Person of the Week: Mukhtar Mai

ByABC News

Oct. 21, 2005 — -- Three years ago, Mukhtar Mai was brutally raped in her remote village in Pakistan. After a long struggle, Pakistan's supreme court convicted her attackers, and she's only able to talk about it now.

"I feel very happy, and God will look after me in the future," she said. "I am very, very hopeful that I will get justice."

Tomorrow Mai will travel to New York, her first trip out of Pakistan, to receive Glamour magazine's "Woman of the Year" award. And she'll travel around the country to speak on the plight of rural women.

"We look for strength. We look for persistence -- a woman of the year is someone who believes that women can do whatever they set their mind to, and Mukhtar illustrates those qualities better than anybody," said Cindi Leive, Glamour's editor in chief. "This is a story that's going to shock everyone who hears it."

Mai, 33, has never been allowed to attend school in a village traditionally dominated by men. In the rural Pakistan area where she lived, it is common for women to be used as an example to settle disputes, and sometimes women are even traded to resolve problems.

Mai herself was at the center of such a dispute three years ago. Her younger brother was accused of insulting a more powerful neighboring clan. Mukhtar was told that if she begged for her brother's pardon she would be able to clear the family name.

"It was in my mind that this is the tradition of the head of the council -- that if a lady goes there, then he places his hand on the head of the woman and he says, 'OK, you are excused.'"

But that's not what happened. Members of the all-male council attacked and raped her.

"There, in the presence of 200 people, four men took me and they abused me. I told them, they're like my brothers, not to do this. But they did not listen to me," she said.

When it was over, Mai was forced to walk home half-naked and publicly disgraced.

"Not only have you been completely shamed, you have shamed your entire family," said New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. "And the way to wipe that out is to commit suicide. And that's the expectation across rural Pakistan."

But Mai's reaction was quite the opposite. She pressed charges against the rapists, and 14 men were arrested. Then, at great personal risk, she testified against her attackers in court. Six of the men were found guilty, and one was sentenced to death.

The case made international headlines. The embarrassed Pakistani government awarded Mai a sum equivalent to nearly 20 times the average annual Pakistani salary.

She could have moved away and started a new life. But instead, Mai used the money to build two local schools.

"Education is power. People can be trampled on if they are not educated. But if they are educated they can fight back," she said.

After the trial, the accused men appealed their sentences, and the province let five of them go free. Mai feared for her safety, but she pressed on.

Pakistan's supreme court later took the case and ruled in her favor. All 14 of the rapists and their accomplices are now in prison.

"Sexual violence is an issue for women in every country, and if a woman like Mukhtar Mai can speak out against it with such incredible odds, then really she can be an example for women globally," said Nisha Varia of Human Rights Watch.

In fact, Mai is doing just that.

"I've gained a lot of strength from building the school," she said. "I would not be alive today if I had not gained this strength, and I have more faith in Pakistan because of this."

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