The name Mukhtaran Mai is familiar to everyone in Pakistan who follows women’s rights, and many who do so abroad as well. She is the woman from Muzzafargarh in Punjab who was ordered by a tribal jirga to be gang-raped in a case of revenge between two Baloch tribes in the area (there many Baloch settled in Punjab – Qandeel Baloch also came from those communities).
Instead of committing suicide as custom expected, Mukhtaran Mai took her attackers to court. They were all jailed and sentenced, some to death, but all have been released on appeal since then. But Mukhtaran Mai used her experience to effect change for other women who suffered similar gender-based violence. She began the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization to provide shelter and aid to women, as well as girls’ education and education on gender rights.
Frieha Altaf of Catwalk Events brought Mukhtaran Mai to Fashion Week Pakistan and last night at the closing, she walked the stage in a designer outfit. The collision of the glamorous world of fashion and the gritty reality of Pakistan’s gender violence problem is an unusual platform from which Mukhtaran Mai and her supporters hope to raise funds for the MMWWO. It made international headlines, though, and fashion doesn’t seem frivolous when something as significant as this can happen on the runway.
I was kind of wishing I’d been able to see her at FWP2016 last night, but I didn’t have a pass. I went to lunch today with friends, instead, and was looking at my menu when I heard my name being called. I looked up to see Senator Sherry Rehman at the next table, and I went over to greet her. “I want to introduce you to Mukhtaran Mai,” she said, gesturing to the woman sitting next to her.
Somehow when I had picked my jaw up from the floor, I got to speak to Mukhtaran Mai, tell her how much I admired her, and how happy I was to meet her. She was gracious, kind, and gentle. Her husband, a stern Baloch policeman wearing a Sindhi cap, sat across from her at the table. They there with Senator Rahman and the team of Catwalk Productions, whose CEO Frieha Altaf, proudly told me that she’d been responsible for getting Mukhtaran Mai into FWP. “You did a good, good thing,” I told her, and I really meant it.
It’s a strange feeling when you meet one of your heroines, especially one as iconic as Mukhtaran Mai. You want to say something profound and heartfelt, and you can only babble nonsense and smile sheepishly into the camera next to her. Even when I went back to my table I kept stealing glances at her, noting her calm, her steady smile, her soft-spoken demeanour. Her husband didn’t say a word, but held himself with that kind of stiff gruff pride that men from the rural areas have when they’re proud of their wives but don’t want to admit it.
We say in feminist circles that women don’t carry the honor of their families in their bodies. Mukhtaran Mai carries the honor of all women who have survived rape and assault and turned the evil into something good, as Maya Angelou said. And after having met Mukhtaran Mai, all I can say is that now I know the real meaning of honor.