A Woman’s Work Earns Her Enemies
You might think that the worst tragedy that could befall a couple would be for their young daughter to be raped and murdered.
But here in rural Pakistan, that was only the beginning for Hasina Bibi and her husband, Rashid Ahmed. Their story underscores how to be poor in the developing world often means having not only no food but also no justice — and how any war against poverty must be devised not only to enrich the world’s poorest people but also to educate and empower them.
On the morning of July 3 last year, Ms. Hasina and Mr. Rashid were cutting grass in the fields along with their daughter, Shamshad, who was 11 years old, and a group of other laborers. Shamshad carried a stack of grass to a pile across the field — and then disappeared.
Villagers found Shamshad’s body a few hours later. She had been raped and tortured: There were many bite marks, and burns from cigarettes.
Everybody guessed who could have done this: the grandchildren of the local feudal lord. These grandchildren, in their teens and 20s, often harassed girls.
The grandchildren, however, said that the culprits were their servants — and so the police arrested the servants (who presumably would be beaten until they confessed). But Ms. Hasina and Mr. Rashid knew that the servants could not be guilty, because they had all been together when Shamshad vanished.
“We went to the police, and after five minutes the police said, ‘Go home,’ ” Ms. Hasina related. The police told the parents to forget about making accusations against anyone in the feudal lord’s family.
So Ms. Hasina traveled to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, 400 miles to the north, to appeal for assistance from the government — but she received no help and her trip infuriated the feudal lord’s family. The feudal lord’s family members beat up her family members and warned them to be silent.
“They said, ‘We killed the girl, and if you don’t keep quiet we’ll kill all of you as well,’ ” Ms. Hasina explained. She sighed and added: “Everybody says, that is just what happens to poor people.”
Yet there is one place that Ms. Hasina and Mr. Rashid have found a sanctuary: the shelter run by Mukhtar Mai here in the remote village of Meerwala. Mukhtar (who also goes by the name Mukhtaran Bibi) survived a gang rape to become a fervent campaigner for voiceless women in Pakistan.
I’ve written about Mukhtar repeatedly over the last few years, and she now runs several schools, an ambulance service and a women’s aid group. Her home and courtyard are full of women and girls who trickle in each day, shellshocked by injustice or disfigured by beatings or acid attacks. Mukhtar arranges medical or legal help and does what she can to address their needs.
A year ago on a visit to Mukhtar’s village, I wrote about a young woman named Aisha Parveen who was fighting efforts by the police to return her to the brothel from which she had escaped. Mukhtar helped rescue Aisha, and now Aisha is trying to replicate Mukhtar’s work farther south. One of Aisha’s first cases was to help Ms. Hasina after her daughter’s murder.
Mukhtar is a hero of mine. But her work has earned her many enemies, particularly among the feudal lords — and even in the government of President Pervez Musharraf, who fears that Mukhtar displays Pakistan’s dirty laundry before the world. So the Pakistani authorities are harassing Mukhtar, trying to break her organization. (For readers who want to help, I’ve posted some ideas on my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground. You can also post your comments about this column there.)
Most of the pressure right now is on Mukhtar’s top aide and soul mate, Naseem Akhtar. Lately Naseem’s brother was in a mysterious vehicle accident, her father was ordered arrested for no apparent reason and her own house was broken into.
Farooq Leghari, a police chief, was transferred away from Meerwala because — he and others say — he tried too hard to protect Mukhtar. He now is police chief in another town and, when I visited him, he told me that “this harassment and pressure on them is from very high up, from Islamabad.”
“Their lives are in danger,” Mr. Leghari said of Mukhtar and Naseem, adding that they could be killed by assassins sent by feudal lords or by the Pakistani government itself (our close allies!).So I have a message for President Musharraf: Don’t even think about it. Start protecting Mukhtar instead of harassing her. And if any “accident” happens to Mukhtar or Naseem, you will be held responsible before the world. We are watching.