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Horror and Hope

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 18 years ago, in 2004, on the World Wide Web.

From Pakistan, there is a horrifying and completely ordinary tale.

In June 2002, the police say, members of a high-status tribe sexually abused one of Ms. Mukhtaran’s brothers and then covered up their crime by falsely accusing him of having an affair with a high-status woman. The village’s tribal council determined that the suitable punishment for the supposed affair was for high-status men to rape one of the boy’s sisters, so the council sentenced Ms. Mukhtaran to be gang-raped.

. . .

In Pakistan’s conservative Muslim society, Ms. Mukhtaran’s duty was now clear: she was supposed to commit suicide. “Just like other women, I initially thought of killing myself,” said Ms. Mukhtaran, now 30. Her older brother, Hezoor Bux, explained: “A girl who has been raped has no honorable place in the village. Nobody respects the girl, or her parents. There’s a stigma, and the only way out is suicide.”

A girl in the next village was gang-raped a week after Ms. Mukhtaran, and she took the traditional route: she swallowed a bottle of pesticide and dropped dead.

But there is something extraordinary, too: Ms. Mukhtaran survived, fought back, won a victory for justice and struck a fragile note of hope.

But instead of killing herself, Ms. Mukhtaran testified against her attackers and propounded the shocking idea that the shame lies in raping, rather than in being raped. The rapists are now on death row, and President Pervez Musharraf presented Ms. Mukhtaran with the equivalent of $8,300 and ordered round-the-clock police protection for her.

Ms. Mukhtaran, who had never gone to school herself, used the money to build one school in the village for girls and another for boys – because, she said, education is the best way to achieve social change. The girls’ school is named for her, and she is now studying in its fourth-grade class.

Unfortunately, that note of hope is fragile not only because of the terrible crime that Ms. Mukhtaran survived, but also because the Pakistani government is threatening to undo, by neglect, the remarkable victory that Ms. Mukhtaran won.

But the Pakistani government has neglected its pledge to pay the schools’ operating expenses. “The government made lots of promises, but it hasn’t done much,” Ms. Mukhtaran said bluntly.

She has had to buy food for the police who protect her, as well as pay some school expenses. So, she said, “I’ve run out of money.” Unless the schools can raise new funds, they may have to close.

Meanwhile, villagers say that relatives of the rapists are waiting for the police to leave and then will put Ms. Mukhtaran in her place by slaughtering her and her entire family.

Don’t let it end in tragedy. You can send contributions directly to Ms. Bibi by writing a check directly to Mukhtaran Bibi and sending it to:

Nicholas Kristof<br/> The New York Times<br/> 229 West 43rd St.<br/> New York, NY 10036

Or directly to Ms. Bibi by international post at:

Mukhtaran Bibi<br/> Meerwala<br/> Tehsil Jatoi<br/> Post Office Wadowallah<br/> District Muzaffargarh<br/> Punjab<br/> Pakistan

Any amount of money, no matter how small, helps. (Remember that theschools themselves were established on about US$8,500.) Do it. Now. It’ll mean a lot more than anything else you accomplish by sitting around on the Internet. After you’ve done it, you can read my kvetching about Nicholas Kristof below, but this is more important.

Sent whatever you can already? Good. Now, let’s be clear: this is an important story, and one that’s very important to hear. But it is, alas, a tale told by an idiot: for all the useful information conveyed, half of the point of the article is to give Nicholas Kristof an opportunity, once again, to strike a pose as the wealthy, world-traveling white man who finds himself the only one ready to rescue the long-suffering women of the Third World. Katha Politt hit the nail on the head (in her comments on a previous series of columns) when she pointed out the well-worn cultural position that Kristof is taking, and the all-too-evident results:

To tell you the truth, I thought those columns were a little weird–there’s such a long tradition of privileged men rescuing individual prostitutes as a kind of whirlwind adventure. You would never know from the five columns he wrote about young Srey Neth and Srey Mom, that anyone in Cambodia thought selling your daughter to a brothel was anything but wonderful. I wish he had given us the voices of some Cambodian activists–for starters, the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)–both of which are skeptical about brothel raids and rescues, which often dump traumatized girls on local NGOs that lack the resources to care for them.

. . .

You can see the narrative in the process of creation: Third World women are victims; American men are saviors. Right-wing Christians care about Third World women; feminists only care about themselves. Meanwhile, Equality Now fights the good fight on spit and a nickel, as Bien-Aimé says, and gets ignored.

