Since the day in 2002 when she decided to seek punishment for the men who had gang-raped her, Mukhtaran Mai has been a symbol of Pakistani women’s struggle against a feudal and patriarchal society in which brutal crimes against women are condoned in the name of honour and custom. In Mukhtaran’s case, a panchayat in her village abetted the rape as “punishment” for her 12-year-old brother’s alleged illicit relations with a girl of a higher caste. It was expected that, after the treatment meted out to her, Mukhtaran, in keeping with tradition, would conveniently commit suicide, and no liability would fall on any man. But this extraordinarily brave woman, unlettered at the time of the monstrous crime, decided to defy societal taboos to take her attackers to court. It is disappointing that Pakistan’s highest court has ruled against her. On April 21, a three-judge bench upheld, by a majority of two to one, the Lahore High Court’s acquittal of five men accused of the rape (while confirming the life sentence to a sixth) on the ground of insufficient evidence. The verdict is unsettling for several reasons. In most of South Asia, for reasons that are well known, it is never easy for a woman to make a formal complaint of rape. This verdict sets the bar for evidence so high — in contrast are the evidentiary requirements in a blasphemy case — that it can only act as further discouragement to rape victims seeking justice. It is also bound to add to the prevailing climate of impunity in which such crimes are committed, and serve as encouragement to parallel, anti-women systems of justice such as jirgas and panchayats.
As for Mukhtaran Mai, the verdict has shattered the hopes she had placed in the judiciary all these years. With the men she named as her rapists now free, she apprehends danger to her life.
For the women’s movement in Pakistan, the Supreme Court decision is a huge setback, and it is no surprise that, after playing an active role in the 2007-09 lawyers’ movement for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary and an independent judiciary, it should feel let down. In the nine years it has taken for the case to be decided, Mukhtaran has been an inspirational example of women’s agency, discarding victimhood to fight her own battle and, alongside, help other women in similar situations. It would indeed be a travesty if her name were to become synonymous with justice denied. Thus far, the Pakistan People’s Party government has shown little courage on issues that matter. But given its claim to a progressive vision on women’s rights in Pakistan, the least it can do is to press for a review of this verdict.