An unlikely hero

Risking her life, Mukhtar Mai envisions a better future for women

Kim Ridley | March 2006 issue
Mukhtar Mai has transformed personal trauma into a global wake-up call for women’s rights in Pakistan. After surviving a gang rape ordered by the local tribal council to punish her family for an offense allegedly committed by her 12-year-old brother, Mai did the unthinkable for a poor Pakistani woman: She testified against her attackers and put them in prison.
News of Mai’s extraordinary courage rocked Pakistan, where a woman is raped every two hours and so called “honour killings” claim the lives of two women every day. “She is the Rosa Parks of Pakistan,” says Amna Buttar of the Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Human Rights. “She symbolizes courage and hope and inspires thousands of women to be vocal against violence.”
Mai continually refuses to be silenced. Despite the Pakistan government’s attempts to stop her for fear that she would damage the country’s image, she recently traveled to the U.S. to speak about women’s rights. “Now when men act harshly to their wives, they just need to say, ‘I am going to tell Mukhtaran,’ and that puts them in their place,” she told a crowd at the University of Wisconsin.
Mai recently launched a support network for survivors like herself. Ultimately, she wants to save future generations from the horror she has suffered. When the government paid her $8,300 U.S. in restitution following the rape, she used the money to open her village’s first two schools—one for girls and one for boys. She then enrolled the children of the men who raped her. “School is the first step to change the world,” she says.
Still, Mai faces an enormous struggle under the watchful eye of her government and ongoing threats from the families of the men who assaulted her. “I think about leaving this place,” she recently told a Pakistani journalist. “But then I tell myself, I have my school and these girls here. If I left, I’d be leaving them behind, too, and the perpetrators will think that Mukhtar gave up… and that if they do that to a woman, the woman will leave, and they will get away with the crime. I think about that.”
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