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World: In U.S., Pakistani Gang-Rape Victim Is Lauded For Courage

Mukhtar Mai, who has sought to eradicate the ignorance she blames for ordeals like her own (AFP) Three years ago, Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped in her Pakistani village, allegedly on the orders of a tribal gathering. Unusually for the victim of a so-called honor crime, she has been seeking justice for her ordeal ever since. In the process, she has drawn international attention  -- and praise -- for her courage. Mukhtar Mai (aka Mukhtaran Bibi) is now in the United States, where she is to receive an award.

Prague, 2 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It is the end of another day of interviews and meetings in and around Washington. Mukhtar Mai has been telling politicians and human rights groups about her horrific ordeal -- and how she has "raised a voice against oppression."

"My strength comes from God and because the whole world is by my side," Mai says. "I am very hopeful that, God willing, I will get justice."

Mai is in the United States to draw attention to the plight of women victims of violence in Pakistan and around the world.

But it is her own quest for justice after a gang rape that has won her praise.

On her visit, she has been lauded as a courageous champion for human rights.

Amna Buttar is the Pakistan-American doctor who has been accompanying and translating for Mai, whom she calls Mukhtar Bibi.

"Every one wants a piece of Mukhtar Bibi," Buttar says. "The American people have been very kind to her; they have gone to hear her story, sometimes they just want to come and hug her. When we were in Madison, Wisconsin, a restaurant owner recognized her and gave her lunch for free and a taxi driver recognized her and didn't charge her fare. [The tour is] giving people the opportunity to get to know her and ask about her struggle against oppression, feudalism, her advocacy against violence against women."

Mai's ordeal began three years ago when her little brother was said to have befriended 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, and she was gang-raped.

Unusually, Mai has sought justice for her attack.

It has been a long and complicated process. There have been convictions, followed by acquittals, and then re-arrests. Mai won compensation money, and she is now waiting for the Pakistani Supreme Court to review the case.

On this, her first trip abroad, she will be presented with a "Woman of the Year" award from the U.S. women's magazine "Glamour."

Spokeswoman Meg D'Incecco says the magazine chose Mai for her bravery and optimism.

"When she was awarded money from the government, she not only stayed in that town but she started schools with that money," D'Incecco says. "This is a person who's totally committed to the future, to helping hundreds of women who have come to her over the years seeking help after they have been attacked or threatened with physical or sexual violence. We really see Mukhtar Mai as the future of feminism in the world."

Mai's trip to the United States was itself the subject of controversy.

She had been invited earlier this summer, but Pakistani authorities put her on a list of people banned from traveling abroad.

That caused an outcry, and the ban was later lifted.

President Pervez Musharraf said he had wanted to protect Pakistan's image abroad.

But he provoked further outcry in September, when he suggested that rape had become a "money-making concern" and that many people viewed it as a way for the victim to get to the West.

The controversy has illustrated the sensitivity of high-profile rape cases like Mai's.

When asked about Mai's travel ban earlier this year, Musharraf says the government is actively working to improve women's rights. Pakistan has been singled out unfairly, he says -- violence against women is as big a problem in other countries, too.

But rights activists say the authorities are not doing enough to tackle honor crimes and amend laws that they say punish rape victims and not rapists.

They say recent prominent rape cases like Mai's have put the spotlight on a serious issue.

But Kamila Hyat of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission says she doubts Mai's U.S. tour will have much impact at home. That is because October's devastating earthquake continues to dominate people's attention.

"The natural calamity that has taken place here has taken the attention of everybody," Hyat says. "So there's been no impact from this particular visit. And in future it might enable the government to say, 'Well we allowed her to go abroad, didn't we?'"

Mai's U.S. visit ends on 12 November. She says she will then return to Pakistan and has no plans to emigrate. "You cannot fight," she says, "by leaving."