Saturday, March 05, 2005

This is the sort of column Nicholas Kristof does so well

When Rapists Walk Free
Mukhtaran, a tall, slim young woman who never attended school as a child, lives in a poor and remote village in the Punjab area of Pakistan. As part of a village dispute in 2002, a tribal council decided to punish her family by sentencing her to be gang-raped. She begged and cried, but four of her neighbors immediately stripped her and carried out the sentence. Then her tormenters made her walk home naked while her father tried to shield her from the eyes of 300 villagers.

Mukhtaran was meant to be so shamed that she would commit suicide. But in a society where women are supposed to be soft and helpless, she proved indescribably tough, and she found the courage to live. She demanded the prosecution of her attackers, and six were sent to death row.

She received $8,300 in compensation and used it to start two schools in the village, one for boys and one for girls, because she feels that education is the best way to change attitudes like those that led to the attack on her. Illiterate herself, she then enrolled in her own elementary school. …

And even though she lives in a remote village without electricity, she has galvanized her supporters to launch a Web site: (Although her legal name is Mukhtaran Bibi, she is known in the Pakistani press by a variant, Mukhtar Mai).

Until two days ago, she was thriving. Then - disaster.

A Pakistani court overturned the death sentences of all six men convicted in the attack on her and ordered five of them freed. They are her neighbors and will be living alongside her. Mukhtaran was in the courthouse and collapsed in tears, fearful of the risk this brings to her family.

"Yes, there is danger," she said by telephone afterward. "We are afraid for our lives, but we will face whatever fate brings for us." …

Mukhtaran's life illuminates what will be the central moral challenge of this century, the brutality that is the lot of so many women and girls in poor countries. For starters, because of inattention to maternal health, a woman dies in childbirth in the developing world every minute.

In Pakistan, if a woman reports a rape, four Muslim men must generally act as witnesses before she can prove her case. Otherwise, she risks being charged with fornication or adultery - and suffering a public whipping and long imprisonment.

Mukhtaran is a hero. She suffered what in her society was the most extreme shame imaginable - and emerged as a symbol of virtue. She has taken a sordid story of perennial poverty, gang rape and judicial brutality and inspired us with her faith in the power of education - and her hope.

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