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July 17, 2002
Account of Punjab Rape Tells of a Brutal Society
EERWALA, Pakistan, July 14 The same haunting detail surfaces in the stories of everyone involved, including the woman, one of the four men who raped her, and the imam who finally broke the silence about the case. That detail is her pleading.
"When Khaliq dragged me away, I said, 'Khaliq, I am like a sister to you,' " said Mukhtaran Bibi, 28, who is now a thin, sleepless and frightened woman. "He did not listen to me. I even said, 'In the name of the Koran, please forgive me.' I asked the whole council for forgiveness, to save my honor."
"But nobody listened," she said. "They took me inside. And they raped me."
Gang rape, horrifying as it is, is not uncommon in this part of southern Punjab. What has shocked Pakistan is that a tribal council here, for the first time anyone can remember, decreed gang rape as a punishment to avenge an episode of illicit sex one that probably never happened in the first place.
Ms. Bibi was raped on June 22, but word moved slowly out of this dusty farming village, which lacks even a paved road. In the last week, the government has arrested 18 people amid public angst that many basics in Pakistani life collided to cause this crime: women's low status, everyday violence, the weak reach of central authority, the injustices of a feudal society obsessed with honor and revenge.
"A representative, consultative body, though it is informal and illegal, sanctioned a gang rape," said Naeem Mirza, of the Aurat Foundation, a women's rights group. "It has shocked the entire conscience of a society."
The story of what happened is complicated, a tale of sex and power and tribal custom in a part of southern Punjab Province that is "in the back of beyond, even in Pakistan," as one government minister described it. The dispute occurred between two tribal families here: the Mastoi, who own much land and do well, and the lowly Gujar, who own little.
Ms. Bibi's family is Gujar. On June 22, the family and the police contend, three Mastoi men kidnapped Ms. Bibi's youngest brother, Abdul Shakur, a tall boy who said he was 11 or 12. They took him to a sugar cane field. Then they took turns sodomizing him a fact that medical experts later confirmed.
"They asked me if I would tell my family," Abdul recalled. "When I said yes, they beat me up. Then they locked me up in a room."
The police were notified that Abdul was being held in the house of a young Mastoi, Abdul Khaliq. When they arrived, they found Mr. Khaliq's sister, Salma Naseen, in the same room with Abdul Shakur. The Mastoi said the woman, who is in her late 20's, and the boy were having an affair. (A government investigation later said Abdul was too young to "meet the sexual lust of any opposite sex.")
The police took Abdul away, but held him in a cell. Meanwhile, the Mastoi convened the tribal council, or panchayat, and decided to avenge the honor of Ms. Naseen.
Panchayats have operated for centuries, settling small disputes involving fights between families or over land. But in recent years, many say, they have been handing down ever harsher punishments.
Both the Gujar still unaware of what had happened to Abdul, who remained at the police station and the Mastoi now say they both favored the same means of resolving the dispute: that Abdul would marry Ms. Naseen. And, to satisfy the honor of the Mastois, one of Abdul's five sisters would be given away in marriage to a Mastoi man.
But the Gujars say the panchayat was calling not for marriage but for punitive rape. There seemed an escape hatch though, according to Ghulam Farid, 60, Ms. Bibi's father. He said a member of the panchayat said it would be enough if one of his daughters went before them and apologized on behalf of the family.
Ms. Bibi, who is divorced and teaches the Koran to children, was chosen.
"I did not think anything like this would happen," she said. She went to the cotton field where the panchayat was meeting and, begging for mercy, was dragged away with the council's blessing by Abdul Khaliq, the police say. Her father said he was held at gunpoint.
For an hour and a half, Mr. Khaliq and three other men raped her. A police investigator said the Mastoi "danced in jubilation." Then Ms. Bibi was forced, before perhaps 300 people, to walk home naked.
This year so far, there have been 72 gang rapes and 93 other rapes documented in densely populated Punjab Province alone, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The rapists are often higher-caste men, the victims usually lower-caste women, as in the case here. In this case, the rape appears to have been meant as the worst punishment possible.
"What happens in war?" asked Attiya Inayatullah, the nation's minister for women's development. "Rape is used as a tool of war. Similarly here, rape has been used as the ultimate humiliation."
Ms. Bibi's rape by decree might never have come to light; the family was afraid to fill in the blanks for the police. But a local imam, Abdul Razzaq, 40, heard about it. Though Ms. Bibi's father would not say much, Mr. Razzaq took a risk with his own safety by addressing the case during Friday Prayers almost a week later.
"I condemned this incident: that a poor girl had been raped and that they had invited the wrath of Allah," he said. "Such a barbaric and oppressive injustice has never been witnessed before."
Mr. Razzaq believes in the panchayat as a way for poor people to resolve their disputes, often according to Islamic law. But this, he said, was "against the spirit of Islam.
"This was not a panchayat," he said. "This was their cruelty."
After the imam's sermon, local journalists picked up the story and it began to spread, in conflicting accounts that at first left out the story of sodomy. Then the Pakistani government began moving, quickly arresting all four men accused of raping Ms. Bibi, including a police officer and some members of the panchayat.
So far, six men face the death penalty, among them Mr. Khaliq, 18, and the reported leader of the panchayat, Faiz Bux, 34.
Today, the two men stood chained together in jail. Mr. Bux said it was all a mistake and that his "heart melted" at Ms. Bibi's pleas for forgiveness. The council did not hand down a sentence of rape, he said: Mr. Khaliq did it all himself.
"This is his ignorance, his shortsightedness," he said. "He got really emotional."
Mr. Khaliq, however, said he was in fact given permission to "take revenge." But he said he listened to Ms. Bibi's cries for forgiveness: "I didn't rape her. I just held her for two or three minutes."
The case has prompted an outpouring of calls for the government to crack down on the panchayats. Critics say a slow blurring of tribal and Islamic law has increased the councils' authority as well as their impunity.
"People are under the illusion there is something Islamic about the councils, that somehow they have a sanction," said Beena Sarwar, a journalist and women's rights activist. "So the government is very careful not to offend them."
"They need to come down very heavily on the tribal councils," she added. "This is the time to say there is no tribal law. This is the time to say there is only one law of the land."
Ms. Inayatullah, the women's minister, and other officials say the government has taken extraordinary steps both to punish the suspects and not least through publicizing the case to prevent something similar from happening elsewhere. But human rights officials say it is too early to say whether a government with much on its plate also has the will to improve the plight of poor women and monitor methods of tribal justice.
A contingent of heavily armed soldiers now guards Ms. Bibi and her family. The nation's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, sent her $8,300 as compensation. The government has promised the village a paved road, electricity, a permanent police outpost and a school to be named for Ms. Bibi, where she will be a teacher.
Ms. Bibi said she finds some comfort in this. But she cannot sleep. Her family says she eats almost nothing. "I feel so enraged," she said. "If these people came in front of me, I would kill them."
She said she has considered suicide, the route a teenager in a nearby village recently took after she, too, was gang raped. But now, she said, she wants to live to see her tormentors hanged.
"Initially, I thought it was a matter of great shame," she said. "Now, I think there should be justice."