February 2007

An easy-to-read book with a hard message

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

There’s no reason you should’ve ever heard of Mukhtar Mai, one face of many in Punjab Province, Pakistan. But, once you’ve read one page of her story, “In the Name of Honor,” you’ll find she’s impossible to forget.

In simple language, Mai tells the world how she was gang-raped at the behest of a more powerful clan, the Mastoi, which claimed her younger brother had dishonored them by speaking to one of their women.

Mai was supposed to keep her mouth shut, supposed to have dutifully killed herself. Instead, she stood up and embarked on a relentless quest for justice, one that brought Pakistan unwelcome — but necessary — attention. In a village where women were once educated only “for the house,” a school for boys and girls now stands. And, despite opposition from the Islamist party, Pakistan recently passed legislation doing away with the requirement that a woman produce four male witnesses to her rape. That’s Mukhtar Mai’s legacy. That, and this book — so easy to read and yet, so hard.

It’s unvarnished without being explicit. Mai did believe it was her duty to beg forgiveness for the imaginary crime of her brother, Shakur. Her own neighbors believed she was told to marry a Mastoi man but had refused, so what happened was “her fault.” Mai herself believed in the complicity of the higher-caste woman, Salma, who’d made a series of ever-changing complaints against her brother, despite the distinct possibility Salma was a pawn in the same sexist game that sought to destroy Mai. It’s hard to read these things, but Mai and her translator do an excellent job of truly putting readers in her shoes.

Initially, her rage is not as strong as Western readers are likely to think it should be, but this builds as Mai becomes more and more aware of the depth of the injustice done to both her and her family. Through her we learn Shakur was raped as well, and their entire family threatened, not just once, but repeatedly, as she went back and forth seeking justice in the Pakistani courts.

Mai’s strength also gathers steam. The peasant woman who was once browbeaten into affixing her thumbprint onto a blank “statement” became the woman who refused to leave the office of a government minister until he issued new arrest warrants for her attackers. And she stood up to the president who prevented her from traveling abroad as her story gained attention; their feud continues on the bookshelves, where “In the Name of Honor” is eclipsing Musharraf’s own book.

“In the Name of Honor” painfully illustrates how this brave woman faced not only her attackers, not only stigma and disbelief, but an entire social system in which women really are nothing more than chattel — used to settle tribal quarrels, used to seal alliances. Used.

As she recounts: “Women are the ones exchanged as merchandise to help resolve conflicts and exact punishment. And the punishment is always the same. When sexuality is taboo, when a man’s honor...is centered in women, the only solution he can find to settle all scores is compulsory marriage or rape. This behavior is not what the Koran teaches us.”

It took Mukhtar Mai to tell the men of Pakistan this. Such “honor crimes” are par for the course, she writes, listing anecdotal stories of women being disfigured, even killed, for daring to choose their own husbands, and of teenagers who are kidnapped and forced into marriage. Plus, she exposes the disconnect between official Pakistani law and local tribal jirga— and points out how abuse is not solely the fate of poor, uneducated women like herself.

“Honor” is not flawless prose, nor a perfect work, but it is a perfectly necessary read for anyone truly committed to human rights. Anyone can criticize an outrage. Not everyone can live through it, let alone emerge stronger and lend a helping hand to others.

Mukhtar Mai has done that. Reading her courageous story from the comfort of our couches seems the least we can do for her.