Mukhtar Mai – Media and Misogyny

My piece for DAWN

As if the showering of rose petals on Mumtaz Qadri and the release of a new Urdu book ‘Parwana-i-Shama-i-Risalat’ extolling him were not enough, Mukhtar Mai’s plight in today’s Pakistan is simply depressing.

Within hours after the Supreme Court’s split verdict on her was announced, Pakistan once again appeared as a divided polity. The medieval minds in media and intelligentsia were quick to harp on the soundness of the Court’s verdict while those who were sympathetic to Mai’s cause were dismayed.

Such divisions are rooted in our social structures, history and more recently the ideology sponsored by a national security state which plays up a patriarchal protector, eulogises a male saviour and renders the feminine invisible.

It has been a nauseating experience to follow the media debates on Mukhtar Mai and much has now been written about a TV host’s insensitive and totally uncalled for verbal attack on her. Worse, the participants of the shows, echoing the mindset of the Urdu press, were abusive towards the women activists who had championed Mai’s case. Labelling these activists as money-grabbing NGO-ised opportunists, the almost decade long struggle was trashed.

However, in all fairness, there were brave exceptions too. Nasim Zehra highlighted Mukhtar Mai’s issue in detail and was not shy of questioning the larger logic and context of the majority judgment of the Supreme Court.

Yet, we have seen few critiques of the judgment from the lawyers of Pakistan. Professional conduct and interests prevent several lawyers to speak up even when they privately are not convinced of certain portions of the judgment. One has to live with the Court’s judgments but in this case, this was the last forum where Mai could have received ‘complete justice’ to use a constitutional phrase. However, the brilliant Aitzaz Ahsan has already issued a press release mentioning why he is going to file a review petition for his client, Mukhtar Mai. So all is not lost. Perhaps not yet.

The simple truth is that Mai faces the triple burden of marginality: she is a woman, low-caste and poor and therefore her challenge to Pakistani public discourse is alarming for many power centres including the state. This is why a moderate, secular party like the PPP is displaying divisions in its ranks. PPP’s voice of sanity Sherry Rehman is asking the state to defend Mukhtar Mai in her review petition while the local MNA Jamshed Dasti, otherwise a champion of the poor, is opposed to Mukhtaran Mai and denies that she was gang raped. Dasti’s power base comprising the local tribes, castes and his positioning as a patriarch are also challenged by the outspoken Mai who has emerged from the backwaters of Pakistan into national and global limelight and wants ‘justice’ to override local power-relations, casteism, male dominated political arena and customary law patently against women rights.

But the right wing misogynists have also made their mark on social media. Countless emails and Internet forums are replete with the Musharrafesque worldview regurgitating the patriarchal, martial and false nationalistic line: Mukhtar Mai enacted the rape drama to make millions and to defame Pakistan.

Our brave General Musharraf of Kargil-victory-fame will be remembered in history to have said that women bring rape charges to secure asylum in foreign countries. This official proclamation from an all-powerful head of the state will always haunt the conscience of Pakistan. For instance, see this comment on a social networking site by a seemingly educated person:

“…She {Mai} has sold out her honor for dollars and has got benefits from USA and
western countries and now Mukhtar Bibi is a millionaire. If justice has not been done with her, it was a fault of Advocate Aitzaz Ahsan, Asma Jehangir, Farzana Bari, and various other so called westernised NGO ladies who did not plead her case professionally and are now maligning the courts just to get more funds from the west for creating anarchy in the society. The champions of women rights do not raise their voices for Dr. Aafia Siddiqi.”

What is this obsession with NGOs and dollars? It is kosher to allow Wahabi zealots to finance jihad all over Pakistan and it is also acceptable for the state to take the begging bowl each year to multilaterals to meet wasteful expenditures (and ensure rents). But if citizenry mobilises resources for pro-women causes, this becomes an issue of national honour and corruption. Strange logic, indeed.

In a similar vein, the activists blamed for making money by using Mukhtar Mai is also a ridiculous argument. The use of this hyper-nationalistic tone is meant to delegitimise the struggle for women’s rights and this has been an ongoing process since women of this country challenged a dictator in 1980s.

Thus the Urdu media has developed an archetype: Westernised, NGO-woman who dares to speak up and does not accept what is destined for her by the social mores, customs and twisted interpretations of the religion. In media houses, the editors and channel managers allow this discourse to occupy partly because they are under the erroneous impression that this line will ‘sell’ and make money.

There are others who actually adhere to patriarchal narratives and want to give them print-space and airtime. At the end of the day, they end up reinforcing the stereotypes and marginalisation of women and the debates on their right.

The comparisons of Mukhtar Mai and Afia Siddiqui are also inappropriate. However, they are thrown in the face of Pakistani ‘liberals’ as a reason to DENY justice to Mukhtar Mai. All blame must be apportioned to the liberals who defend her and the victim herself.

This struggle is far from over. Mukhtaran Mai’s battle in the courts may be coming to an end. Regardless of its outcome, a wider struggle has to be waged. The larger mobilisation for women’s rights, social justice and re-orienting a gender-blind state need to continue. These blatant attempts to further poison public discourse by taking refuge in hollow slogans of ‘honour’, NGO imperialism will have to be countered.

This is why striving for a more responsible and accountable media is an urgent priority in contemporary Pakistan.

The writer a writer, policy adviser and editor based in Lahore. He blogs at and also manages Pak Tea House and Lahorenama webzines.



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