A horrible crime led Mukhtara Mai to establish a women's welfare
organization, a women's shelter, and three top schools in rural
Pakistan. She faces death threats for her work.
It was in this dusty village that Mukhtaran Mai, then an
illiterate Pakistani villager, was gang-raped by up to 14 men on the
orders of a village council in 2002. Her infraction? Her brother had
allegedly committed adultery with the daughter of an opposing clan's
It's also where she set up a women's welfare organization, a
women's shelter, and three of the best schools in the area a year
after her ordeal.
But now, says Ms. Mai, as a police guard stands close by,
everything her organization has achieved could be threatened by a
Supreme Court decision in late April to acquit all but one of her
attackers. Amid death threats from powerful feudal lords in her
area, several parents have pulled their children from her schools,
and Mai is concerned for her own safety as well as that of her
staff. Despite it all, or perhaps because of it, she's determined to
continue her work.
"The [court's] decision empowers those who oppress women," says
the tall, thin Mai, wearing a simple blue traditional dress and flip-
flops, as her eyes well with tears.
Her organization has offered some measure of solace to women in
an area where feudal lords have ruled with impunity. "They beat
people with the help of the police and make the lives of ordinary
people miserable," she says. "They hold all power; they are in
government and control the courts."
Her shelter has helped thousands of women flee violence and rape
since 2003, she says, while the center's outreach work has
sensitized people's attitudes in an area long governed by
patriarchal feudal traditions. In fact, hundreds of men and women
held southern Punjab's first-ever women's rights march in the nearby
town of Jatoi last March, a sign of the gradual change in attitudes
Mai used the money she collected from her work as a seamstress to
open her organization. Mukhtar Mai Women's Organization (MMWO)
received its first major donation from the Canadian Embassy in
Pakistan in 2003. Last year, money from private donors - including
the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, as well as
Canada's development agency (CIDA) and its State Depart-ment -
totaled more than $200,000.
More than 800 students are currently enrolled in her girls'
school. Nasreen Kausar, the school's principal, proudly reports that
the first batch of 16-year-olds are to graduate this year and look
set to attend university.
IN PICTURES: Behind the veil
In a country where public education is widely regarded as broken,
the school offers an unrivaled opportunity in the area. Students are
taught in Urdu, Arabic, and English. (Fourth-graders showed
proficiency in English, in this reporter's opinion. …