Making space for women
Pakistan's women overcome fundamentalism and violence

By Paul Jeffrey
Response magazine, May 2006

In June 2002, Mukhtaran Mai was gang-raped on the orders of a council of tribal elders in her small village in Pakistan. The violence came as retribution after her 14-year old brother was seen in public with a girl from a rival tribe, behavior which is considered unacceptable in the conservative rural community. Ms. Mukhtaran, then 30 years old, was raped by four men and then thrown into the street, where her father covered her beaten body with a shawl and walked her home through a village of staring eyes.

Up to here, the story is all too common in rural Pakistan. Hundreds of such rapes are ordered every year by local councils. And in a land where "honor" is paramount, such dishonor–a raped woman who has lost her virginity has also lost her marriageability–often leads the woman to commit suicide.

But here's where this story changes. Rather than accept the shame that the culture assigns to the rape victim, Ms. Mukhtaran–encouraged by the local Muslim cleric–filed a complaint with the police. They ignored it, so Ms. Mukhtaran courageously spoke out publicly against her attackers, claiming they were the ones who had acted shamefully. In a post-9/11 world where Pakistan's government is eager to prove to the world that it respects law and order, the media took up her case and forced authorities to file charges against the men responsible. The rapists and tribal elders were brought to trial.

The government also granted Ms. Mukhtaran about $8,300 in compensation, and offered to buy her a house in Islamabad. Yet the victim-turned-protagonist wasn't interested in escaping the environment which engendered the violence. She was interested in changing it. So she took the money and started a school for girls in her village. She became one of its first students, enrolling in fourth grade.

Legal proceedings in the case progressed all the way to Pakistan's Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide the fate of 13 men implicated in the assault. And Ms. Mukhtaran became a reluctant international icon, traveling abroad–despite harassment from Pakistan's government–to talk about her experience and the situation of other women in rural Pakistan. She was named a Woman of the Year by the U.S. magazine Glamour, which further dubbed her "the bravest woman in the world." Amna Buttar, president of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Human Rights, described Ms. Mukhtaran as "the Rosa Parks of Pakistan."

Rising literacy fuels demands for change

Men and women often inhabit completely separate worlds in Pakistan. Traditionally, women's physical and ideological universe is inside the home, while men dominate the world outside. This division is maintained through the notion of honor and the system of purdah–a rigid segregation by gender that uses violence against all threats. Not surprisingly, in the more conservative corners of Pakistani culture, women are even bought and sold like animals. Important decisions, such as who they'll marry, are made without their consent. Sometimes that works well, sometimes not. The British embassy in Pakistan operates a clandestine bride rescue squad that snatches British-Pakistani women from the clutches of male relatives who have lured the women home from England only to seize their passports and force them to marry against their will. In 2004, the team rescued 105 women, some as young as 14, and spirited them back to England.

Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to generalize about women in Pakistan, because differences of class and region can have significant impact. And, perhaps even more important, vast cultural distances are growing between urban centers and rural villages. In the cities, some women are able to study at elite schools like the United Methodist-supported Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore and end up as executives in corporate settings. But in rural villages and tribal areas, women are usually cloistered behind the high mud walls of family enclosures.

What has contributed to the improved lot of women in cities, most observers agree, is education. Today, 32 percent of Pakistani women are literate, compared to just 13 percent in 1975. (Male literacy has risen from 32 percent to 55 percent in the same period.) Yet a wide gap exists today between women in urban centers, of whom 55 percent are literate, and women in rural areas, where the literacy rate is barely 20 percent. In some areas, like the conservative province of Baluchistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, only 7.9 percent of rural women can read and write–essentially only those from wealthy families that send their daughters to towns for education.

Islam can't be blamed for this, as the Prophet Mohammad was outspoken in advocating education for all. It's Pakistan's uniquely conservative cultural climate that has discouraged parents from educating their daughters, lest they want more than their limited lot in life. Such cultural conservatism breeds paradoxes, however. "We have men who don't want their daughters to be educated, but they want their women and girls to be treated only by female doctors," said Shagufta Iqbal, the principal of a girls school in Baluchistan. "Yet where are those female doctors going to come from?"

This panorama has changed dramatically, however, in the last two decades. "Survival strategies for girls have become so important that people today recognize the value of educating their daughters. Parents overwhelmingly want their daughters educated, but in an environment that's culturally appropriate. They want them to go to all girl schools and they want to be sure that coming and going to school and at school their daughters, who they love dearly, will not be at risk of being raped or assaulted by men," said Anita Weiss, a professor of international studies at the University of Oregon who has done extensive research on gender issues in Pakistan.

Literacy rates among the young illustrate how the landscape is changing. Pakistani girls age 10-14 have an overall literacy rate of 47.6 percent (in cities, it's 71 percent, while only 35.4 percent in rural areas). Although low by western standards, it signals slow but steady change is under way in Pakistan.

"Education has made a lot of difference, as has the exposure to western cultures. Some 15 or 20 years back, women wouldn't even talk about their situation. They thought that whatever happened to them was their fate. It seemed their destiny to be beaten by their husband or mistreated by their in-laws. If she spoke up, a woman brought shame to her family and her husband and her in-laws. So women would live as if in prison for years, they wouldn't speak out, and they would die in that situation. You wouldn't even hear of what happened to her if she died," said Shunila Ruth, coordinator of the women's program of the Church of Pakistan.

Things began to change in recent years as women learned to ask public questions.

"We heard about a lot of women who died in stove burnings, what we now call dowry deaths. Yet why, we started to ask, was it always the bride who died from stove fires, and not the mother-in-law or the daughter? Society began to realize that the family was putting the woman to death, dousing her in kerosene and lighting her on fire," Ms. Ruth told Response.

Women's organizations and human rights groups have grown increasingly vocal about various forms of violence against women, but the message hasn't reached many of the insular rural settings where women pass their days with no contact with the outside world.

"There are still many women in Pakistan who aren't aware of their situation, who feel that how they live is their destiny. There are many Mukhtaran Mais in Pakistan, but they don't speak up because of the shame, because they feel they'd bring dishonor to their family. If they are unmarried, they believe they won't be accepted as wives and they'll have to live as single forever. Sometimes their family will shun them. Many girls don't know about this until it happens to them. Many who work as domestic servants in the homes of rich people are raped every day, but they don't know how to react or what to do about it," said Ms. Ruth.

A woman who is raped in Pakistan quickly runs up against the institutionalized discrimination of the Hudood Ordinances, a key component of the process of Islamization undertaken in 1979 by Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who took power in a military coup in 1977. The Hudood Ordinances, particularly the section on adultery, makes no legal distinction between consensual adultery and rape, and both are punishable by death. In the tortured logic of the law, a woman who is raped is guilty of adultery.

"Women are always on the thrashing side. Whenever anything goes wrong, the woman has to be blamed," Samuel Azariah, bishop of the Raiwind Diocese of the Church of Pakistan, told Response. "If there's adultery, it's the woman's fault. If a woman has been raped, she can't go to the court unless she takes four male witnesses of good standing–devout Muslim men–who witnessed the rape. Where on earth is she going to find them?"

"We're telling our sisters to stand up"

In 2000, Ms. Ruth founded the Talitha Kumi Welfare Center, a women's empowerment center in Lahore, believing that women who were victims of violence, particularly Christian women, needed a place where they could turn for help. The center has received funding from the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries.

"Many women came to us with problems of abuse and violence, but there was no Christian institution to stand by them. So they'd go to a secular institution, and were often discriminated against if they were a religious minority. And they wouldn't get a Christian response. The automatic answer to domestic violence is not divorce, but the first thing they'd be told was to get a divorce. Many women don't want a divorce, they want things in the family to be better," Ms. Ruth said.

"The women needed a place they could go and relax and freely talk about their own problems. In the home with their family, they often aren't free to share frustrations, to talk about issues and problems. So we started with just a handful of women, and today the house is crowded from early in the morning until late at night," she said. "There was some fear that we were going to stir up women to be against their husbands, but we invited men to participate, and we have men on our staff. People have learned that we're here to help women and men live together in harmonious ways. So when women come to us who've been beaten, we call the husband and try to negotiate with both parties. Now some husbands around here say they've stopped beating their wives because they are afraid the women will come to our center for help."

The center takes its name from Jesus' command to Jairus' daughter: Talitha kumi–Aramaic for "Rise up, young woman."

"Two thousand years later these words are still alive. We're telling our sisters, the young and those who are victims of violence, to stand up on their own feet, to stand up for their rights and dignity, to live with respect for themselves and others," Ms. Ruth said.

In addition to legal assistance to women who've been victims of violence, Talitha Kumi offers skills training in health care, tailoring, embroidery, and food preservation. An important component of the training is a discussion of women's rights, and the center has its own theater troupe that presents plays highlighting discrimination against women. Ms. Ruth said the center is currently looking for funding of a temporary shelter for abuse victims who have nowhere else to go.

Some of Talitha Kumi's clients are Christian, yet Ms. Ruth is clear that being non-Muslim doesn't liberate men and women from sexism. "The Christian church is very influenced by the dominant culture. We're really no different than the Muslims in terms of cultural values," she said.

