This is the season for Indo-Pak bonhomie. Apart from cricket, old friends and colleagues are meeting, people are opening up their homes and their hearts to the visitors from across the border and Abida Parveen has spun her Sufi magic for the lucky few. The road from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad is steadily inching forward in preparation for the first bus on April 7 and there is an undeniable air of optimism. We can only keep our fingers crossed that this is not just a passing "hawa" that will blow away but a sentiment that will translate itself into hard reality before too long.
In June 2002, 30-year-old Mukhtar was publicly gang-raped in Meerwala, Pakistan. She was punished because her young brother was rumoured to have been seen in the company of a girl from a rival tribe. When Mukhtar rushed to the tribal court to plead for her brother, he was let off but she was handed out this punishment to set an example to others. Four "volunteers" raped her, she was beaten and paraded naked before her father covered her with a shawl and took her home.
The story could have ended there. But it did not. Mukhtar's family and a close group of her friends decided to take up the matter. Mukhtar is an educated woman and taught Islam to children in her village.
The local cleric from the mosque came to her aid and spoke up against the crime. He joined her friends who demanded that the rapists be punished. The case became known in Pakistan and many groups supported her. As a result, her case was brought to trial is a special court and in July 2002, six of the accused were handed the death sentence. Mukhtar was awarded a compensation that she used to start a school for girls.
The convicted men appealed the ruling of the special court and earlier this month, on March 3, the Lahore High Court overturned the earlier ruling. It appeared as if all was lost. Even though women's groups rallied around Mukhtar Mai and on March 8, International Women's Day, they demonstrated their support for her, Mukhtar feared the future now that the perpetrators of the crime were to be freed.
Once again, she was lucky. On March 12, the Federal Shariat Court overruled the Lahore High Court and has ordered a re-trial. This has given Mukhtar some reason for hope and a greater sense of security as the men remain in jail. However, the Shariat Court will re-examine the case according to the Hudood Ordinance, which holds out very little hope for rape victims.
In Pakistan, Mukhtar's story is not unique. According to women's activists, just in the first half of 2004, over 150 women were raped on orders from tribal courts, a detestable custom called "karo kari". They have been demanding a law to ban this, but have had little luck so far. But Mukhtar Mai's struggle certainly holds out an inspiring example to other women who might feel that life was not worth living after such a horrendous experience.
In India, we might not have "karo kari" but we have other types of honour killings where women are punished for crimes committed by others. But the case of sexual violence against women that needs greater attention is what is happening in Kerala, a state where literacy levels are the highest in the country. Just as the women in Pakistan were horrified earlier this month at the ruling of the Lahore High Court, in Kerala, the January 2005 ruling of the Kerala High Court has galvanised a cross-section of groups concerned about the growing sexual crimes in the State.
What has come to be known as the Suryanelli case involves a minor girl from Suryanelli in Idukki district who was lured into a sex racket in January 1996. For more than a month, this girl was taken from place to place and repeatedly raped by 42 men including politicians, advocates and businessmen. When the traumatised and injured girl finally returned to her family, people were shocked to hear her story. The family filed a complaint and a special court in Kottayam convicted 36 men for their involvement in the crime in July 13, 2002.
But just as "karo-kari" and rape as punishment is a crime difficult to punish in Pakistan, rape and trafficking of young girls seems an impossible crime to deal with in India. In Kerala alone there are a growing number of such cases that are emerging. And at the moment, there seems little to stop them from increasing. Young, gullible girls get lured by promises of jobs and instead get embroiled in the flesh trade. If courts do not respond when a few of them are brave enough to get out and complain, then the others will see no hope for themselves.
Mukhtar Mai's story has not yet ended. But the way she has fought up to now is an uplifting example for all women, not just those who are victims of sexual crimes.