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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war