THE EMANCIPATION OF WOMEN
Mukhtaran Mai become a household name internationally. It is most unfortunate that her traumatic experience-a rape-propelled her to fame. Much has been heard, said, and written about this rape, yet it bears telling as an example of some of the challenges faced by women in Pakistan.
Mukhtaran Mai, a woman of the Gujjar tribe, was born in 1969 in the village of Mirwala in south Punjab. She is divorced-or at least was at the time of the incident. Her brother, Abdul Shakoor, was believed to be in a relationship with a woman named Naseem, of the Mastoi tribe, which considers its status higher than that of the Gujjar. Abdul Shakoor and Naseem were supposedly caught together by Abdul Khaliq and Allah Ditta, both brothers of Naseem. Abdul Shakoor was overpowered, sodomized, and then handed over to the police. The villagers decided to convene a panchayat (a traditional forum of local elders) to resolve the dispute. The panchayat decided that Abdul Shakoor was to marry Naseem, and that Mukhtaran Mai should marry one of the brothers of Naseem.
Naseem’s brother Abdul Khaliq and a few others did not agree with the decision. Mukhtaran Mai was dragged into a room by Abdul Khaliq and Allah Ditta (another brother) and two others. According to the testimony of witnesses, Mukhtaran Mai came out visibly ruffled and partly undressed. Needless to say, Mukhtaran Mai was not to blame nor should she have been punished for her brother’s indiscretion with Naseem.
Islam forbids both fornication and punishing an innocent person for someone else’s crime. It also forbids giving girls from one family away in marriage to someone in an aggrieved family as reparation. This is un-Islamic, illegal, inhumane, and uncivilized; it is, however, one of the regrettable age-old customs of some of our rural areas that have imposed their beliefs onto both Islamic and secular law. This does not mean that state should not use all the means at its disposal to root out such customs. It is indeed the duty of the state to protect the weak, the disadvantaged, and those at the margins of society. That is what the state is all about. However, rooting out old customs is easier said than done in a country of 160 million that occupies a vast area, where education is limited, especially in the rural regions. Still, we are trying.
The panchayat and the incident in the room took place on June 22, 2002. A report was lodged with the police on June 30. The hue and cry raised in newspapers caught my attention, and I immediately moved in favor of Mukhtaran Mai. I sent her the equivalent of about $10,000 and assured her of my full support. No amount of money, however, can ever compensate for the trauma of rape. The case was tried in an antiterrorist court in Dera Ghazi an, and the court gave a death sentence to the two brothers of Naseem and their four accomplices on August 31, 2002. The convicted men appealed to the Lahore high court, which acquitted all except Abdul Khaliq, whose death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment, owing to insufficient evidence. This judgment was passed on March 3, 2005.
The judgment by the high court led to an extensive campaign by the media, human rights groups, NGOs, and women’s rights activists. A petition on behalf of Mukhtaran Mai was filed in the Supreme Court of Pakistan on June 26, 2005, against the verdict of the Lahore high court. Arrest warrants were issued against all the released men, and they were put behind bars again, bail having been disallowed.
Throughout this saga I remained discreetly on the side of Mukhtaran Mai. The government facilitated the establishment of a school, a police post, and a women’s crisis center in her village, at a cost of approximately $300,000. Innumerable NGOs, ambassadors, and women’s rights activists visited the village, invited her to various functions, and gave her financial and moral support. She was awarded the Fatima Jinnah Gold Medal by an adviser to the prime minister for social welfare on August 2, 2005.
Mukhtaran Mai traveled extensively all over the world. She went to Spain on February 2, 2003; to Saudi Arabia on August 12, 2004; to India on January 10, 2004; to the United States in October 2005, January 2006, and May 2006; and to France in January 2006. She has been interviewed on many television channels and by the print media and has also been given innumerable awards the world over.
Mukhtaran Mai is very well known now, a celebrity of sorts, though because of her tragedy I am cautious about using that word. She runs schools and a women’s crisis center, and has a Web site and a secretary to assist her. If there is a silver lining to her mis-treatment, it is that she has been able to bring attention to the plight of women in many parts of Pakistan.
