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 it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”