The most recent column is no different: Kristof writes with no awareness and clearly without any interest in existing feminist efforts on the ground in Pakistan or here in the United States. Says Kristof:

We in the West could help chip away at that oppression, with health and literacy programs and by simply speaking out against it, just as we once stood up against slavery and totalitarianism. But instead of standing beside fighters like Ms. Mukhtaran, we’re still sitting on the fence.

No word is given on what Pakistanis are already doing to chip away at the oppression or what we in America and Europe should be doing in support of those efforts. Meanwhile, the Feminist Majority already reported on this story more than two years ago and drew attention to the hard-fighout uphill victories being fought for by Pakistani organizations struggling for women’s human rights and against gender violence in Pakistan–among them Rozan, Women’s Action Forum, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Recent coverage from BlackFeminism.org recommends Irshad Manji‘s work, The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. And a reader of Kristof’s column responds:

I just read your article Sentenced to be Raped. I agree with you that this form of abuse of women is absolutely abominable, and ought to be condemned and fought against, and think it is positive that journalists are still concerned with this story.

However, I was extremely shocked to read the following paragraph: So although I did not find Osama, I did encounter a much more ubiquitous form of evil and terror: a culture, stretching across about half the globe, that chews up women and spits them out. Which culture are you referring to here? Islam? South-east Asia? The developing world as a whole?

As a secular feminist British Lebanese woman who was reading your column out of interest for the American media, I am astounded that a journalist would make such base sweeping generalisations – the type of ignorant, arrogant, racist generalisations the people you are criticising make.

Kristof, for his part, misses the point entirely:

Sorry, Jasmine, but I stand by what I wrote. I was referring to a culture in which discrimination against females means that they die in large numbers, and you see it in the population statistics.

Of course, the culture in Meerwala is one such culture; and unfortunately cultures of that sort are widespread in some developing countries. But Kristof reveals more than he might have hoped when he goes on to explain that what he meant was:

The culture I’m describing isn’t Muslim, although many Islamic countries suffer from it. It’s also found in Hindu India and Confucian areas in rural China, as well as animist parts of Africa. And to write about the fate of women there isn’t racism, it’s reality.

But his commentator never objected to writing about the fate of women in many parts of the world. She pointed out, rightly, that Kristof is not referring to any one culture at all here. Kristof admits this, but doesn’t realize that he is admitting anything. There is no one culture that is found in Muslim countries, Hindu India, Confucian areas in rural China, as well as animist parts of Africa. What Kristof has described is not a culture he “discovered”, but rather a form of culture. That form is patriarchy, which appears in more or less inhuman forms in many cultures all over the world–including our own. But Kristof is indifferent to criticizing patriarchy just as he is indifferent to the feminists who do it; so instead of a critique of male supremacy both here and abroad, and a recognition of the horrifying effects that male supremacist cultures have in many parts of the world that are very different from one another, he invents a mythical culture, stretching across half the globe, with no uniting feature at all except that they are not part of We in the West, and pronounces them one and all uniquely toxic to women. That’s classical colonial racism, not reality, and it helps not one whit in the existing feminist struggle, all across the globe, for women’s liberation.

3 replies to Horror and Hope Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Sam Haque

    Charles is right. This is one of the reasons East Pakistan revolted from (West) Pakistan in 1971 to form Bangladesh. Atrocities committed against women are indeed widespread in Islamic dictatorships, but there are examples of Islamic societies which do not tolerate this kind of treatment towards women.

    The Prime Minister of the predominantly Muslim Bangladesh is a woman. And my mother, who is from Bangladesh, has Masters Degrees in Electrical Engineering and Physics.

    In all honesty, there is not much that little that be done in Pakistan right now when it comes to women’s rights. It is a patriarchical society and a military dictatorship. America is a little better in this regard, but it functions very much within that system and is not antagonistically towards it.

    Maybe once the War on “Terror” is over America can begin to fight an actual War on Terror.

  2. Sam Haque

    I feel it necessary to apologize for the horrible grammar and usage in that last post.

  3. Nadir

    Some observations:

    Pakistan is indeed backward when it comes to women, but it is not standing still. Pakistan was the first Muslim country to elect a woman as head of government. Pakistan’s fertility rate has been falling for over a decade now, and is dropping faster than any other country in the world except China.

    The Mukhtaran case was a horrific and bizarre event that quickly became headline news in Pakistan and generated widespread revulsion in the country. So everybody with an ideology tried to turn the story, sometimes by exaggeration or embellishment, into a lesson of some sort.

    Kristof is following the same pattern. Contrast his story with the one at this link: http://omniknow.com/scripts/wiki.php?term=Mukhtaran_Bibi

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