Mukhtar Mai’s story is heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, even nauseating … but ultimately, her story of inexplicable violence is not about being a victim but a testament to inspiring empowerment of girls and women all over the world through the power of education.
Eight years ago, I got an email from a longtime friend that the New York Times‘ Nicholas D. Kristof (who provides the foreword here) was raising funds to help a gang-rape victim keep her school going in rural Pakistan. After reading the shattering story, I had no choice but to immediately send a check. As Kristof and co-writer/wife Sheryl WuDunn write in their bestselling, life-changing title, Half the Sky, even $27 can change lives for the better forever.
By order of the village council, Mukhtar Mai was brutally raped by four men, as justified punishment for a crime her younger brother did not commit. As a skinny 12-years-old, Mai’s brother was jailed and repeatedly beaten and sodomized for allegedly raping a woman in her 20s who was part of the village’s powerful, lawless, ruling caste. Brutalizing the alleged perpetrator was not enough; Mai’s body became further battleground for degradation.
Expected to commit suicide to save her family from further disgrace, Mai was prepared to die. But something propelled her to get up, report the crime to the police, and demand justice. The police tried desperately to silence her, taking advantage of her illiteracy to create false reports on blank papers which bore her thumbprint.
In spite of such illegal efforts, Mai’s story began to make national headlines, and then the world literally arrived at her door, ready to hear her voice. The Pakistani government was forced to respond, and awarded her a sum equal to $8,500. Having spent most of her life unable to read and write, Mai had been victimized not only by her attackers, but also the police and government because of that illiteracy. Mai was determined that what had happened to her would not happen to other girls and women: with that blood money, Mai started a school, to give the girls strong voices and to teach the boys that a woman’s body is not a war zone.
While the international articles made the world aware about Mai’s story, her memoir adds further depth to her ongoing journey towards justice. Change has come slowly, but the struggle continues. She talks about how silence, obedience, and the denial of knowledge are passed on from mother to daughter in an endless cycle of ‘honor’: “Submission is compulsory,” she explains, then insists, “… knowledge must be given to girls, and as soon as possible, before their mothers bring them up the same way they were raised themselves.” She talks about the three different legal systems women must adhere to, religious, governmental, and tribal which can too often trump all official laws. She talks about the importance of deep relationships with other women, and how her own friendship with a distant cousin gave her courage and literally saved her life.
Read and weep. And then be inspired, energized, empowered to make the world just … in small, major, any, many ways.
To read further updates about Mukhtar Mai since the release of this memoir, check the New York Times news page.
Published: 2006 (United States)