The Rosa Parks for the 21st Century
A Must-read for Gender Studies Students
“I strongly believe that the rights bestowed on women by Islam are more than enough.”
Hailing from a remote area of Muzaffargarh district of the Punjab province and belonging to a humble family background, Mukhtaran Mai is an epitome of extraordinary courage, resilience and fortitude. She became a global hero after she was gang-raped in 2002 on the orders of a village council, as punishment for an alleged offense committed by her brother. Defying social stigma and the culture of shame surrounding rape victims, Mukhtaran Mai not only spoke out about her rape, but in a valiant move, took her rapists to court. Due to this indomitable courage on the part of her, a renowned American journalist, author and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas D. Kristof called her “the bravest woman in the world,” and “a Rosa Parks for the new century.” She is now an iconic advocate of women’s rights and currently she is heading a vigorous campaign to stop the atrocities committed against the fair sex. In an exclusive conversation with Jahangir’s World Times (JWT), Mukhtaran Mai threw light on the plight of Pakistani women and the issue of gender bias.
Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): In your opinion, what status do the women in Pakistan enjoy?
Mukhtaran Mai (MM): In theory, the status of women in Pakistan is that of a highly revered and blessed being; however, in practice, they are considered merely a chattel (a corporal movable property). This attitude is prevalent mostly in rural areas of the country, though urban centres are also not an exception. Generally, in Pakistan, women are subservient to men and in most parts of the country they have been pushed to the wall. They don’t have a considerable say in matters relating to family and community and their participation in political matters is also limited.
JWT: How do you see the status of women’s rights in Pakistan?
MM: The story is not much different in this sphere too. As I said earlier, being a mother, a daughter, a sister and a wife, a woman enjoys a huge theoretical importance, but problem arises when we find that, in practice, it is solely lacking. Women are much weaker financially, and they have to depend on male family members for money. So, they are hardly free to spend money. The justice system in Pakistan is also prejudiced against women; and I have, myself, experienced the unresponsiveness and fragility of our country’s justice system. The most recent grief-stricken story is of Amina who was also from Muzaffargarh district. She was gang-raped in January last year. She tried to seek justice for the atrocities perpetrated against her but all her attempts came to nothing and depressed by this failure, she immolated herself. For me, that day, in fact, marked another flag-waving moment for male chauvinism.
JWT: Do you think that women in our society are being deprived of their rights in an organised and systematic manner or this deprivation is only a manifestation of inherent tendencies of a backward society?
MM: Before directly coming to the answer, I think it is better to explain here that the problem of gender discrimination is not linked to any specific society rather it represents a mindset. I often say that wherever and whenever women are considered subservient and inferior to men and are believed to be of lower status, crimes against them are usually organized and systematic. Since this mindset is widely prevalent in Pakistan, every now and then we see women being robbed of their rights. This fact is evident from women’s little representation in social, economic and political matters.
JWT: Despite religious and constitutional guarantees, women continue to suffer. Are they themselves responsible for their persistent deplorable state?
MM: I think the notion is correct if applied to the past; however, today the conditions have changed. Nowadays, women are adequately informed and well aware of their rights. Whenever a woman falls victim to atrocities, she tries to register an FIR against the culprits and seeks justice from the courts. Today, on the one hand, women are striving to achieve their rights while on the other, we see them increasingly taking ownership of their duties. In fact, women are painstakingly trying to carve out their way through the narrow and constricted allays of the patriarchy. Therefore, I think it would be unfair to put the whole blame of their deplorable state on women only.
JWT: It is said that our society is governed under the principles of patriarchy. What are your views?
MM: I have seen many men raising voice and striving for women’s rights. In Pakistan, women’s representation in parliament is comparatively larger than that in other South Asian countries. We saw Shaheed Benazir Bhutto ruling our country twice. Nevertheless, we cannot say that our country is free from patriarchal leanings. In fact, in absolute sense, our country is not patriarchal, but generally it is. No matter whether she is a daughter, sister or wife, a woman is so firmly tied up to the benevolence of man that it is hard to conceive of her survival without him.
JWT: Certain reports by international agencies rank Pakistan as the worst country in the world in terms of treatment meted out to women. Do you also think so?
MM: With regard to the treatment meted out to women, there are certain aspects which must be examined. As soon as you enter Karachi, you find a multitude of women walking through and passing by the roads and streets or crowding markets, shops and groceries for making purchases. The female literacy rate in Pakistan is also on the rise and we may see more and more females getting higher education degrees. Even in some fields they outsmart their male counterparts. All this stands in sharp contrast to many of the African and Middle Eastern countries where there are numerous curbs on women. So, I don’t think Pakistan is the worst country as regards status of women. However, here, it is necessary to admit that the cruelties inflicted on our women are extremely serious in nature. It is not that much easy, for me at least, to forget the tragic deaths of Tasleem Solangi, Amina and many others victims of the brutal assaults. What message the world gets about Pakistan when such extremely wicked acts are committed. The centuries-old ‘Panchayat’ system is still in place in many parts of our country which, to me, smells of male chauvinism. I, myself, have to brave hard realities and insecurities when I started campaigning for women’s rights. I think, instead of criticizing the world, we need to put our house in order first.
JWT: What do you demand for the women in Pakistan — an equal status or something more than that?
MM: My demands revolve around an equal status for women. Though currently some special arrangements are necessary for the uplift of women, yet my advocacy for these ‘special arrangements’ is only based on my broader objective of elevating the women to a position that is equal, not greater, to men. I strongly believe that the rights bestowed on women by Islam are more than enough.
JWT: Since the start of your movement for women’s rights, what changes you have observed on gender-based social, economic and political parameters? And, if judged on the basis of women empowerment, is our society in progress or is it regressing?
MM: Yes, there are some positive developments happening around us for which, I think, we are indebted to a vigilant civil society and a vibrant media. From the corridors of parliament to the opportunities of employment, there are reserved seats and quotas for women. Females have established their strong foothold in education and health sectors as well. Every year, they bag an appreciable level of standing in competitive exams. Their participation in other major areas is also increasing. Nonetheless, overall scenario still presents a bleak picture. Moreover, the scale of disproportion too varies among the women. Moving from urban to rural landscape, we see that a woman from urban areas enjoys greater emancipation and empowerment than her fellow women living in rural areas. Governments have but little interest in building and revamping the desired gender contours especially in the rural areas of the country though urban areas too are not an exception to this indifference.
JWT: What measures should the government adopt for the uplift of Pakistani women?
MM: First of all, I would demand implementation of law in letter and spirit and a speedy dispensation of justice. At present, our justice system is unresponsive and decisions are delayed, sometimes even beyond the lifespan of a victim. Actually, our justice system, from registering the FIRs to the passing of the final judgement, is flawed, and is in need of a complete overhaul.
Our second priority should be to provide our women free access to education. Greater the awareness, the better equipped are the women to rise to the challenges. Quality education can help us in overcoming the hard realities of gender discrimination.
The third spectrum of my demand is to empower women on the financial front. Women should have ownership rights, they should be free to run their businesses and, more importantly, they should be provided with better job and employment opportunities. While making arrangements for all these dispensations, we must realize that these cannot be achieved overnight or merely with the stroke of a pen rather it may take years or even decades to completely transform our society. What we need is to be consistent in our commitment and determination.
JWT: What message would you give to the Pakistani women through JWT?
MM: Don’t ever lose heart, stay resilient in the face of adversaries and always stand up for your rights. If we, the women, continue to do so, the future belongs to us. I want to tell the males that we can have honour and morality only if we ensure an equal and indiscriminate participation of women in all fields.
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