Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Survivor's Path to Leading a Movement

Mukhtar Mai, a strong women's rights advocate after
having been gang-raped back in 2002, fears for her safety after
5 of her 6 attackers were released after the Pakistani Supreme Court
upheld their 2005 decision to acquit the suspects.
(Photo source: BBC)

On Thursday, the Pakistani court upheld their 2005 statement to acquit all but one of Mukhtar Mai's 6 suspected attackers.  

Mukhtar Mai became an international superstar for human rights sympathizers after she publicized in 2002 what had happened to her in the name of "honor."  Allegedly, she was gang-raped by six men as a punishment for her younger brother's illicit fraternization with an older women of a rival tribe (later it was investigated that this allegation was a cover-up to his being molested by members from said tribe).  Adding insult to injury, to come out as a single woman saying  she was raped was an invitation to even greater danger:  Before President Pervez Musharraf changed the laws surrounding rape in 2005 (as a reaction to the uproar received from the international political and activist communities), Pakistani criminal court characterized premarital sex an act punishable by death. 

Since the initial movement to acquit the offenders in 2005, Mai has had to be weary of backlash from people in her own country who support traditional Muslim law, a law which translates today as supporting perpetrators and punishing rape survivors.  Immediately upon announcing her story to the world, her virtuous pursuit for justice was glorified in every corner of the free world, from Nikolas Kristoff's reporting on her all-girls' schools erected throughout Pakistan to educate young females about their rights as humans in Half the Sky, to Glamor magazine declaring her Woman of the Year in 2006.  Now, though, with the final ruling, her old fears have resurfaced.  (Read about the case's events here.)

President Musharraf took a lot of heat after he made a comment implying that rape was a money-ticket for Pakistani women to settle into a better life abroad (Aljazeera).  While a little progress is better than no progress in the context of Pakistan's dated gender laws, and that Musharraf's "change of heart" had much to do with the United States' firm demands, there is a lot to be said that despite Mai's celebrity status internationally, and widespread support from human rights activists and social developers alike, Lady Justice favored her attackers.  Here is an example of how progressive policy changes are ineffectual when not backed by the culture over which it sees.  Muslim supporters protested against President Musharraf's decision to amend Pakistan's rape laws.  No matter how much ballyhoo the international community makes, the world's second-largest Muslim-inhabited country ultimately has to be its own driving force.  It has to want to make a change in how it perceives and treats women. Which is why Mukhtar Mai's decision to open two schools in her region is the course of social action outsiders should be supporting the most.  

Culture encompasses and fuses a community's past and present, and its rate of change is as fast as the movements within it are growing.  Children learn about the culture in which they live, simultaneous to learning where they fit in relation to the rest of the world.  If social change must happen on a grand scale, i.e. across entire religiously-founded regions, then broadening the world view of youth on a local level is crucial to spark that movement.  The ideal and, perhaps, only way to enact sustainable change is to experiment with  models of alternative education that are grounded on one core issue, be it a civil or developmental one, and converge all other disciplines around that core while engaging students with the community they live in.  Culture is invaluable to this process as well.  When the community takes agency in what their youth or young women are learning, the discourse surrounding social action starts to become enmeshed with the status quo.  This is exactly what Mukhtar has succeeded in developing thus far. 

Although Mukhtar Mai's cases is an important milestone in marking Pakistan's civil development and should be read by anyone engaged in international women's rights, let it not go ignored the same kinds of barricades to equality seen in America today.  In truth, we are not as righteous as we let ourselves on in terms of granting fair and just treatment to rape survivors.  (A very similar story to Mukhtar Mai's was seen at Washington State just three years ago; the story is definitely worth a look.)  

So from here, where do we go?  Not far.  
For starters, check out Mukhtar Mai's Women's Organization to see the amazing accomplishments her horrific experience has bred in her community.  Ways to donate are also cleverly accessible, and their requests are modest.  From there, examine what you value most in a functioning, equitable society, and explore ways you can integrate progressive movements into your already established culture.  An example might be signing up for (or creating, even!) theater classes centered around a hot social issue happening in your community (New Orleans has one - check it out!)  
Or, in light of tomorrow's holiday, it could look like attending Easter service at a local church with a congregation of widely diverse backgrounds than your own.  There are many ways to help sustain social change that extend far beyond donating money to your most cherished organization.  Take a hint from Mukhtar: start living like you truly believe change can happen, and before you know it, everyone around you will start believing it too.


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