- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

Thousands of women took to the streets in Pakistan’s Punjab province recently, protesting the acquittals of four men previously convicted of gang rape. The sight of a sea of women demonstrating in a country like Pakistan was impressive enough, but the prevalence of seascapes and traditional dress was even more noteworthy.

Women, even “traditional Muslim” women, are today willing to take to the streets if they feel their rights are being egregiously trampled on. That willingness discredits the emphasis that Western feminists place on the significance of the head scarf and other signs of feminine modesty in Islamic culture. Head scarf or no, theirs are the faces of modern Pakistan.

Mukhtar Mai is but one such face. She was gang raped in June 2002 in an attack that was apparently ordered by her town’s village council. In fact, Miss Mai was being punished for what the elders alleged was her 13-year-old brother’s illicit relationship with a women. The gang rape of a woman in retaliation for her brother’s affair is alarming enough, but Miss Mai said the allegations were actually a cover-up for the sexual assault of him by a local clan.

Six men were eventually sentenced to death in the Mai rape case, but the convictions of five of them were overturned by a local court and the sentence of a sixth was reduced to life in prison. The rulings sent thousands of women onto the streets to rally for justice and protection for Miss Mai.

On March 11, Pakistan’s highest Islamic tribunal, the Federal Shariat Court, rejected the lower court’s decision, saying it had no jurisdiction to rule on the case. The Supreme Court recently agreed to intervene and hear the case. When four of the defendants were released on bail, leaving Miss Mai fearful of retaliation, she appealed to both President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. They ordered that the defendants be held pending the Supreme Court decision.

Miss Mai has bravely broken a mold in Pakistan, taking a public stand on her rape and going to the courts for resolution. In a country where village elders often order women to suffer rape as an “honor punishment” for the crimes of their relatives, Miss Mai’s stance is unusual and has garnered international attention. The rallies held in her behalf also break new ground and reflect positively on Pakistan’s potential future.

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