Monday, June 20, 2005

And Still, In Pakistan

The tale of great courage and cowardice continues. On the side of courage is Mukhtaran Bibi, on the other side the government of Pakistan:

Let me back up. Ms. Mukhtaran is the indomitable peasant whom I first wrote about in September after visiting her in her village. Three years ago, a village council was upset at her brother, and sentenced her to be gang-raped. After four men raped her, she was forced to walk home nearly naked before a jeering crowd.

She then defied tradition by testifying against her attackers, sending them to prison, and she used compensation money to start elementary schools in her village. She herself is now enrolled in the fourth grade; a measure of her passion for education is that the day after the government released her, she was back in class.

Ms. Mukhtaran is using donations (through to start an ambulance service and a women's shelter, and she is also campaigning against honor killings, rapes and acid attacks that disfigure women. But President Musharraf, defensive about Pakistan's image, regards brutality as something to cover up rather than uproot.

So when Pakistani officials learned that Ms. Mukhtaran planned to visit the U.S. this month, they detained her and apparently tried to intimidate her by ordering the release of those convicted for her rape. This wasn't a mistake by low-level officials.

Mr. Musharraf admitted to reporters on Friday that he had ordered Ms. Mukhtaran placed on the blacklist. And although Pakistan had claimed that Ms. Mukhtaran had decided on her own not to go to the U.S. because her mother was sick (actually, she wasn't), the president in effect acknowledged that that was one more lie. "She was told not to go" to the U.S., Mr. Musharraf said, according to The Associated Press.

"I don't want to project a bad image of Pakistan." he explained.

I sympathize. From Karachi to the Khyber Pass, Pakistan is one of the most hospitable countries I've ever visited. So, President Musharraf, if you want to improve Pakistan's image, here's some advice: just prosecute rapists with the same zeal with which you persecute rape victims.

Ms. Mukhtaran says she can't talk about what happened after the government kidnapped her. But this is what seems to have unfolded: In Islamabad, government officials ferociously berated her for being unpatriotic and warned that they could punish her family and friends. In particular, they threatened to have the father of a friend fired from his job.

Why am I going on about this case, especially as I have nothing to add to what is said by those better informed? Because in microcosm it is a story of any one individual fighting an unfair system. Because Ms. Mukhtaran indeed rises to the level of a hero and heroine, reflecting the best aspects of each of these terms: bravery and endurance. And because the whole case demonstrates how and why women's rights are not of great priority in so many places on this earth: they are awkward reminders that not all tradition is good, they demand rights for those who traditionally are idolized as not wanting any, and the society does need to change for such rights to exist.