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The power of Pakistan's progressive press
Kamila Shamsie, Pakistan
September 6, 2002
The bare facts of the case are these: on June 22, in the Pakistani
village of Meerwala, a boy was sodomised by men from the Mastoi
tribe, who accused the boy of having "illicit relations" with a
Mastoi girl. When the boy threatened to reveal what had been done to
him, the Mastoi men called the tribal council and accused the boy of
raping the Mastoi girl. At the conclusion of the meeting, the boy's
family was told that the Mastois would forgive the boy if his sister,
Mukhtaran Mai, came before the council to plead for clemency on her
brother's behalf. When the sister was brought to the council,
however, four of the Mastoi men took her to a nearby house and
gang-raped her—as per the council's decree.
Mukhtaran Mai's family were warned of serious reprisals if they took
the case any further, but a week later Mukhtaran Mai took the matter
up with the authorities, and the national press (particularly the
progressive English-language papers) made sure that the case received
widespread coverage. The case went before the anti-terrorism courts,
and last week the four rapists and two of the council jurors were
sentenced to death for the rape of Mukhtaran Mai.
The "death sentence as deterrence" argument is being much invoked in
the wake of the convictions, but it seems to me that the real
deterrent might be the press. Mukhtaran Mai was not the first woman
to have been raped as an act of vengeance, so what makes her story
different? The fact that she took the brave step of reporting the
crime, and that the press responded by making sure the case wasn't
left to local police, who often lack the ability and/or inclination
to act against powerful families. I have long regarded the
progressive elements of Pakistan's press as the nation's most
powerful tool against forces of obscurantism—and Mukhtaran Mai
herself singled out the press for thanks.
I was in London when news of the gang rape first broke and when a
friend of mine suggested I write about it for the papers here, I
responded: "What do you want me to say? 'You were right about us all
along'?" "I see your point," she said.
My point had to do with the different ways in which such stories get
reported depending on where they take place. A few days ago, a story
broke about a Belgian man who abused and prostituted his 11-year-old
daughter; 19 men in the village were found guilty of raping or
abusing the child.
No one would be absurd enough to take the case in Pakistan and the
case in Belgium and decide which was "worse", but it is certainly
worth noticing the terms in which the two crimes are discussed. The
case in Belgium, according to the papers, "shocked the nation". I
didn't see any reports here that suggested even the mildest surprise
in Pakistan over the gang-rape case, though even a cursory glance at
the Pakistani papers makes clear the level of outrage over the crime.
Shortly after the Meerwala gang rape became public knowledge, I
received a call from a radio producer asking me if I would be willing
to come into the studio to discuss the case and explain "the culture
behind it". I was too shocked to say anything much beyond no, but
have since seen that juxtaposition of "gang rape" and "culture" form
the subtext of much commentary in the western media.
I'm not about to deny the barbarism of verdicts handed down by many
tribal councils, which quite routinely treat women as property to be
bartered with (it is not uncommon for a young girl to be married off
to some elderly member of another family in recompense for her
brother or father's crimes). And certainly the Pakistani government
needs to be more proactive about replacing tribal law with national
law, and dismantling feudal systems that allow powerful families to
get away with rape in the name of justice.
But to insinuate that Pakistan is a nation with a culture of rape,
where rapists are tried only when international human rights groups
take up the issue (this, too, has been suggested in the UK press), is
to overlook the grim struggle taking place within Pakistan between
progressive forces and those that want to see the nation regress into
the dark ages.
One clue as to how the progressive forces can win came from Mukhtaran
Mai herself: she has taken the money given to her by the government
in recompense for her suffering and used it to set up a school for
Kamila Shamsie is the author of Kartography (Bloomsbury, £9.99).
The Guardian, Friday September 6, 2002. Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002