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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot