Gang-rape villager sows seeds of change
Asad Riaz in Meerwala, Pakistan
Under shade that does little to protect them from 53 degrees Celsius heat, dozens of young girls listen attentively as their teacher reads from an Urdu textbook.
Most of the girls do not have their own books, and some have notebooks but no pencils with which to write.
Despite the lack of electricity, desks or chairs, their mere presence is a dream come true for Muktar Mai, who founded the village of Meerwala's first primary school after being gang-raped.
'When the kids grow up I want them to be prepared for the world, to know their rights, and know that what happened to me was wrong,' says the softly spoken 30-year old.
In June 2002, members of a more powerful tribe, the Mastois, accused Muktar Mai's younger brother of having illicit relations with one of their women.
A panchayat (local council) was convened and, ignoring the pleas of her father, who is from the lower- caste Gujar tribe, ordered four Mastoi men to drag Muktar Mai into a shed to beat and rape her, before forcing her to walk home naked.
Pictures of Muktar Mai's battered face catapulted the so-called honour crime onto the international stage and enraged many Pakistanis, who condemned the archaic feudal system that dominates most of the country.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf sent envoys to comfort the distraught Koranic teacher and gave her 500,000 rupees (HK$70,000).
She surprised everyone by using half of the money to buy land for the school and convincing the Punjab provincial government to build it, believing education to be the key to preventing others suffering her fate.
But almost nobody came.
Muktar Mai and her brother Abdul Shakur were the first to enrol, followed by four young boys in the following six months.
'People would say they supported the idea when they were talking to me or my family, but then in public they were silent and the kept their children at home,' she recalls.
She stubbornly continued her studies - and has now advanced to the 4th grade.
Gradually more and more local families began sending their children to the school.
By last month, the Muktar Mai Primary School boasted 207 students - 102 of them females.
'She very bravely stood up against the social norm of silence, stood up against local influentials,' says Abdul Saboor, Central Punjab co-ordinator for local aid organisation Pattan. 'As a result, the children of that village have brighter chances for the future.'
In an area where female literacy hovers around 15 per cent - about half the national average - the opening of one school is unlikely to make a serious dent in the problem. But Muktar Mai's philanthropy has won admirers across the province and drawn dozens of people to the fledgling institution.
'It's amazing what she has done,' said Seema Tahir, a school teacher from the nearby city of Multan. 'Nobody would have blamed her for taking the money and leaving Meerwala forever, but instead she has created an inspiration for all Pakistanis.'
Muktar Mai's plans for the future are to work as hard as she can to make the primary school efficient and do everything in her meagre power to help the women of her area - a set of goals that includes seeing her assailants, now in jail awaiting trial, punished to the full extent of the law.
'Maybe it's not much, but it is enough for me,' Muktar Mai concluded. 'It's more that I would have thought possible two years ago.'