Rape, no matter where it happens in the world, is a tragedy and deeply traumatic for the victim. My heart, therefore, goes out to Mukhtaran Mai and any woman to whom such a fate befalls.
It is also not easy for a woman victim to prosecute her oppressors. That is an experience which is at times no less harrowing than the crime itself. Any woman who takes this road deserves credit and our respect for her courage. Mukhtaran Mai is indeed such a woman. Her fortitude also has helped focus the debate and indeed our attention on the need for speedy and effective corrective measures.
The women of Pakistan suffer. They are often denied justice-and in a civilized society that is inexcusable. Violence against women, including rape, is not uncommon in Pakistan. We have to take focused measures to rectify this sad malady.
Rape and violence against women are a universal phenomena, but this does not justify their presence in Pakistan. We need to set our own house in order. I only object when Pakistan is singled out and demonized.
When a case of female victimization in Pakistan comes to light, sometimes the first casualty is the truth. Why does this happen? The media is usually the first source and attention for such cases. This is helpful because it gives prominence to the issue and generates a sense of urgency in the government. But some irresponsible outlets broadcast their opinions and write their own versions of event without complete knowledge of the facts. People with only half-baked knowledge make statements that become gospel truth. The official agencies are slow to react, sometimes through sheer callousness and sometimes because they do not want to reveal certain facts for fear of affecting the case or weakening the investigation. Politicians, especially those in opposition, are fast to enter the fray and distort the facts to malign the government. NGOs also join in, mostly with good intention, but they become victims of the hundreds of unsubstantiated stories. The truth thus keeps getting buried deeper and deeper. Last but not the least, so much money sometimes gets involved in the story that facts get further submerged.
The government must take cognizance of and practical measures to
undo the tragic and shameful condition of women in our society. The authorities must be the first to reach out and to react when injustice occurs. They must be the ones to get all the facts out. They must not be overly concerned about the secrecy or confidentiality of the evidence.
We are now trying to adopt this line of action.
The emancipation of women mattered to me even before I took office. As an army officer, I saw the situation faced by women in many parts of the country. It always felt wrong to me. We have to do something about it.
The debate, however, must take place within Pakistan’s political and
social landscape. Domestically, I am prepared to discuss and address any and all gender issues affecting our society. Through this book I declare my total support of and commitment to the cause of women in Pakistan.
The views of our local champions of women’s right are consonant
with mine. Perhaps where we differ is over the methodology for achieving our shared goals. When one demands equal rights for women, one needs to assess in which areas women can work better than men, in which they can work like men, and in which they need protection and affirmative action for when they cannot work like men. I person-ally feel that we have to adopt a graduated, incremental approach, taking measures simultaneously to develop capacity in women in areas where they need help and improvement.
My first aim has been the political empowerment of women.
Empowering them politically gives them a way to shape their own future. Through empowerment, they gain an opportunity to fight for women’s causes themselves in the highest governmental bodies. (Ear-
her, I discussed what I have done to empower women politically at all levels of government-local provisional, and national).
We established a women’s political school at a cost of $4.3 million to help train women for political offices. By 2006 about 27,000 had been trained.
We established a National Commission on the Status of Women, to oversee women’s rights; and a Gender Reform Action Plan, fully funded by the Government of Pakistan, to ensure enhanced representation of women and their overall emancipation. These efforts have helped women make great strides. Today women are serving in public office at every level: seven in the federal cabinet, six provincial ministers, ten parliamentary secretaries, and twelve chairpersons of standing committees of the senate and National Assembly. Besides all this, for the first time a women has been appointed to the prestigious and powerful position of governor of the State Bank of Pakistan; one major general in the army is a women; two women for the first time, have been appointed as judges of the Sindh High Court, a woman has been appointed a deputy attorney general, again a first, and women have been inducted in the army and also as pilots in the Pakistan Air Force.
Major initiatives are being taken to encourage education among girls through increased facilities and special incentives. These are all bearing fruit. Girls in cities are now much more committed to higher education than boys. In fact, their overall performance is far better than that of boys.
Efforts are also being made toward the economic empowerment of women. Several skills-training projects backed up by micro credit facilities have been launched. A Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry has been launched. A huge exhibition showcasing products for women was recently held in Karachi; I had the privilege of helping to launch it. Over 100,000 women participated.
We have to confront the curse of violence against women and fight against laws that discriminate against them. The National Assembly passed legislation banning “honor killing,” or Karo Kari, as it is locally called. This however, is not the ultimate answer. Honor killing is an evil practice, which has the sanction of custom in certain backward areas of Pakistan. It is repugnant to Islam, but it has been practiced by some Pakistani Muslims for a very long time. Only education and enlightenment-not just legislation-can eventually bring it to an end. A big step has been taken by the government, but its implementation will take time. To support the legislation and provide solace to women who have been treated violently, a National Committee on Violence against Women has been formed, a chain of well-equipped crisis centers and shelters have been opened, and special complaint phone lines for women have been established at police stations.
The trickiest of all issues, and the most sensitive, is the Hudood law that was enacted in 1979 under General Zia, who openly courted religious extremists. The word hudood means “limits,” and the Hudood law pertains to the transgression of those limits. It sets punishments for such crimes as adultery, theft, and rape. The religious lobby and especially its political parties consider this law to be in accordance with Islamic tradition; but most women and intellectuals and many enlightened religious scholars think that the law misinterprets our religion and that it discriminates against women. This law has tarnished our image immeasurably. It is now under review by the National Commission on the Status of Women, and the results will be presented to parliament. The Ministry of Women’s Development is trying to develop a consensus for its repeal. The issue needs deft political and constitutional handling, but I believe we should be bold enough to correct past wrongs.
On the whole, I believe we have set in motion an irreversible process toward the emancipation of women. I say it is irreversible because I see it gradually gaining momentum. Women themselves have risen to fight for their rights, and many men now realize that they cannot, and should not try to, stop the process.
It is unfortunate that Pakistan’s image abroad has been tarnished so badly that the world associates it only with terrorism and extremism. Many people think of our society only as intolerant and regressive. However much we plead that the vast majority of Pakistan is moderate and that only a fringe element is extremist-and that our national fabric has been damaged by the turbulence to our west in Afghanistan and to our east in Kashmir, not by anything inherent within our borders and society-the message does not get across. I have therefore tried to project a truer image of Pakistan, which I call a soft image, through the promotion of tourism, sports, and culture.
We have arguably the best and certainly some of the highest mountains in the world, as well as a virgin coastline with beautiful beaches stretching all along our south, mighty rivers and stark deserts, dense forests, and historic religious sites for Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs. We have many other historic monuments and excavation sites and museums, going back to ancient times. Yet we have hardly any tourism. at a pity! Even before 9/11 we failed to market ourselves effectively, and we failed to develop the infrastructure needed to facilitate tourism. Now, of course, our grim reputation for extremism and the many travel advisories against us hinder tourism.
I have been conscious of our strengths and weaknesses. We have improved our telephone networks and completed a beautiful coastal highway stretching from Karachi in the east to the newly built Gwadar Port in the west. This links all the coastal towns and numerous pictur‑
esque sites along the route. We have also linked all four major valleys in our mountainous northern areas-Chitral, Kaghan, Gilgit-Hunza, and Skardu-laterally with one another. This allows tourists traveling by road to switch from one to the other without having to travel back to and from main airports. We are now trying to publicize our potential to attract local and foreign tourists. I am glad to see a gradual increase in local interest in tourism. This wi11 encourage other infrastructure facilities, particularly hotels and motels, to spring up and in turn attract a greater number of foreign tourists.
I have been a sportsman of a kind. I call myself a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. Pakistan has been a reasonably good sporting country at various points in its history, and we have been world-class in cricket, hockey, and squash, and even bridge and amateur billiards and snooker. Unquestionably the best bridge player in the world, Zia Mahmood, is from Pakistan. Hashim an, Jahangir Khan, and Jansher Khan are the best squash players the world has ever known, with Jahangir the best of the three. If Hollywood only knew his story of tragedy, grit, and determination, it would make another movie like Chariots of Fire. Many of those who know him consider him the best athlete who ever lived. We compete at a high level in Asian athletics. Sports can provide a recreation that relieves stressful societal pressures. But in 1999, our sports achievements were at a low ebb. I therefore launched a campaign to improve the situation.
The first thing we had to do was reorganize all the sports bodies, which had become hotbeds of fraud and cronyism. Accordingly, we restructured all the sports federations, introducing merit and efficiency into them. We then strategized and helped to encourage an interesting, participatory, and competitive sporting system for the country, at three levels: interschool and intercollege competitions, the regional and district level, and corporation-level competitions in the public and private sectors. We are also trying to encourage the private sector to sponsor events and sports teams. This, we hope, wi11 attract national talent, expose people to competitive sports, and improve our overall national sporting standards while providing much-needed recreational activity to the entertainment-starved population of Pakistan.
Few people in the world know that Pakistan has a rich, diverse cultural heritage. We have the nearly prehistoric excavations at Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, the Mehrgarh civilizations, Alexander the Great, and the British raj. Both Alexander and Britain left indelible footprints in our land. The people of the Kalash tribe in the remote Kalash valley of Chitral are said to be descendants of Alexander’s army, which turned back from here. Our landscape is replete with monuments of the Mughal era, shrines of Muslim Sufi mystics, and remnants of the British colonial era. The revered religious sites of Buddhism (in Taxila, Swabi, and Swat), of Hinduism (in Katas Raj), and of Sikhism (in Hassanabdal and Nankana Sahib) add color to our heritage. When you walk in our land, you walk alongside history Every stone, every path and byway, every nook and cranny, and every peak of our mighty Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Hindu Kush mountains will have a story to tell.
The four provinces of Pakistan have rich and distinct cultures. Music, dance, and art have flourished in our land for millennia. Ironically, all this has remained the best-kept secret of Pakistan. Worse, the forces of religious extremism and obscurantism reject this cultural activity as being un-Islamic. No previous government had the courage to tell them that they were wrong.
All this needed a drastic change. We had to bring normality and cultural harmony back into our national fabric. I started by revitalizing Pakistan’s heritage. I asked the army to beautify the Quaid-e-Azam’s mausoleum in Karachi and make it a fitting tribute to the father of the nation. Today, people by the thousands throng to admire the magnificence of its surroundings. We also erected an impressive national monument at Islamabad, dedicated to the people of Pakistan. It features an underground museum focusing on the Pakistan movement-our struggle for winning our homeland. An imposing monument at Walton, Lahore, which we call Bab-e-Pakistan (“Gateway to Pakistan”), is under construction at the exact site where the father of the nation first addressed over 100,000 refugees fleeing from India. In addition to these monuments, I launched an ambitious plan to create a National Heritage Museum in Islamabad, showing Pakistan’s regional culture and traditions. This project has since been completed by Uxi Mufti. He
is passionately involved in our art and culture and has done exemplary work on this project. The museum is now an attraction for many local and foreign visitors and dignitaries.
I also encouraged our performing arts, including music, theater, and dance. We opened a National Academy of the Performing Arts in Karachi, and I selected the renowned thespian Zia Mohyuddin to run it. We also opened a National Council of Arts with an art gallery in Islamabad. Both institutions are attracting a lot of young talent to the performing arts, particularly music. ,
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, many private television channels have opened since the liberalization of our media. We have to work hard to improve our image around the world, and we must proceed on all fronts simultaneously. We have to defeat terrorism and extremism, but at the same time we must also present a culturally rich, inviting, and economically vibrant alternative in its place. The media need to gear up to sell Pakistan abroad.