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Making a hash of it

June 19, 2005

IT IS becoming increasingly difficult by the day to fathom out the rationale behind the leeway President General Pervez Musharraf allows his chosen few.

Since his government’s installation, other than in the removals and appointments of his prime ministers, he tends to sit back and watch the world, while his government behaves in a manner totally contrary to his preachings and his stated intentions. Is he extending to it the proverbial rope?

Take the case of Mukhtaran Mai. In Musharraf’s Pakistan, there should have been no such case concerning this or any other woman. Under an enlightened system, in which moderation is the bye-word, there can be no jirgas, women cannot be raped on the orders of a jirga, rapists cannot be set free by the courts, a raped woman cannot be terrorized by her own government. None of what is happening sits with enlightenment.

It belongs way back in the 10th century AD, in the dark ages of civilization. The president might take a tip from Governor-General Lord William Henry Cavendish Bentinck (1833-1835) and read how he dealt with his administration and suppressed such ritual practices as ‘suttee’ and ‘thugee’.

On June 17, an e-mail arrived from Zafar Iqbal of Arizona. He is a member of the Asian-American Network Against the Abuse of Women which came into being in 2002 with the much publicized rape cases of Saima and Shama. Its members familiarized themselves with those strange obscurantist laws operating against women in Pakistan — the Hudood and Qisas — and with the much practised custom known as ‘honour killing.’ The network runs on donations, and last year set up a website :

“Mukhtaran Mai was our latest project,” wrote Mr Iqbal. “We wanted to organize a symposium in Houston to create awareness about the violence against women in Pakistan. We wanted to humanize the issue so that people can relate with them and understand them. Mukhtaran Mai was the best choice. She represented a brave lady, a victim turned into an activist, a hope for our country, Pakistan.

“We went to her website made contact with her and Nicolas Kristoff. Mukhtaran and Naseem, her school principal, are brave women. Naseem whose name is never mentioned in the press is a big factor in her struggle. Our friends advised us that if we involve the media, the Pakistani government would never allow her to come. We tried not publicizing it. We were constantly in contact with her and arranged for her new passport and visa interview at American embassy in Islamabad.”

He then related the facts that we all now know from our own press, as well as the foreign press. ANAA’s representatives have been interviewed by the CNN, the BBC, VOA, CBS, MSNBC and various other channels. Do Pakistan and its people need this type of publicity?

On June 11 we read that the previous day the honourable justices of the Lahore High Court had ordered the release from detention of 13 men accused in Mukhtaran Mai’s gang-rape case, and how the same day the interior ministry, in its wisdom, had put Mukhtaran’s name on the Exit Control List.

On June 12, we read that the previous day the foreign office, in its wisdom, had directed the interior ministry to ensure that Mukhtaran was not allowed to leave the country for the United States. All airports had been alerted. That day General Musharraf left for his trip to the Antipodes, where, on arrival, he received a 21-gun salute. The Aussies know what pleases who.

On June 13, a report from New York quoted the Human Rights Watch which had termed it “preposterous that while Mukhtaran Mai’s alleged rapists had had their release ordered she had been placed on Pakistan’s infamous ECL. If the purpose was to ‘protect’ Pakistan’s image by restricting Mai’s freedom of movement, the attempt has backfired.”

That same day Mukhtaran was taken from her village, Meerwalla, to the chief minister’s house in Lahore, and then onward to Islamabad to meet the prime minister’s adviser on women’s affairs, Nilofer Bakhtiar. In the Senate, on June 13, Ms Bakhtiar is quoted as having said, in response to objections raised by the opposition on the affair that “we do not want to expose our wounds to the international community. We do not want to wash our dirty linen in public. The government will not be bullied by the opposition or the NGOs which have a foreign-driven agenda.” She was ably supported by the state minister for the interior, Dr Shahzad Waseem, who accused the NGOs (en masse) — vultures, crows and eagles, he called them — of exploiting the issue “for a dinner with John and Johnnie Walker” and to build their portfolios by getting more foreign funding.

On June 14, a column by Nicholas Kristof, who last autumn had written extensively on Mukhtaran’s rape, appeared in the New York Times under the heading “Raped, kidnapped and silenced.”

On June 15 headlines announced : “US dismayed by Mukhtaran Mai’s treatment : Rocca.” The assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, Christina Rocca, testifying before a congressional committee in Washington said “We are dismayed at the treatment being meted out to a courageous woman... We will pursue this matter during the course of the day.” That day, an editorial was printed in the New York Times under the heading “With friends like this....”. It suggested that the US should go beyond just selling F-16s to General Musharraf, but also press him and Pakistan “to adopt minimum standards of human rights.”

Back in Pakistan, we read that day how Mukhtaran had been to the US embassy, retrieved her passport, and had it taken away from her by her government ‘handler’, Adviser Bakhtiar, and also how, obviously under instructions from Ms Bakhtiar, she had cancelled her trip as ‘her mother was ill’ (shame on Ms Bakhtiar. It takes me back to the early 1940s. Much to my father Rustom’s disgust, he being both an LSE and an Inner Temple man, and to my later regret, I dropped out of D.J. Sindh College, apprenticed myself to my father, and joined the family shipping business.

Over one impending Id holiday season we received 18 identical letters, supported by 18 identical telegrams, all sent from Sukkur, from 18 members of our cargo-loading gang, asking for urgent leave, which read “mother sick come soon.” I took them to Osman, post and telegraph master of the Keamari PO, who exclaimed ‘Pakra gaya’. The war is on, I told him, Rommel is in Tobruk, we are loading reinforcements in three hired transports which must sail and join the convoy sailing from Bombay. We cannot spare 18 serangs. ‘Samaj gaya’, said Osman. The next day he brought to us 18 telegrams addressed to the 18 serangs which read “Mother better, do not come.”)

On June 16 the press told us that Mukhtaran’s name was off the ECL, and that the US embassy in Islamabad was “concerned” about her and had made their concerns known to the Pakistan government. A column by Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post that same day announced the lifting of the travel ban and the fact that US officials “said they were appalled by the government’s actions in this case”. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters “We were confronted with what I can only say was an outrageous situation where her attackers were ordered to be freed while she had restrictions on her travel placed on her. We conveyed our views about these restrictions to the senior levels of the Pakistani government.”

On June 16, President Musharraf, having presumably blithely ignored the unholy mess made by his government, left Australia and arrived in New Zealand. On the 17th, in Auckland, he met members of the New Zealand Foreign Correspondents’ Club. According to an agency report, it was he, he told questioners, who had ordered that the woman not be allowed to be taken by NGOs to the US “to bad mouth Pakistan,” it was he who labelled the NGOs as “westernized fringe elements.... as bad as the Islamic extremists.” His acolytes were merely towing his line, admittedly in a highly hamfisted manner.

The general is rightly concerned. As he said in Auckland, “I am a realist. Public relations is the most important thing in the world.” It is indeed, general, but we are not doing too well when it comes to PR. If, as he said, “Pakistan is the victim of poor perceptions,” he must ask himself how much fault lies with him. Mukhtaran Mai is but one of the symptoms that afflict this country — and it is host to thousands of Mukhtaran Mais who suffer in silence, unknown.