A Pakistani gang rape victim who became an international icon for daring to stand up to her attackers insists education is the key to ending the oppression of women in her country.
“Education is really most important,” Mukhtar Mai, who has founded several schools in Pakistan since her ordeal over a decade ago, told AFP in an interview on the sidelines of a human rights summit in Geneva this week.
Mai, who is unsure of her exact age but thinks she is “around 40”, should know.
After she was brutally gang raped in June 2002, the police she turned to for help “wrote whatever they wanted” in their report and got her to sign with a thumb-print.
She had no way of verifying that they gave an accurate account of her grim story. She was illiterate.
A village council had ordered the gang rape as punishment after her 12-year-old brother was accused — wrongly, according to a later investigation — of having illicit relations with a woman from a rival tribe.
According to tradition, Mai should have killed herself or at least run away to protect her family’s honour, but she did neither.
She took her attackers to court and used the compensation money she received to start her first school for girls, becoming in the process an inspirational figure who has spurred other victims to choose the same route.
“I feel really proud that because of me, other women don’t run away or commit suicide, but instead go to the police or to court,” she said, speaking through an interpreter.
Mai acknowledges that she at first had planned to follow tradition and take her own life.
“I got a threat from those people who physically abused me and they said that if I went to the police they would kill me,” she said. “My intention was that I would go to police so that they could kill me and I would leave this world.”
Before that could happen though, she met some “highly educated” people who convinced her she would be better off “doing something for other people, so this didn’t happen again, than dying.”
While her mother supported her decision, she says the rest of her family was outraged. One of her brothers had even threatened to kill himself if she didn’t take her life.
But in the years since then, as Mai earned herself an education and opened two primary schools for girls in the southern Punjab region as well as a shelter home for women, she says the family’s attitude has changed.
“Now they all support me,” she said.
Not all is rosy however. In April 2011, Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld the acquittal of five men sentenced to death for her attack, and commuted the sentence for the main accused to life behind bars.
Mai also said she still often receives threats, and expressed horror at the Taliban attack on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, an education activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban in the northwestern district of Swat last year and is recovering in England.
“But I won’t stop my work,” Mai said. “We should always be hopeful that the situation in Pakistan will change.”
While oppression of women and rape exist everywhere, she said they were especially rampant in her own country and neighbouring India, where the fatal gang-rape of a student in New Dehli in December sparked outraged protests.
“The problem is that the laws in Pakistan and India are weaker. They don’t give us justice,” she said, adding that while laws do exist to protect women they are often not implemented.
Despite a dire lack of funding for her schools, Mai said she was intent on giving the nearly 1,000 girls there the basic tools they will need to stand up for themselves and push for change.
And at home, where she has a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son, “I’m trying to give more importance to my daughter,” she said.