Mukhtaran Mai: 'More Pakistani women are demanding their rights now'

In an interview with DW, Mukhtaran Mai, a 2002 gang rape survivor, said that her struggle for justice is not only for her but for all Pakistani women. She is appealing a court decision that acquitted the rapists.

Mukhtaran Mai was gang-raped in June 2002 on orders of a "panchayat" (village council) as "punishment" for her younger brother's alleged illicit relations with a woman from a rival tribe. The rape made international headlines, with women's rights groups demanding justice for Mai and punishment for the rapists.

Read more: Religion, 'honor' and Pakistan's 'revenge rape'

In August 2002, an anti-terrorism court sentenced six out of the 14 accused persons to death. Four of them were sentenced for rape, while the other two were convicted as being members of the village council. Eight others were released.

However, in 2005, the Lahore High Court acquitted five of the six convicts while one person's death penalty was converted to life imprisonment.

Mai challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, but her appeal was rejected in 2011. In her review petition, Mai requested the apex court to form a larger bench to hear her case, saying that she was dissatisfied with the Lahore High Court and Supreme Court's decisions.

The Supreme Court is set to hear her appeal on March 27.

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Pakistan and revenge rape culture

In the meantime,. Mai has gained international recognition for her efforts to improve women's rights. In 2005, she was named "Woman of the year" by Glamour magazine. Mai also started the Women's Welfare Organization NGO to educate Pakistani women and girls.

In an exclusive interview with DW, Mai said she would continue her struggle for women's emancipation irrespective of the impending Supreme Court decision on March 27.

DW: Earlier this month, the Pakistani Supreme Court adjourned the hearing of your review petition against the acquittal of 13 people accused in the gang rape to March 27. Why is the legal process taking such a long time to complete?

Mukhtaran Mai: The lawyers can tell you better about the legal issues; I don't really know much about these matters. The accused in the case pleaded that they needed more time and the chief justice granted them that.

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What are your expectations from the upcoming Supreme Court hearing?

I can't say much about that. All I can say is that it has been a long and difficult struggle for me - from filing a police report in 2002 to taking the case to the top court. I trust in God. I am not sure that the court will rule in my favor. I have been demanding justice for the past 17 years. But I am not doing it for myself. If it was only about me, I could have left the country. I could have lived my life peacefully. Once you leave the country, you forget about the past ordeals. But I preferred to stay in my country. But I have to tell you that I have not been in my town for the past two years.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Leaving 'for Canada'

A decade after being accused of blasphemy, Asia Bibi left Pakistan with her husband Ashiq Masih for Canada. A family member told DW that Bibi's two daughters were waiting for her in Calgary. Her departure was delayed six months, reportedly due to extreme pressure from the deep state not to speak out against the state when she leaves the country.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

A dispute over water

In 2009, Asia Bibi was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad while she was working in a field in Punjab's Sheikhupura district. The Muslim women who were working with Bibi objected to her fetching water, saying that as a non-Muslim she was not allowed to touch the water bowl. The women then complained to a local cleric and leveled blasphemy charges against Bibi.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

A sensitive matter

According to local media, the argument in the field led to a mob attack on Bibi's house. Later, police took Bibi into custody and launched an investigation into the blasphemy accusations. Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Controversial law

The blasphemy law was introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator, in the 1980s. Activists say they are often implemented in cases that have little to do with blasphemy and are used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis — a minority Islamic sect — are often victimized as a result.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

The Pakistani state vs. Bibi

In 2010, a lower court convicted Bibi of blasphemy. Although the defense lawyer argued that the blasphemy allegations were made to settle personal scores, the court sentenced Bibi to death by hanging. Bibi's family has been living under constant fear since 2010. Her husband, Ashiq Masih (R), says he has been fighting a battle for his wife's freedom ever since.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Assassination of critics

In 2010, Salman Taseer (R), the then governor of Punjab province, backed Bibi and demanded amendments in the blasphemy laws. Taseer's anti-blasphemy law position angered extremists. In 2011, Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard in Islamabad. The same year, Shahbaz Bhatti, the then minister for minorities and a prominent blasphemy law critic, was also assassinated by unidentified gunmen.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Celebration of killings

