Mukhtar Mai - the gang rape victim who defied her attackers

An interview with the Pakistani rape victim who became an iconic advocate of women's rights.

Mukhtar Mai is a woman from a village in the Muzaffagarh district of Pakistan. In 2002, she was gang-raped on the orders of a tribal council as part of a so-called “honour” revenge. While tradition dictates that a woman should commit suicide after such an act, Mukhtar defied convention and fought the case. Her rapists were never convicted, but the story was picked up by domestic and international media, and she has become an iconic advocate of women’s rights, despite constant threats to her life. She has opened a girls’ school and women’s crisis centre in Muzaffagarh.

I spoke to her earlier this week as part of research for an upcoming NS feature on Malala Yousafzai, the 14 year old schoolgirl activist shot by the Taliban, and the wider issues of politics, women and extremism in Pakistan. As always, just a small part of the interview could go into the feature, so here is a transcript.

There has been a huge public response in Pakistan to the shooting of Malala Yousafzai. What do you make of it?

I feel so good about the response to Malala. She’s a young girl, a child, and yet she’s fought for a nation, not just for her school. Malala is a beacon. Her light has been shone on all corners of the country, in the heart of the nation. When they shot her, it was not just Malala who fielded the bullet, thousands of Malalas were wounded.

Today it was her turn for the bullet; tomorrow it could be some other. It could be me.  I pray for her. May the poor child be completely healed.

Do you think Malala’s quest is similar to yours?

Yes, but look, the start of my journey was different. It was a very painful path. My wound is one that can never heal – it injured me beyond the body. Thankfully, Malala’s wound, though very serious, is physical. God willing, hers will heal.

Were you aware of the risks when you set out on your quest for justice?

Often when you stand up for your beliefs, even your family is not on your side.   When I first raised my voice, the uneducated people were against my taking the case to the police. They said: “you’ll be disgraced; your reputation will be soiled”. I wanted to do something about it. So I went ahead.

Were you afraid for your safety?

There is always danger but I told myself that the work I needed to do was more important than my life. Once I discovered that I wanted to achieve something in my life, wanted to ‘do’ something before I died, then fear receded. I set aside the fear and got on with my goals. My life is in God’s hands. 

You’ve opened a girls’ school. How did you make the shift to education?

When I reported my rape, it was very hard. It was confusing, thumb-prints, papers, statements. People had to read things out to me. I met educated people and they agreed with the course I had chosen to take. They encouraged me. It was then it occurred to me that education is important. It brings enlightenment.

How do you feel about your achievements now?

I feel very good, very grateful that God gave me the capability. Our school began as a primary and just grew and grew.  There was no education in the area. Now we have girls who pass metric, go to college. Maybe one day they will be in district councils, in government and other strong positions.

Has the wider society changed in recent years?

Absolutely. It’s not just the girls who want to study but their parents are finally behind them. These were parents who were abusive about educating girls – they were frightened about its effects. Look, if you allow fear in, you do nothing. You become ineffectual. But parents are very anxious about their daughters. There are many more Malalas in this society. But he who heals is more powerful than he who wounds. It is disappointing that though Islam permits women to be educated, we have this ignorance – this resistance to girls studying. Today women take to the streets to proclaim their problems, to shout about their pain. That is a massive change.

So there’s hope?

Great hope. The future is brighter. Women have a voice. They use it in public to ask for their rights. You see now, even a child like Malala has the courage to speak out. There are dangers - but placed against the need to achieve something, to express yourself, the threat is diminished. We have to keep moving ahead.

You recently held a press conference where you said you had been receiving death threats and your school had been attacked.

It was to bring attention to the lack of protection given to those at risk. The authorities have reduced the security at our school. The risks have increased. I continue to receive threats that I’ll be attacked etc. I have requested help from the Punjab Government – but there’s been no response.

Do you think the authorities are responsible for the rise in extremism?

Our laws are made, but they’re never acted upon. It is our government’s fault, the fault of our legal institutions, the police, that they don’t enforce these laws. Why would anyone be bothered by the law when it’s never actioned? No one is ever punished.

I get calls, every couple of weeks. They ring on three telephone numbers. There’s one phone I just don’t answer. They ring and say obscene things, then they make threats.  If I don’t answer that number they ring others until I do answer. I’ve passed the messages on to the police – not a thing is done. What’s the deterrent for these people?

How do you think this could be improved?

There are women in the force.  But don’t just give them the uniform, give them some powers. They will understand the needs and vulnerabilities of women.  When women go the police station about rape, they have to deal with men. The men ask foul, humiliating questions that we can’t answer. Why can’t women deal with women?  They would know how to ask questions in a proper way. Put a woman in every police station with the necessary powers, not just the uniform. That would help the causes of women. 

Do you think they would try to put some of those laws into action?

They would, if they were given some power. Why would men stop when they don’t fear punishment?  They’re wolves – wild beasts.  Let them at least be punished so they know their crime.

So there’s more work for you?

As long as I live, I will keep fighting for the rights of women. The women here are fighting for release from their pain. Rape and cruelty happens everywhere, but here there is no justice for women when they fight from their pain. I pray to God to keep my courage alive, to keep it strong. 

Pakistani woman Mukhtar Mai speaks at a shelter set up by her to protect women in the village of Mirwala in Pakistan's central Punjab province. Photograph: Getty Images.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Beyond terror: how are the Paris attack survivors healing their “invisible wounds”?

