who it was that had transformed her from a simple, unexposed and underprivileged villager, to a woman who had the daring and indeed the knowledge to challenge and fight a deeply entrenched and all-pervasive patriarchal system.

I realise now that whilst my scepticism towards Mukhtaran Mai was academic and born out of curiosity, Justice Nisar’s misgivings about her and his apparent inability to fully comprehend either her or her milieu has resulted in the acquittal of her alleged assailants and has rendered her vulnerable to their revenge. However, so carefully buried is his view of Mukhtaran Mai in platitudes and legal precedents that it is not immediately evident. Only one passage in the judgement provides an interesting clue. Whilst discussing the prosecution’s assertion that the delay in lodging the FIR was due to fear of social repercussions, he states that the, “case of an unmarried virgin victim of a young age, whose future may be stigmatised… cannot be held at par with a grownup lady, who is a divorcee for the last many years”.

Does Justice Nisar, perhaps, believe that the self-respect, indeed morality, of a divorcee (or that of her family) is somehow of a lower order than that of a virgin? Or perhaps he believes divorce to be an added qualification, which should miraculously and immediately enable women to regain command of their senses, even if raped, and go directly from the scene of the crime to the police, lodge a coherent complaint, submit to invasive medical scrutiny – and do all this with the complete and cheerful support of their families.

If asked, Justice Nisar would undoubtedly say that he decided the case according to the evidence before him. This is not only a judge’s best defence, but also has more than a modicum of truth in it. What Justice Nisar would not say, however, is that in weighing up the evidence before him, he was guided by his stereotypical image of a good Pakistani woman and Mukhtaran Mai, in speaking out against the wrong done to her, in seeking help from all quarters to redress this wrong and remaining steadfast in her demand for justice – and in being a divorcee – did not fit the mould.

The real tragedy, however, is that Justice Nisar is not alone in his suspicion of such women. Many men, and unfortunately some women, believe that true virtue, indeed the well-being of the entire society, lies on the shoulders of a woman and, more importantly, in her ability to suffer every wrong in utter and submissive silence. And this means that while there will be many legal and technical arguments as Mukhtaran Mai’s case comes up for review before the SC, the actual arenas in which this case, or others like it in the future, may be won or lost are the hearts and minds of the ordinary men and women of Pakistan. Because it is not law alone that has defeated Mukhtaran Mai, it is the collective, colossal force of prejudice, chauvinism and insensitivity, which, unless vanquished, renders this country unfit to live for any woman who has, or may be, wronged.

Source: The Express Tribune