Icons from Pakistan
Daily Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006
WASHINGTON DIARY: Icons from Pakistan — Dr Manzur Ejaz
An organisation involved in collecting donations for the purpose has revealed that Dr Shazia Khalid has donated all the money to a crisis centre for women she is helping set up in Lyari, Karachi. The bravery, generosity and tenacity of these repressed women are a source of inspiration to many at home and abroad
By the time this column is read, Mukhtar Mai may have completed her US tour to which was hastily added a reception by Pakistan’s embassy in Washington. Dr Shazia Khalid, another rape victim, is also starting her VIP US tour in a few weeks. While these Pakistani victims of rape are becoming icons of women’s liberation in the US, the Pakistani government and US politicians are trying to make the best use of the situation.
As a Pakistani activist said recently it was ironical that the only citizens Pakistan could present to the world were rape victims. While that may not be true, Mukhtar Mai clearly has more access to the US power centres than former prime minister Benazir Bhutto can dream of these days. While two assistant secretaries of the State Department and several other top officials sought a meeting with Mukhtar Mai, Ms Bhutto as well as other politicians — official or non-official — only wish to be treated the same way.
It is a sign of Mukhtar Mai’s stature in the US that even presidential hopeful, Senator Hillary Clinton, decided to give her a medal on behalf of the women’s organisation, Vital Voices. It is obvious that Senator Clinton, the honorary chair of this organisation, has made a calculated move to use the occasion to strengthen her ties with female political activists. Political workers, after all, are the most precious assets for those aspiring public office.
Pakistan’s government, too, reversed its position on Mukhtar Mai’s visit to the US. In contrast to her first scheduled visit, when the embassy of Pakistan was fighting tooth and nail to stop her in her tracks, there was a special reception at the embassy. It is not as if the Pakistani government has decided to give her more credence or has somehow become more enlightened. It has just taken the proverbial advice: if you can’t beat them join (or co-opt) them.
Meanwhile, some people believe that using Mukhtar Mai’s good offices to improve Pakistan’s image among American feminists is a shrewd move by the government. Most of the credit goes to Mukhtar Mai who, given her natural wisdom, has not blamed the government for her plight. Instead, she has kept the dialogue focused on broad gender issues in Pakistan.
Mukhtar Mai has become an icon for the US feminists due to a combination of factors. Initially it was Pakistan’s human right organisations and the media that brought her story to the world’s attention. Pakistani expatriate organisation, Asian Network Against Abuse (ANAA), led by Dr Amna Buttar and Dr Zafar Iqbal, then became the catalyst for her popularity in the US. In its own way, the government led by General Pervez Musharraf also helped publicise her case by refusing to grant her permission to travel abroad. Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, too, has had a substantial role in presenting Mukhtar Mai as a legend to the Americans. The American feminists were already looking for a legend or iconic personality to symbolise the women’s struggle all over the world.
Next, the death of Rosa Parks — the symbol of African Americans’ struggle for their civil rights — while Mukhtar Mai’s sojourn to the US was being finalised gave the latter the chance to fill the vacuum created by the former’s death. Being a repressed, rape victim from a Muslim country, may have played some role too. It has been alleged that some anti-Pakistan lobbies were eager to exploit her for their own goals. However, at the end of the day, more than anything else, Mukhtar Mai provided consolatory relief to those disillusioned by the Iraq war and subversion of democratic freedom in the US.
Mukhtar Mai has assumed a larger-than-life stature and become an icon for the feminists. It is almost futile to analyse the process of creation and idealisation of icons. Pakistan’s government has therefore chosen the right path in deciding to use this icon rather than fight it. Mukhtar Mai has also shown that she has the qualities of a genuine person. She has declined offers to move to the US and chosen to stay in her far-flung village, Meerwala. She has also used the money, raised in the US and elsewhere, to help other women and girls in her area. Everyone who has been to her village agrees that she has chosen to tough it out in a very difficult environment.
Dr Shazia Khalid, along with her husband, Khalid Amanullah, will also tour the US next month. Save the Date, a New York-based organisation, will honour Mr Amanullah and other men who have stood up for their rape-victim partners. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist behind Mukhtar Mai’s success in the US, will also attend the dinner. Dr Shazia Khalid will also meet several officials at the State Department and efforts are underway to arrange meetings with members of US Senate and the House of Representatives. She is also scheduled to talk to the board editors of the Washington Post.
Like Mukhtar Mai before her, Dr Shazia Khalid has declined funds collected in the United States to help her. An organisation involved in collecting donations for the purpose has revealed that Dr Shazia Khalid has donated all the money to a crisis centre for women she is helping set up in Lyari, Karachi.
The bravery, generosity and tenacity of these repressed women are a source of inspiration to many at home and abroad. It will be highly unfair to say that these victims are exploiting their bad luck as was unfortunately suggested at the highest level.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com