Mukhtar Mai was gang raped at the age of 28 on the orders of a tribal council
She refused to kill herself, as was expected, and fought for justice and women's rights
Mai is headline speaker at Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy
After Mukhtar Mai was gang raped on the orders of a tribal court in Pakistan in 2002, local tradition dictated she was expected to commit suicide.
She defied her attackers and fought for justice. More than a decade on, she is still fighting for women’s rights in Pakistan and inspiring many around the world.
Mai’s “honor revenge” was carried out on the orders of a jirga – a tribal assembly – because her 12-year-old brother was wrongly accused, according to a subsequent investigation ordered by the Punjab governor, of improper relations with a woman from another tribe.
“They decided I should be punished against my brother’s crime,” Mai, now 39, told CNN through an interpreter. “They immediately acted upon that decision and dragged me out. That was the hardest moment of my life.”
While the majority of rapes go unreported in Pakistan, according to Pakistani national newspaper The Express Tribune, Mai was determined not to stay silent.
“I was of the view that I must fight back to get my rights,” said Mai. “First of all, there was the rape, and afterwards when I tried to call the police, I received death threats that I would be killed if I went to a police station.
“I sat inside the four walls of my home, but I was encouraged by well-wishers. My local community gave me the courage to fight back and go to the court.”
“I decided that what happened to me should never happen to anyone else.”
Initially, six men were sentenced to death for the rape or abetting the rape. However, in 2011, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned all but one of the convictions and the men were freed.
Mai grew up in a small village in the Punjab region of Pakistan, where she never went to school and was forced into marriage at the age 13.
After only a few years, she was divorced and living back home with her parents.
“I came back to my parents’ home and I started to make myself independent. I started working at home doing sewing and household work, low income work.
“I did that for 10 or 12 years and generated enough money to buy my own cattle.”
At the age of 28, her life changed forever when she was gang raped as a result of her younger brother’s alleged crime.
Far from destroying her, as her attackers would have expected, the incident made Mai determined to fight for women’s rights and she set up the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Organization.
Convinced that lack of education contributed to the poor treatment of women, Mai established a girls’ school, initially in a single room of her family home with a just one teacher and three students, including herself.
“The first school I attended was my own school,” said Mai.
For the first three years, she ran the school without any outside funding.
“Whatever I earned I used to pay the salary of the teacher. Sometimes I had to sell my own things,” she said.
Mai’s school gained worldwide attention following a spate of articles in the international press in 2005 and donations began to pour in – as well as some government money.
Today the Mukhtar Mai Girl’s Model School offers free education, books and uniforms to 550 girls from nursery to the beginning of high school.
However Mai said the school has received no government funding for the last three years and is struggling for income.
In addition, she has set up a women’s shelter and resource center for victims of violence, while her memoir, “In the Name of Honor”, was published in 2006 and has been translated into 23 languages.
In 2009, Mai married a police officer who acted as her bodyguard and they now have a one-year-old son.
Late last year, the shooting of the young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai brought women’s rights back to worldwide attention.
Malala, now 15, was shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education in Swat Valley in October and is now recovering in hospital in the United Kingdom.
“I am praying for Malala’s health and recovery,” said Mai. “She is a very little girl and the work she was doing and intends to do is great.
“More girls are now getting an education in her region due to Malala.”
In the decade since her attack, Mai believes she has made a difference to women’s rights in Pakistan, but still has a long way to go.
“Things have improved, but not as much as they should have done. There are laws, but the laws are not always implemented.
“It’s an evolutionary process and it will take time. I hope I have given the courage to girls and women to speak about women’s rights and to open new horizons.”
Mai is the headline speaker at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy on February 19.