For many who were present at the attacks in Paris last November, the psychological scars from that night have yet to heal.

Caroline Langlade sips on a coffee on the patio of a Paris cafe. She is smiling but visibly a little nervous, hands shaking as she raises the cup to her lips. She's startled by the low rumble of a passing motorbike and she spins round in her chair to make sure the source of the noise is nothing sinister.

Just a few minutes' walk away is the Bataclan concert hall where, on 13 November last year, gunmen shot dead 90 people in the deadliest of a string of attacks across the French capital that claimed a total of 130 lives.

Caroline could have been among them had she not been on the first floor balcony at the time the gunmen entered the music venue and opened fire.

She managed to take refuge with others in a locked side room.

"Someone, one of the terrorists, tried to get in but couldn't," says the 29-year-old media worker. "I was trembling the whole time. I'm trembling now just talking about it. We were there for three-and-a-half hours before the police let us out."

She escaped physically uninjured but, two-and-a-half months later, the psychological scars from that night have yet to heal. She hasn't been able to return to work since and says she finds it difficult to read a book, watch films or do anything that involves "letting herself go" mentally.


Caroline Langlade. Photo: Sam Ball

Crowds in the street, along with sudden noises like the aforementioned motorbike, make her nervous. Wherever she is, the first thing she does is look around for possible hiding places.

"We have invisible wounds, we were injured in the attacks but they're mental injuries," she says of survivors like herself.

Sometimes, those wounds can remain hidden even for those who bear them.

On the morning of 14 November, Laure Dumont (not her real name) woke up, went to buy groceries at her local market in northern Paris where she lives and then went to a bookshop – a fairly typical Saturday morning.

The evening before, she had been lying motionless on the patio of a bar targeted that night, Le Carillon, trying to play dead in the hope of avoiding the attention of the gunmen spraying the bar with bullets.

"I hadn't been hurt. I didn't really even cry," she says of the day after the attack. "I had things planned so I just continued life as normal."

Some of what Laure saw at Le Carillon, where she had been drinking with friends on the night of 13 November, was horrific.

She recounts how she was shocked at the strong smell of blood from the dead and injured that filled the bar; how she, along with another woman, tried to administer first aid to a girl who had been shot in the chest.

"I tried to help her but there was nothing I could do. She died," she says.

But it wasn't until some time later that she began to realise that what had happened to her had left a bigger mark than she had first suspected.

"As time passed, it started to affect me," says the 29-year-old administrative assistant for a concert production company. "Now it makes me nervous when I drink on the terrace at a bar or a cafe. I have moments of paranoia, like on the metro, for example. I ask myself where would I hide or run if something happened."

Sometimes the psychological wounds manifest themselves in unexpected ways. Laure says she can't stand the smell of alcohol spilled onto the floor, because it is strangely reminiscent of the smell of blood.

Both Laure and Caroline both make regular visits to the psychologist, part of the free services provided to victims of terror attacks by the state.

But for Caroline, it was the discovery of an online victim support group named "Life for Paris", founded by a 28-year-old childcare worker and Bataclan survivor named Maureen Roussel, which has proved to be the biggest aid to her rehabilitation.

The Facebook group, which now also has an accompanying website, was created on 1 December. Caroline joined the next day and soon became close friends with Maureen. Now, she is the group's vice president and effectively runs it alongside her.

"The idea was to create a group by and for the victims," says Caroline. It provides a platform for survivors to come together to provide each other with emotional support, find people they may have met on the night of the attacks or simply share their experiences.

They also help one another with practical tasks, such as accessing the free healthcare and other services on offer for every survivor of the attack – something that can prove particularly challenging for those from outside France who may not be aware that such help exists at all.

There has been an overwhelming response: the Facebook group has more than 500 members at last count, including some from as far away as the UK, Brazil, the US and Venezuela.

Members' experiences and the impact they have had on their lives are wide-ranging. While some have been able to return to normal life relatively quickly, others, says Caroline, have been unable to leave their homes since the attacks.

But one recurring theme is the phenomenon of survivors' guilt, something Caroline personally struggled with in the weeks following the attacks. She found solace in talking to other people in the group who lost loved ones on 13 November.

"They told me 'it's not your fault, no one deserves to die', and that really helped me a lot."

Above all though, the group has allowed her simply just to "make sense of things". For example, just swapping stories with other Bataclan survivors, she says, allows her to fill in holes in her memory about what happened that night.

"It helps to piece together the puzzle: there might be a person who will remember something you don't and that helps you to understand better, to put together the story so that you can digest it and put it aside."

Laure is also searching for missing pieces of the puzzle. Shortly after the attacks she returned to Le Carillon. "I just wanted to see the layout of the bar, the physical distances," she says. "After the attacks, I remember running for what to me seemed a long time. When I went back, I realised it had only been for three metres."

Like Caroline, she has found that connecting with other survivors has helped her come to terms with what happened.

She managed to get in touch with the woman who had helped her administer first aid to the injured girl, something that eased the guilt she was feeling about not being able to do more to save her.

"We exchanged some messages. She helped me remember what had happened. It was good to talk," she says.

For Caroline, the most important thing now is focussing on what can be done for those who escaped with their lives, but who will forever be touched by what happened.

"People died, but others are alive today and suffering – the families of those who lost their lives, victims with visible injuries, victims with invisible ones," she says. "All these people need to heal and it's important that we do it together, united."