When a Nightmare Gets A Fairytale Ending–or Not

Tracey Barnett ©April 2009

You probably didn’t even notice the story. It was just a few short paragraphs at the end of the world section of the paper.

Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who was brutally gang-raped by order of a village council as retribution for an alleged crime of her younger brother, got married last week.

The press celebrated the nuptials worldwide. The story that began as a horrific honor rape was now giving us a Bollywood ending, worthy of the screenplay that is brewing.

That is, depending on who’s telling the tale.

Her nightmare began in 2002 when her 12-year-old brother was accused of having illicit relations with a young girl from a rival clan, the Mastoi.

As retribution, hundreds of villagers watched as Mukhtar Mai was dragged screaming into a mud-walled house where men raped her. Forced to wait outside, her father and brother finally covered her half-naked body with a shawl and guided her home through the crowd.

Eventually, investigations revealed three Mastoi initially molested her brother. The accusation against the boy was an alleged cover-up for their crime.

Most in her traditional village assumed the unmarried woman would commit suicide from shame. “In this area, there is no law and no justice. A woman is left with one option, and that is to die,” she told The Guardian.

But not this woman. Instead, Mukhtar made a groundbreaking choice to seek justice. Despite death threats, she shocked Pakistan and received worldwide attention for her bravery by taking her case to Pakistani courts. She was put under police protection for fear of assassination.

Here is where her fate turned yet again. With money awarded by the government and garnered by international attention, Mukhtar opened several schools in her village, welcoming girls for the first time.

She made a point of inviting the children of the men who raped her to become students. Illiterate, she enrolled herself. She opened women’s shelters and bought a van to be used as a village ambulance. Time Magazine called her one of Asia’s heroes. Donations poured in.

This was a story we all need to hear, a victim that transforms her pain into a force for culture-changing good.

Enter stage right, our purported happy ending. A year and a half ago, her former guard, an already married policeman, offered marriage. Pakistani men are allowed to take up to four wives. She refused.

Four months ago, he tried to kill himself. “The morning after he attempted suicide, his wife and parents met my parents but I still refused,” Mukhtar said.

It was only when he then threatened to divorce his first wife, a grave social ostracism in Pakistan that she relented. “I am a woman and can understand the pain and difficulties faced by another woman,” She told The New York Times, “She is a good woman.”

Before agreeing to become his second wife, Mukhtar negotiated for his first wife to receive his ancestral home, a plot of land and a monthly stipend. Though Mukhtar has no plans to leave her village to live with her husband. She said, “He can come here whenever he wants and finds it convenient.”

It was the ultimate good news story. The New York Times quoted Mukhtar saying he fell madly in love with her. The Independent spun it as defeating another stigma for rape victims in Pakistani society.

There she was, the newly emerging Pakistani woman, with place and purpose, dictating her destiny, a romantic coda, as most western press spun it.

Until you read between the lines. It’s what the press didn’t write that may tell the most truth.

When suicide proved unconvincing and her potential groom then threatened to divorce his first wife, both his sisters, who had married into the first wife’s family, were also threatened with divorce.

Mukhtar Mai, a woman who had committed her life to helping other women, understood too well that she was now responsible for making not one, but now three women outcasts if she did not accept. Fearing that they would be abandoned and stigmatized by her decision, it is little surprise she now agreed, even after refusing the morning after his suicide attempt.

Huma Yusuf wrote in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, “Perceived in this way, Mukhtar’s decision is an avowal of the realities of feudal Pakistan where women cannot live alone without male protectors and where marriage is a calculation in survival than an exercise in romance.”

Few western papers carried one telling quote. Mukhtar said, “So I married him on humanitarian grounds. I didn’t want three families breaking up because of me.”

Forbes’ Elisabeth Eaves wrote, “Her story makes clear, though, that you can be a champion of human rights on the world stage but still hostage to a community that denies them to you.”

Her rapists’ initial convictions were overturned. Their retrial is still pending in the Supreme Court.

The truth of this happy ending depends on who’s writing the story.

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