Bishop Azariah says you can't blame it all on men. "There are Muslim women who are deeply fundamentalist who are not pushing for more freedom for women. And there are some Christian women, also fundamentalists, who feel that women should stay at home. Anything which is deeply fundamentalist can be dangerous. And we have plenty of fundamentalism in Pakistan," he said.

This conflict came to a head in the Church of Pakistan over the ordination of women. Two deaconesses were ordained in the Diocese of Raiwind in 2000, but not without "a lot of hue and cry about it," according to Ms. Ruth. "The men and even a large number of the women simply won't accept a woman in the pulpit or serving the eucharist," she said.

Both of the deaconesses are currently living outside of the country, but the women's program of the Church of Pakistan is sowing in hope: its top priority is theological education for women, followed closely by leadership development.

The globalization of tolerance

The power of fundamentalists can also be seen in the continuing controversy over the Hudood Ordinances, an obvious source of international embarrassment for Pakistan. While Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, would reportedly like to repeal the discriminatory laws, an attempt to do so would be ideological suicide. "Musharraf would really like to get rid of the Hudood laws, but his arms are tied," said Ms. Weiss, noting that some of the laws' original authors are today leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, Mr. Musharraf's main political opposition which has strengthened its political position by joining electoral alliances that have taken power in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province. "If he did, they would paint him as against Islam," she said.

Mr. Musharraf is generally popular among Christians, who compose roughly 2 percent of Pakistan's 163 million population. Although a Muslim, the president went to a church-related high school and college, and frequently shows up when invited to church-sponsored meetings. Indeed, the friendly relations he enjoys with most Christians may be more representative of interfaith attitudes than what is otherwise suggested by highly publicized episodes of church burning and other tensions.

"Being a Christian is very normal," said Sammar Nathaniel, an 18-year old biochemistry major at Kinnaird College for Women, a state-supported autonomous school in Lahore with strong church connections, including scholarship support from the Women's Division. Most students at Kinnaird are Muslim, but the school is a well-known bastion of secularism. "The respect between girls of different faiths is mutual. They respect us and we respect them, and many of my Muslim friends celebrate Christmas by exchanging gifts. But there are some differences, and the whole concept of the trinity is very confusing for them. They think we have three gods. We try to explain it, but they don't get it," Ms. Nathaniel said.

Globalization has in many ways encouraged tolerance, as Pakistanis are exposed to media images of secular societies where respect is at least encouraged, if not always practiced. Yet it has served as a double sword. According to Bishop Azariah, fundamentalists have labeled human rights proponents–especially feminists–as people who "have lost their own values and abandoned their own traditions in order to follow the west."

Women and their role in Pakistan, from the bedroom to the kitchen to the street, seem to be at the heart of a culture war over the future of Islam. Although Pakistan was the first Islamic republic to have a woman prime minister (Benazir Bhutto, who held office from 1988-1990 and again from 1993-1996), it's also a place where 6,000 police had to guard a January marathon in Lahore after fundamentalist Muslims tried to block the participation of women runners in the race.

While chasing after a woman runner to thrash her for immodesty makes for good copy in a foreign newspaper whose readers want to feel superior to supposedly backward people in South Asia, such incidents fail dismally to capture the complex situation of changing gender roles in Pakistan. Life is definitely changing for Pakistani women. "The people of Pakistan, the politicians, the educators, the church leaders are all talking about women's rights, gender issues, and the political participation of women, but you won't hear about that abroad. These things are happening everyday, but a small minority of the fundamentalists have taken over the whole image of the country. They have taken the image of Pakistan hostage," said Bishop Azariah.

It is difficult to judge what's happening with Pakistani women from outside their veils, but it would be a mistake to assume that women who wear the veil are automatically prisoners.

"There's a misperception here in the United States that men in Pakistan are not supportive, that the women are prisoners, that we are forced to cover ourselves fully and be modest. But trust me, women get their strength from that modesty. If we are covered we feel that we can go out and face the world," said Amarah Niazi, a woman from Pakistan studying at the University of Oregon under a Fulbright Fellowship.

"I value my culture and I appreciate its values, and I don't want to exchange them for others. I've learned a lot here in the U.S. but I will return home with an appreciation for my culture and its values," she said. Ms. Niazi noted that many teenage girls in the U.S. are getting pregnant at an age when she still didn't know what a boy looked like.

"I don't want development if it's equal to westernization. Westernization isn't bad, but I know who I am because I'm an eastern woman and it would be a mistake for me to think that in order to live our lives fully we have to become westernized," she said.

Ms. Niazi embraces the paradox of being a woman in her country. She favors full economic and political rights for women in Pakistan, but also says she's comfortable letting her parents choose her marriage partner. "I don't want to defy the culture, to stand out and say I'm different," she said. "I want to be different within the culture."