Please be aware that this article contains some distressing details of violent, sexual assault.
Mukhtaran Bibi, known as Mukhtar Mai, was around 28 years old and living in Punjab, Pakistan with her family when her twelve-year old brother, Shakur, was accused of zina bil jabar (having an illicit affair) with an older woman from the higher caste Mastoi tribe. Not only was this untrue, but the story was an attempt to conceal the fact that Shakur himself had been beaten, kidnapped and raped by several Mastoi men. These men worried that Shakur might reveal the crimes committed against him, and name them as the perpetrators.
To apologise on behalf of her tribe and seek mercy for Shakur, Mukhtar travelled with her father and uncle on 22 June 2002 to meet with the jirga, a local tribal council that had gathered together in a mosque. When she arrived however, instead of negotiating Shakur’s safety, Mukhtar was dragged screaming from the building, past several hundred people gathered outside, to a hut where she was raped by four different men for over an hour. Thrown outside half-naked after her ordeal, her father and uncle (restrained by the crowd during her assault), placed a shawl around her and took her home.
“They know that a woman humiliated in that way has no other recourse except suicide. They don’t even need to use their weapons. Rape kills her.”
Rape is a highly stigmatised crime in Pakistan, frequently going undisclosed even to close family members and friends. Suicide has traditionally been seen as the only way for a woman and her family to regain their ‘lost’ honour. Following her rape, Mukhtar begged her mother to help her commit suicide by purchasing acid for her to ingest, but her mother refused and held fast to that refusal by not leaving her side, night and day. While Mukhtar lay without sleeping or eating in her room, word of what happened to her spread across the region and the police began to feel pressure to act. Mukhtar came to realise that there could be a way for her to move forward: justice.
“…my decision to file a complaint… [is] a springboard for my survival, a weapon for my revolt…”
Mukhtar brought a complaint before the police and in July 2002, a month after her attack, 14 men were arrested, including the four men she accused of rape. The media attention that the case garnered led the authorities to try the men in the Dera Ghazi Khan Anti-Terrorism Court, which was empowered to hear gang-rape cases and where verdicts were usually delivered more quickly. Mukhtar testified before the court against the accused men, an almost unheard of thing for a woman to do in Pakistan. Six of the fourteen men were found guilty, four of rape and two of ordering the rape, and all six were sentenced to death.
The men appealed their convictions and in March 2005, the Lahore High Court acquitted five of the six men found guilty, and commuted the final man’s sentence to life imprisonment. Refusing to accept this judgment, Mukhtar appealed to the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
In June 2005, the Supreme Court ordered all 14 men accused by Mukhtar be re-arrested for a new hearing and overturned all the acquittals. However, in April 2011, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s judgment, acquitting 13 of the men and finding one man guilty. The other men were released, free to return to their homes, within a stone’s throw of Mukhtar Mai.
“When I walk past, they taunt me and make catcalls,” she said of having to live near those she accused.
In June 2016, the Supreme Court took the extraordinary and unexpected decision to judicially review their own 2011 verdict in Mukhtar’s case. This judicial review judgment was still pending as of November 2017.
“If any girl was in my situation, I would tell her that getting justice is very difficult. But we, as women, should still keep raising our voices.”
When Mukhtar was gang-raped, she could have easily become another tragic statistic in a highly patriarchal society, where four women report being raped or gang-raped per day. In the opera, Thumbprint, based upon her life, a chorus of women sing about their daily fear of sexual violence in Pakistan: “Every girl fears this fate/ It is like a vulture flying right above our heads. When we walk or work or play…”
Yet far from being an isolated tragedy in a far-away country, Mukhtar Mai has become a powerful symbol for female survivors of sexual violence everywhere. With the 500,000 rupees (around £3,300) compensation money she received from the government, she now runs several schools, a women’s hotline, a public library, a free legal clinic, an ambulance service and a woman’s shelter in Meerwala. In a strange twist of fate, daughters of the men she accused of rape now attend one of her schools.
“Mothers, sisters, daughters, if we all unite and speak out, eventually we will get justice — if not for ourselves, for future generations.”
In Thumbprint, the Mukhtar of the opera is taunted by her rapists to “follow tradition”, insinuating that she commit suicide to save her family the dishonour of her life. Instead, she responds spiritedly “I am making a new tradition.”
A tradition of honouring justice, not impunity.