After Taseer's murder, Qadri became a hero for Pakistani Islamists. Qadri was showered with rose petals by right-wing groups as he was taken to jail by the authorities. Qadri was sent to the gallows in 2016. Thousands of people – mostly supporters of Islamic groups – attended Qadri's funeral. Local media reported that Qadri's supporters built a shrine after his death to honor him.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Fear in the judicial community

After the killings of blasphemy law critics, many lawyers refused to take up Bibi's case in the higher courts. In 2014, the Lahore High Court upheld her death sentence. Pakistan's top court, the Supreme Court, was scheduled to hear Bibi's appeal against the conviction in 2016, but one judge refused to be a part of the judicial bench, citing personal reasons.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Victims of blasphemy law

According to the American Centre for Law and Justice, at least 40 Pakistanis were sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in 2016. The law is often used to target religious minorities and secular Muslims. Although there hasn't been any legal execution under the blasphemy law, there have been instances where angry mobs have lynched alleged blasphemers.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Persecution of religious minorities

Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities complain of legal and social discrimination in their country. In the past few years, many Christians and Hindus have been brutally murdered over unproven blasphemy allegations.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Threats from Islamists

Religious extremists in Pakistan, particularly the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) group, have warned the authorities against reversing Bibi's blasphemy verdict. The country's Christian minority fears that if the judges decide to reverse the death sentence, they could face a violent backlash from the country's hardline Islamic groups.

Asia Bibi case highlights Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

International support for Bibi

Rights groups and Western governments demand a fair trial in Bibi's case. In 2015, Bibi's daughter met with Pope Francis, who offered prayers for her mother at the Vatican. In 2014, Amnesty International dubbed the Lahore High Court's verdict against Bibi a "grave injustice." The American Centre for Law and Justice also condemned Bibi's sentence and urged Islamabad to protect religious minorities.

Why so?

Because the government has removed my security. I have been through so much to highlight the issue. I had been house arrested. The government in 2002 (military general Pervez Musharraf was at the helm when Mai was gang-raped), was not supportive at all. When I go to courts, I hear obnoxious things about me. It has been very difficult for me. But I haven't lost hope.

Read more: Pakistan child rape and murder case 'just tip of iceberg'

In March 2005, five convicts in your case were acquitted by the Lahore High Court, while one sentence was converted into life imprisonment. Didn't you lose faith in the legal system?

It saddened me. A 2011 verdict was also against me. Then I kept appealing against the decisions. Now it is 2019. It has been very disheartening.

You said that your struggle is not just for you but for the oppressed Pakistani women. What motivated you to take up the women's right issues?

I thought that only uneducated people usurp women's rights, as they are not aware of human rights. That's why I started working on educating the villagers. At the same time, my legal struggle continued. I spoke on various forums, where I had to recall and relive my ordeal. It was extremely painful. It is true that I also gained recognition for my work and struggle, but I also had to suffer immensely.

Read more: Revenge rape in Pakistan leads to council of elders' arrest

I am doing this for the future generations. I don't want any woman to go through what I've been through. I launched an awareness campaign in my Mirwala town hoping that there won't be another Mukhtaran Mai ever.

At one point, even my family did not support me. They would tell me that raising the gang-rape issue would bring shame to them. It is a strange argument that those who committed such crimes are not condemned, but the victims. So all my initiatives and projects are aimed at changing this environment.

Read more: Pakistan: Father furious with police after daughter's rape, murder

Do you see any attitudinal change in your town as a result of your campaign?

I can't say that there has been a big change, but I can say that women are now demanding their rights. Whether they will get their rights or not is another issue. Things have definitely changed in my town though.

What kind of projects have you launched in your home town?

We mainly work on women's education. We also opened a shelter home for women. Women who face abuse are given shelter in these homes. We also provide medical aid to women, but due to a lack of financial support, we've had to scale down some projects.

You have become an icon for women's resistance and empowerment in the West also. How can the West support the women's cause in countries like Pakistan?

The West, as well as the Pakistani government, must ensure that there are pro-women laws in the country. And not only that; the laws should be implemented also. There are laws in Pakistan but there's no implementation.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams in Karachi.

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