Punjabi Rape Victim Speaks

A local council in the Pakistani border state of Punjab ordered the gang rape of Mukhtar Mai in 2002 after her brother was seen walking with a girl from a rival tribe.

After Mai spoke out, the government gave her $8,300 in compensation, which she used to found a school to educate young women in Pakistan. She has gained international acclaim largely due to columns penned by New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas D. Kristof ’81, whose readers have sent Mai over $130,000 through this past November.

Kristof, a former Crimson editor, has written that Mai is “a Rosa Parks for a new century: a woman simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, who transcended her role and started a broad movement for justice.”

The Crimson interviewed Mai after her speech this past Saturday at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The interview was conducted in Urdu and English though an interpreter, Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at the Kennedy School of Government.

The Harvard Crimson: Tell us about the work you’re doing now, especially in regards to education.

Mukhtar Mai: We now have the first schools in Meerwala [a town in Southeastern Pakistan]. I think education is the identity of a person. It stops you from the wrong path, and helps you find direction in life.

THC: What do you think of President Musharraf and the difficulties you’ve faced politically?

MM: This is part of the entire process and it just goes on. So long as you are there, one person trying to do something, there are going to be problems, obstacles. This is part of such kinds of struggles.

THC: Do you feel the government can or should be helping you, instead of making your work more difficult?

MM: There’s no direct help from the government right now. For me, this is not about political issues. The government should understand what I’m trying to do, that I’m not against Pakistan, that I’m not anti-Pakistan. I am working for women in Pakistan, but also for women at a global level. The government should understand this, and there should be help and respect on their part. We could be excellent partners with the government. We’d like to help them. Together we could truly make a difference.

THC: Do you have any particular idols, people you look up to, respect, and draw inspiration from? What about Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Iran? [Ebadi was the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian to ever win the Prize.]

MM: I don’t know much about political issues in the wider world, but there are women in Pakistan’s history that I respect very much. Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and then Fatima Jinnah, the sister of the founding father of Pakistan [Muhammed Ali Jinnah], who helped him create my country. These two are personalities that inspire me.

THC: You mentioned earlier the necessity of an internal drive for change. Could you speak a little bit more about this, and about what American college students could do to help?

MM: These issues are also happening within the U.S. too. There are rapes and other things, other injustices in America. I am concerned with linking my work to a global level, and I think students should stand up for women, especially minority women, here in America. This is so that people in Pakistan should not think that Americans are all only interested in the Third World—they are as much aware of such problems in the Western context as well. I would welcome this kind of support and awareness, and respect this kind of support.

THC: What did you think about being on the cover of Glamour last December and being named “Woman of the Year”? What does this kind of publicity do?

MM: It helped spread awareness, and that is good. I really respect the young people and students who work on these things. I would love that kind of support from your students—both in terms of money, but also in feeling. We’re trying to create that kind of student community in Pakistan.

THC: Can you speak a little bit about your communications with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, and the money and support you received from readers of his columns?

MB: The money helped give a financial basis for my work. It was a great help—the [elementary] school is going to be upgraded to a middle school soon, there’s a police checkpoint outside my home, we’ve been able to buy land for a hospital. All these new projects were the result of his readers.