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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 girls.

Kamila Shamsie is the author of Kartography (Bloomsbury, £9.99).

From The Guardian, Friday September 6, 2002. Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002