Nirupama Subramanian

Mukhtaran Mai’s marriage has left Pakistan’s feminists somewhat confused and a little disappointed, with some seeing it as a betrayal and others saying it must be seen “in context.”

Mukhtaran Mai. For several years now, the name has symbolised one woman’s brave fightback against Pakistan’s repressive feudal system and its brutal customs. In 2002, Ms Mai was gang-raped by a group of men, allegedly on the orders of a panchayat at Meerwala, a village in Muzzafargarh district of southern Punjab. The rape was the punishment for alleged adultery by her 12-year-old brother. The charge was apparently fabricated. Instead of quietly accepting her fate as other women might have done, Ms Mai battled it out in courts. Several of the men involved in the rape were jailed as a result, and the case is still being heard in the Supreme Court.

For her courage, she became an icon of the women’s movement in Pakistan, which has struggled valiantly for over three decades against repression of women by both society and the state. She also achieved an international celebrity status, much to the chagrin of the former President, Pervez Musharraf. At one point, he tried to prevent her from travelling abroad saying she was bringing the country a bad name.

Ms Mai is now back in the news, this time for an entirely different reason, one that has left Pakistan’s feminists somewhat confused and a little disappointed, with some seeing it as a betrayal and others saying the latest developments in her life must be seen “in context.”

Last week, around the same time as the nation watched transfixed the unfolding drama of the “long march,” the 37-year-old got married to a police constable — becoming his second wife. In the process, she also ended up complicit in the practice of watta satta. This is a custom prevalent in the Sindh province and southern Punjab in which men marry each other’s sisters. While some say the practice actually helps curb domestic violence — if a husband beats his wife, he risks his sister being treated in the same way — women are also known to suffer in silence for fear of disrupting another household. But in either case, it treats women as pawns, disempowering them completely and for this reason it is opposed by rights groups.

In a telephone interview with The Hindu earlier last week, Ms Mai spoke about her decision to marry constable Nasir Abbas Gabol, who apparently fell in love with her when he was posted as her security guard against the men she had named for the rape.

“He used to call me on the phone all the time. I would talk to him just like I talk to anyone else. Sometimes, I would be irritated with him for calling so often, and at times, I would even make someone else answer the phone because it was troublesome to answer all his calls,” Ms Mai said.

That did not cool his ardour, and some 18 months ago, according to Ms Mai, it began to get serious. “He went to my home in my absence and asked my parents if he could marry me. They agreed but when I heard about it, I refused point blank,” she said. She turned him down two more times. Mr. Gabol then tried to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills.

Ms Mai said her main reason for rejecting him was that he was already married. He has five children from this marriage. “Only a woman knows a woman’s pain when her marriage is disrupted,” she said. In this case, Ms Mai refused even though Shumaila, the first wife, and her brothers approached her parents after Mr. Gabol’s suicide attempt and appealed to them to persuade Mukhtaran to marry him.

Ms Mai said it was around this time that she too developed “feelings” for Mr. Gabol. “After all, I am a woman, and I felt he must really like me to go to such an extent.” But, “I kept control on myself.”

It was only after Mr. Gabol’s wife approached her directly and asked her to marry her husband in order to save her own marriage, said Ms Mai, did she finally give in. The constable had threatened Shumaila with divorce. But it would not have stopped at that. Shumaila’s two brothers are married to Mr. Gabol’s sisters; one divorce would have led to two “honour” divorces.

“The first thing is that in Islam, [taking a second wife] is permitted; and secondly, my decision to marry him was in the considered interests of everybody, of three other women, and that was the main reason for the decision,” said Ms Mai.

Ms Mai might have saved three women from divorce but the saga has posed new questions for the women’s movement in Pakistan, already grappling with the implications for women of a de facto Taliban rule in Swat and other parts of the North West Frontier Province. Should women continue to struggle for their rights as absolute and non-negotiable? Or is it better to take a more pragmatic approach, and subordinate or adapt themselves to the specific setting or culture, however anti-women it might be, just in order to survive? In the context of Swat, would this mean accepting that women have no right to education or to employment, because death is the alternative?

For Tahira Abdullah, who has been part of the Women’s Action Forum for over three decades, storming the barricades from General Zia-ul-Haq’s time to General Musharraf’s, for causes ranging from the abolition of the Hudood laws to the restoration of Chief Justice Chaudhary, Ms Mai’s decision is nothing less than betrayal.

“Mukhtaran Mai became an icon of resistance, strength, courage and bravery all over the world, and particularly for downtrodden Pakistani women. She has received accolades and awards worldwide as a symbol of extraordinary resolve and character. She has come crashing down from that pedestal now,” Ms Abdullah said in a written statement to The Hindu.

According to her, instead of succumbing to typical “blackmail,” Ms Mai should have sought legal recourse and official help. A single woman herself, self-admittedly in an entirely different cultural context, Ms Abdullah expressed anger at the “unacceptable and untrue” image Ms Mai may have projected with her marriage, of Pakistani women as “incapable of surviving alone as single, unmarried or divorced women in a patriarchal and even misogynist feudal social structure.”

On the other hand, many in the women’s rights movement are prepared to accept Ms Mai’s decision as a product of her particular environment in which choices before a woman are limited.

Khawar Mumtaz, another veteran of the women’s movement, who heads the Lahore-based Shirkat Gah women’s organisation, said despite her fundamental opposition to a woman agreeing to become a man’s second wife, and her opposition to the “abhorrent” practice of watta satta, it was difficult to pass judgment on Ms Mai’s actions from a purist feminist perspective.

Her questionable marriage should not be allowed to take away from the bravery of her past actions, Ms Mumtaz said. “I wouldn’t want to be overly critical. A lot will depend on whether she can stay her course, if she can continue to stand up for women, or she will become a stereotype”.

Also within feminist circles is the view that Ms Mai’s iconic status was not of her own making but something “thrust on her” and, therefore, not something to which she should be held hostage.

Beena Sarwar, a Pakistani journalist who made an award-winning documentary on Ms Mai’s life (Mukhtaran Mai: The Struggle for Justice), said when all is said and done, she was an ordinary woman living in the extremely female-unfriendly environment of southern Punjab. Ms Sarwar said Ms Mai could even be seen as having provided an “alternate feminist justification” in marrying a man as his second wife in order to secure the lives of the other three women involved.

Not just that, Ms Mai also placed conditions on Mr. Gabol to ensure that he would not neglect his first wife. The constable must give Rs.10,000 from his Rs.13,000 salary to Shumaila every month. Ms Mai made him write over his house and land to the first wife. While she will continue to live in Meerwala, where she runs three schools for girls, a resource centre to advise women with problems, a woman’s shelter and a 24-hour helpline for women, Ms Mai said she wants him to spend as much time as he can with his children from the first marriage.

“I have made no demands on his time or money. All the conditions were for the first wife,” said Ms Mai. She described her relationship with Shumaila as one of mutual affection.

Farzana Bari of the Gender Studies Department of Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University also expressed discomfort with the idea of Ms Mai as a fallen icon. “She’s not a feminist, she’s not an educated person, she does not have any personal politics. Yes, because of her own experience, she has an oppositional consciousness, but without really knowing why. It’s other people who want her to be something that she is not. It’s their problem, not hers. She has a right to get along with her life,” Ms Bari said.

Ms Mai herself is somewhat troubled by the debate she has set off but is still confident that she did the right thing. “People will criticise and say so many things, but I believe in myself,” she said, and expressed determination “to continue all the work I have been doing to improve the lives of women.”