In The News

Does Mukhtaran Mai Verdict Mean Failure for Pakistan’s Women’s Rights Movement?

June 1, 2011

In April, Mukhtaran Mai had to relive the most excruciating memory of her life when the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted all but one of the accused in her rape case. The decision elicited a sharp reaction from civil society groups and media organizations in Pakistan. Many people described it as a setback to the women’s right movement in the country, though it was an awfully pessimistic assessment of the situation.

Pakistan women in Islamabad gather to promote good governance and women's rights

Pakistan women in Islamabad gather to promote good governance and women's rights. Mukhtaran Mai has become the face of Pakistan's women's rights movement, but the verdict has left some wondering what progress has been made. Photo: Pakistan's Express Tribune Photo/Muhammad Javaid

Mai had fallen victim to the tribal justice system when her 12-year-old brother was accused of having an illicit relationship with a girl from an influential clan in a small village community. The boy never got a fair trial, yet it was his sister who was ultimately subjected to retributive justice by an informal village council that asked a group of men to sexually abuse her.

Mai’s reaction to such humiliation surprised everyone in her community. Rather than staying silent, she decided to fight back in one of the world’s most conservative social milieus. Her case was taken up by local media outlets and civil society organizations. It was also covered by leading international journalists who were instrumental in bringing global attention to one of the most heinous episodes of violence against women in Pakistan.

As time went on, Mai emerged as the face of the women’s right movement in Pakistan. She managed to release a book, making the facts of her case known to the world, and opened a school in her town, thinking that illiteracy was the underlying cause for tragedies such as the one that she had suffered. Her case became extremely high-profile. But does its unfortunate outcome amount to the failure of women’s right movement in Pakistan, as many here are saying?

It is clear that Mai and many other women like her have suffered extreme injustice. But it is not right to assume this verdict is a benchmark to measure overall progress of Pakistan’s larger women’s movement –a movement that originally emerged in the 1980s to reclaim the rights of millions of women in the face of state oppression and General Ziaul Haq’s Islamization program.

That movement has come a long way since its beginning. It was launched by a handful of highly-qualified and enterprising women who were sometimes misunderstood even by other female members of society. Today, despite setbacks like Mai’s horrific case, thousands more women and men continue to become the torchbearers in the women’s movement. They have worked on gender issues in Pakistan, fought against discriminatory legislation, advocated for reducing gender-based violence at all levels of society, and pushed for laws that are imperative for the welfare of women in their country.

The recently approved Sexual Harassment Act, the restoration of women’s reserved seats in the national and provincial assemblies, and the inclusion of gender issues of vital importance into the manifestos of all leading political parties are some of the examples where the movement has generated concrete results. It has also galvanized the masses against social taboos like the qisas and diyat laws, the controversial Hudood Ordinance, voting rights of women, and peasant land rights. Such developments have provided a platform for women to fight for their rights, and mobilized other groups to become active on issues related to women.

In some ways, one can even sense the progress of these efforts by looking again at the Mukhtaran Mai case: not long ago, sexual assaults of similar nature were most often simply swept under the carpet in Pakistan. But Mai’s case was brought dramatically to the forefront and all effort was made to help her get justice. Also, the widespread outrage that followed the court verdict clearly reflected that people were aware of her plight and expected serious punishment for the perpetrators of the crime. This increased awareness around justice is particularly significant, because the women’s rights movement in Pakistan has been primarily about educating the masses on significant gender issues and changing their mindsets over the long term.

The outcome of Mukhtaran Mai’s case was undeniably tragic. And it also serves as a major setback to the overall justice system of the country. But it does not spell the undoing of the entire women’s movement in Pakistan. It is, however, sadly ironic that the legal community that, until recently, was fighting for its own rights failed miserably to protect the rights of a woman who belongs to a small village community in Punjab and has valiantly fought for justice in her country.

Nadia Tariq Ali is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer for the Gender Equity Program in Pakistan. She can be reached at ntali@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or the Gender Equity Program.

One comment on this post:

  1. Alia Khan:

    There are laws in Pakistan implemented, but these laws which are meant to protect women are followed through, is a huge question and is questionable.
    Your reply to my query is appreciated. Thank you.

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