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Pakistan: Rape Case Spotlights Women's Rights

Mukhtar Mai leaving for Islamabad yesterday Three years ago, she was gang-raped in her Pakistani village, allegedly on the orders of a tribal gathering. Since then, Mukhtar Mai has sought justice for her attack, and in the process has drawn international attention to the plight of many women in rural Pakistan. On Monday, it's the turn of the Supreme Court to hear a case that has also caused some embarrassment to Pakistan's authorities.

Prague, 27 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In the dusty Punjabi village of Meerwala, small children play as women go about their household chores.

It wasn't far from here that Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped. Three years later, she told Reuters she has one wish -- justice for her attack.

"Right now I just have one wish that, God willing, there is a good decision of the case, like the first decision by the special court," she said. "They [the accused] should get the same punishment -- the death penalty, or some such thing."

It all began with an accusation about Mai's little brother. That summer, someone said he was seen walking with a girl from a more powerful clan. That clan's offended honor had to be preserved. But to settle the score, a gathering of village leaders allegedly ordered Mai be punished instead.

Her gang rape -- and subsequent quest for justice -- caused headlines around the world.

"It has helped focus attention on a major issue in the country," Kamila Hyat of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said. She says it's relatively rare for a woman to be gang-raped as punishment for someone else's alleged wrongdoing.
"They [honor crimes] remain fairly common, [some] 1,000 women are killed each year in the name of honor usually by close relatives, most often the husbands, or the brothers or fathers or other family members." - Kamila Hyat

But she says other so-called honor crimes are still common in Pakistan -- like the hundreds of women killed each year because they are judged to have sullied the family's honor.

"They [honor crimes] remain fairly common, [some] 1,000 women are killed each year in the name of honor usually by close relatives, most often the husbands, or the brothers or fathers or other family members," Hyat said. "In well over 60 percent of the cases people are not punished for the crime."

Unusually, Mai pursued her case through the courts -- and saw six men convicted and sentenced to death for her rape.

But then, in March, things got more complicated. Five of the convicted men were acquitted. Twelve men were then arrested. But Lahore's High Court earlier this month ordered their release. Today, it's the Supreme Court's turn to hear the case.

Another problem emerged this month -- Mai's plans to speak about her ordeal abroad. Human rights groups invited her to the United States. But Pakistani authorities put her on a list of people barred from traveling abroad. That prompted a strong rebuke from U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on 15 June.

"We were confronted with what I can only say was an outrageous situation, where her attackers were ordered to be freed, while she had restrictions on her travel placed on her," McCormack said.

That ban has since been lifted, and Pakistan authorities have reportedly promised to return Mai's confiscated passport. But it's highlighted how sensitive the case is for the government of President Pervez Musharraf.

He was asked about the travel ban when he visited New Zealand on 17 June. Musharraf said he had wanted to protect Pakistan's image abroad, and that his country is already the victim of poor perceptions that don't match reality. He said Pakistan is no worse than other developing countries in terms of violence against women.

And at an earlier meeting the same day with journalists, he said his regime is working to improve women's rights. "We had a woman prime minister in the past. Ask her what she did for women. And then come and see what I have done for women in Pakistan. You'll find a difference like between sky and earth," he said. "That's what I have done for women in Pakistan and we continue to do it. I am extremely concerned about women's rights and women's issues in Pakistan and we are moving ahead to emancipate their lot through education, through health -- women and child care -- and through empowering them politically. We are moving ahead on all these issues. So let me assure you that a man in uniform will take care of women's rights."

Musharraf last year called for a public debate on a highly controversial set of Islamic laws locally known as the “Hudood Ordinance,” which particularly discriminates against women.

One of those laws requires female rape victims to obtain court testimony from four “pious” male Muslims to prove her case. If she fails to produce those witnesses during trial, she is liable for prosecution for adultery and can be sent to jail.

Human rights activists say the Hudood Ordinance, introduced in 1979, has led to a increase of rape cases because it places women in such a weak legal position. However, repeal of the ordinance is strongly opposed by conservative Islamists.

Hyat of the Human Rights Commission says authorities are not doing enough. She says tougher legislation to curb honor killings was passed last year, but that the new law is still weak and there has been no drop in the number of such killings. "I believe and [our commission] believes that to improve Pakistan's image in the world you need to take more action to prevent crimes against women, not to prevent people from telling their story," she said.

With the help of compensation money and donations, Mai has set up two schools in her village. She says this gives her hope for the future. "When these boys study, the girls study, they gain a little knowledge and understanding," she said. "When these boys grow up, God willing, circumstances will improve in my region."

Mai is scheduled to attend today's hearing. After that -- if she gets her passport -- she says she may finally go abroad.

(Reuters and Mohammed Tahir of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

See also: South Asia: Recent Killings, Violence Underscore Lack Of Progress In Gender Justice