Another aspect of the Mukhtaran Mai case

Daily Times, Monday, November 14, 2005

VIEW: A Maulvi that mattered —Saleem H Ali

Instead of championing a progressive imam such as Maulvi Abdul Razzaq, the secular elite of Pakistan remained quiet. Instead of being applauded, the imam was accused by the village police of being a terrorist — to discredit his support for Mukhtar Mai

Last week in New York’s Lincoln Centre, Glamour magazine gave an award to Mukhtar Mai who valiantly fought against an evil cultural practice and won the hearts of millions. Mukhtar Mai was rightly heralded as Pakistan’s Rosa Parks as she received the award.

Mukhtar Mai lived much of her life in a remote rural part of Punjab and speaks no English. Yet the world recognised her suffering. Her tragic tale of gang-rape on the orders of a village council or panchayat has alarmed human rights activists, journalists and greatly embarrassed the government of Pakistan. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times brought this important story to the world’s attention but in a recent interview he remarked with humility that his role was simply that of a “sherpa” while Mukhtar Mai was the real mountaineer who climbed on against all odds.

Much as Mukhtar Mai deserves to be congratulated for her courage, there is another unsung hero in this saga. In a patriarchal and highly restricted society such as rural Pakistan, one may wonder how Mukhtar Mai was able to get her voice heard and approach the police. Initially she was so desperate and humiliated that she swallowed a bottle of pesticide, hoping for a merciful death but was saved in time. Her cries for help initially went unheard by urban women’s rights groups but a local mosque’s imam paid heed.

Defying the stereotype of a misogynistic Muslim male Maulvi, Abdul Razzaq stood by Mukhtar Mai. He gave a sermon at the Friday prayers saying that the village council had sinned greatly and that the criminals responsible for rape must be brought to justice. He then went beyond his pulpit and brought a local journalist, Mureed Abbas, to meet Mukhtar Mai’s father, and persuaded the family to file charges. The family was persuaded to do so primarily because of the imam’s stature in the community.

At this point Pakistan’s excellent assemblage of women’s rights activists embraced Mukhtar Mai and helped her through the convoluted judicial process. However, women’s rights activists have tried to distance themselves from the Muslim connection in the case. An opportunity for positive interaction between the religious right and the feminists was regrettably passed.

As I researched for this article, I asked Asma Jahangir via email about the potential for joining forces with Islamists in this case. She responded that her organisation could neither confirm nor deny the help that Maulvi Abdul Razzaq had provided. However, all correspondent accounts including the BBC’s and Mukhtar Mai’s statements confirm his help.

As the judicial process unfolded, those responsible for this crime were charged but in March 2005, the Lahore High Court overturned the conviction for lack of “convincing evidence”. At this point there was a positive intervention by the religious establishment. The Federal Shariat Court intervened and ordered that the criminals be apprehended again. This was remarkable since Islamic courts generally favour men in cases of rape and adultery. Indeed, there are many cases of women being accused of adultery after they have actually been raped.

In this case, both the Islamic courts as well as the clergy have played a positive role for which they should be commended. Of course, we must be cautious that such commendation does not condone the incidents of hostility towards women by the religious establishment. Eventually, the Supreme Court of Pakistan intervened and took jurisdiction over the case and the role of religious elements received little press coverage.

As President Pervez Musharraf tries to paint the image of Pakistan as a progressive Muslim state, not highlighting the positive role played by the clergy in this high-profile case was a missed opportunity. Instead, the president engaged in defensive rhetoric and rows with the Washington Post over an interview in which he claimed that rape victims were easily getting visas for abroad.

The “rape to riches” theory became the focus of this sad story when the positive role of the imam who championed Mukhtar Mai’s cause and the Islamic court that supported her were ignored. To his credit, the president gave Mukhtar Mai Rs 500,000 ($8,000) to start a school in her village as compensation but the greater message was one of denial.

Much as I support our human rights activists, it is surprising that neither they nor foreign governments or the Pakistani government were keen to give credit where it is due. Instead of championing a progressive imam such as Maulvi Abdul Razzaq, the secular elite of Pakistan remained quiet. Instead of being applauded, the imam was accused by the village police of being a terrorist — to discredit his support for Mukhtar Mai.

When such positive actions go unappreciated cynicism sets in among reformers. Acknowledging the efforts of this cleric is exceedingly important. It is also high time secular and religious forces try to find common ground on human rights issues. Let us be principled and not positional in our approach. As we congratulate Mukhtar Mai for her efforts, we must consider the role of a progressive imam as a rare but promising sign that Islam might also be a means of championing women’s rights.

Saleem H Ali teaches conflict resolution and environmental planning at the University of Vermont and is the author of a study on Pakistan’s religious schools for the United States Institute of Peace

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