Today’s New York Times reported a truly surprising story about feminist icon—hell, icon for all of humanity—Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan. She is now married.
For those of you not familiar with the story, Mukhtar Mai was gang raped in 2002 on the orders of a village council as punishment for her younger brother allegedly having an affair with a woman from a rival tribe (it later turned out that her brother had been molested by clansmen of that rival tribe and the allegations against him were trumped-up).
According to the The Times:
Pakistani rape victims often commit suicide, but Ms. Mukhtar instead successfully challenged her attackers in court, winning international renown for her bravery. She runs several schools, an ambulance service and a women’s aid group in her village and has written an autobiography. By marrying, she has defeated another stigma against rape victims in conservative Pakistani society.
On one hand, good for her. Her new husband, Nasir Gabol, is actually a police officer who was assigned to guard her when she was receiving death threats as a result of her activism. By marrying, she—and her husband—reject the stigma of rape victims as damaged goods, unfit for marriage (or in some cultures, even unfit for society). And we would all wish Mukhtar Mai a life of love and happy companionship—she deserves ever possible joy that life can pile on her.
But when you read on, the plot really thickens:
He had been calling her off and on since 2003 but formally proposed a year and a half ago, she said. “But I told my parents I don’t want to get married.”
Finally, four months ago, he tried to kill himself by taking sleeping pills. “The morning after he attempted suicide, his wife and parents met my parents but I still refused,” Ms. Mukhtar said.
On one hand, we might give this man the benefit of the doubt and attribute his persistence to affection and admiration. On the other hand, attempting suicide when she refuses his proposal? That is not the action of a healthy person. In fact, that is the fucking red flag ballet right there.
It gets worse:
Mr. Gabol then threatened to divorce his first wife, Shumaila.
Ms. Shumaila, along with Mr. Gabol’s parents and sisters, joined forces to try to talk Ms. Mukhtar into marrying him, taking on the status of second wife. In Pakistan, which follows Islamic law, a man can legally have up to four wives.
It was her concern about Ms. Shumaila, Ms. Mukhtar said, that moved her to relent.
“I am a woman and can understand the pain and difficulties faced by another woman,” Ms. Mukhtar said. “She is a good woman.”
In the end, Ms. Mukhtar put a few conditions on Mr. Gabol. He had to transfer the ownership of his ancestral house to his first wife, agree to give her a plot of land and a monthly stipend of roughly $125.
On one hand, how incredibly awful for Mukhtar Mai that after all her struggles against the abuses of the Patriarchy, she’s essentially given the devil’s choice: marry this man against your wishes, or witness him abandon another woman (which essentially casts her out of society into poverty or worse).
On the other hand, how awesome and badass of Mukhtar that she used the leverage she had to help his first wife find some level of freedom and security. It appears that the husband may not actually be living with Mukhtar anyway. The article quotes her as saying:
Her husband, she said, “can come here whenever he wants and finds it convenient.”
I have a bit of a headache contemplating the different angles of this situation. On one hand, it’s proof that the struggles against the Patriarchy’s evils are often two steps forward, one step back. Mukhtar won the battle over her rape, and did enormous good for the women of Pakistan by focusing attention on the abhorrent treatment of women in the tribal regions. On the other hand, her doing so may actually have made her a victim in a different way; my guess is that paradoxically, Mukhtar Mai’s high international profile and the donations it’s generated were what transformed her into a good marriage prospect, and made her vulnerable to this kind of exploitation.
On one hand, I hate that she had to cave in and married a man she obviously did not want, and did so at least partially in order to prevent him abusing another woman. On the other hand, I suspect that Mukhtar Mai would not welcome my pity or my black-and-white interpretation of the matter. I’m looking at this only through the lens of my own experience as an American woman. When it comes to marriage and custom and social status, my reality is entirely different from Mukhtar’s reality. So I find myself unable judge as harshly as I normally would. On the other hand, I think we can all agree that this is hardly an ideal situation, and that Mukhtar Mai–and every woman in Pakistan–should not have to make these kinds of choices.