How rape victim became a champion of women's education in Pakistan

Instead of committing suicide, as most rape victims are expected to do in Pakistan, Mukhtar Bibi took her attackers to court and used the compensation she won to set up a school and a women's shelter

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:47pm

The best-known advocate for girls' education in Pakistan is undoubtedly 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai, named co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize for her campaigning despite Taliban attempts on her life. But before the schoolgirl came to prominence, another heroine - Mukhtar Bibi - overcame an equally, if not more, harrowing ordeal to work for education and women's rights in Pakistan.

Bibi, 42, visited Hong Kong recently to raise funds for schools in her home village of Meerwala. Hosted by local charity Developments in Literacy (DIL) Hong Kong, the dinner raised HK$800,000, which will be used to train and pay teachers, upgrade classrooms and equipment at the two primary schools and high school that she set up in rural Meerwala, about 610 kilometres southwest of Islamabad.

While Malala survived being shot in the head, Bibi was gang-raped in 2002 in a so-called "honour" revenge. Her then 12-year-old brother was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman from the powerful Mastoi clan. To avoid an escalating dispute, the Mastois agreed that they would "forgive" the Mukhtar family if Bibi came to apologise on their behalf. But when she arrived, she was dragged into a stable and raped.

Instead of committing suicide as most rape victims were expected to do, Bibi defied conventions in rural Pakistan. She found the strength not only to take her attackers to court, she used the compensation awarded for her ordeal to set up a school in her village, and later went on to establish a women's shelter.

She struggled not to be overcome by the trauma and humiliation, and tried several times to kill herself; however, her mother, who stayed by her side, foiled each attempt.

Eventually, Bibi decided she had to seek justice. It was while giving evidence to police that she came to realise the importance of education: because she could not read or write, Bibi had to put her thumbprint on her statement instead of signing it. She felt all children have the right to learn to read and write. Moreover, education would give the poor and illiterate like herself tools to improve their lot.

"Those who were illiterate tried to convince me to give up on pressing charges, but at the same time we were treated like cattle or sheep. Meanwhile all the educated people told me to continue with the lawsuit and not to be afraid," she says.

Her quest for justice through the courts, however, has proved disappointing.

She accused 14 people of involvement in the attack, including the four men who raped her. In a quick trial, judges acquitted eight of the accused, citing lack of evidence. Of the six sentenced to death, five were released on appeal. The only man who was convicted eventually had his sentence commuted to life in prison.

Her activism attracts hostility from traditionalists, and Bibi still faces threats on her life. Because of this, she is given some protection, although she views the security set-up at her village more as a hurdle to her efforts to speak out against feudal customs. "The good thing is that because we have more security, there is less theft in our village, so everyone benefits," she says, laughing.

She also gained a family in the process: a constable on the protection detail fell in love with her and, in 2009, persuaded her to marry him. "But I absolutely worry about my safety and my family's, particularly now that I have a two-year-old son and daughter who's four," she says. "When you have children you understand why parents worry about safety."

Nevertheless, Bibi has not given up her legal fight. The Pakistan Supreme Court will hear her case in September, and she is being represented pro bono by Aitzaz Ahsan, a prominent barrister who hopes to show that the lower courts erred in their judgments.

Those who were illiterate tried to convince me to give up on pressing charges

Bibi says her focus on providing education for the underprivileged has given her the drive to live anew. "I started [a school] with four girls who were literally taught under a tree," she says, and she studied beside them.

For the first three years, it was tough to keep her school going. At one point she didn't have enough to pay the teacher's salary. So when he threatened to quit, Bibi sold a calf and her gold earrings to raise the cash.

She earned some money from sewing and embroidery, half of which was spent on school supplies and the remainder went towards the teacher's salary. This was hardly feasible when the number of students grew to 35.

However, prospects improved after French writer Marie-Therese Cuny helped Bibi tell her story with the book In the Name of Honour: A Memoir. Her 2005 memoir brought in steady revenue in royalties, and New York Times readers sent donations through columnist Nicholas Kristof, who wrote the foreword to her book.

Enrolment at her schools has now swelled to 570 students, including several Mastoi children. Bibi believes young Mastoi should not be penalised for what their elders did to her.

"The Mastoi tribe feels ashamed, but it's not the fault of the children. They hang their heads low, not me," she says.

Using donations from the Canadian High Commission, she also set up a women's shelter, which operated a mobile unit, a helpline for women and security patrol for women whose lives were being threatened.

After her story first exploded across Pakistan, women who were in danger or had been raped would travel across the country to seek safety with her. Initially, they slept on the floor of her bedroom, but with a dedicated shelter she was able to provide a better, more secure halfway house for the women and their children.

Some of the women were forced into marriages or ran away before the wedding because they fell in love with someone else. In other instances she intervenes to prevent parents from marrying off prepubescent daughters, insisting that the girls must receive more education before they tie the knot.

Women typically stay at the shelter for up to six months, although the period could be extended if they have ongoing court cases. During this time, they are not only taught domestic skills, but also basic literacy and hygiene.

These days Bibi is regularly invited abroad to speak about her work and experiences and in her travels, she has discovered that sexual assault can be as much an issue in open, modern societies as in conservative, patriarchal communities such as hers.

Recalling how several young women came up to her after speeches and confided that they had been assaulted but failed to report the attacks, Bibi says: "It's difficult but it's never too late to speak out. The women said they wished they had met me earlier, but I told them it is never too late. They may not be able to help themselves, but they can help others."

Four years ago, however, Bibi found herself facing another funding crisis after her book royalties dried up and other contributions stopped coming in. She was at a loss, she says.

"All my projects were on a bigger scale so I needed more funds to keep them going. It was my fault I didn't go out with a begging bowl because in hindsight it wasn't for me, but for others," she says.

Another NGO has since stepped in to fund the shelter, but Bibi had to sell some land to pay staff salaries. A few teachers also left, which meant children were grouped into bigger classes. Fortunately, DIL contributed some funding this year and will offer more help in 2015 to introduce lessons in critical thinking as well as English, mathematics, science and computer literacy.

DIL director Najmi Akram Sarwar will visit the schools in April next year to find out what kind of impact the charity will make at Bibi's schools.

They have been supporting other schools in remote areas for 10 years, Sarwar says, and she can observe the transformation it brings. "I see girls who are more confident and when they start working, they get more respect from their brothers and fathers. This is change."

Bibi's years of work are already yielding some results. Girls who were educated at her school are returning to the village as teachers, nurses, and even police officers. "Because they have started to earn an income they are garnering respect in the community. They are now seeing the benefits of finishing school," she says.

Eventually, she hopes students from underprivileged families will be able to receive tertiary education. "The next natural step is to open colleges and universities."