I recall visiting my aunt who was recovering in the women’s ward at the main hospital in Georgetown. The year was 1981 and I was but a teenager. My aunt was there for weeks and had come to know first hand the shattered lives of the women in her ward. “That one,” she said, pointing to a patient wrapped up in gauze, “her husband poured kerosene on her and lit her on fire.” I gasped. “That one over there, her husband kicked her down the steps and she broke her back. She might never walk again.” After her show and tell it occurred to me that my aunt might be the only one in the women’s ward who had been in a car accident.
Domestic violence in a global disease. It thrives in Toronto, Canada where I now live with my wife and five children. It afflicts rich and poor in both developed and developing nations. Three years ago I spent several weeks in Pakistan filming a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) titled: ‘Land, Gold and Women.’ ‘Zan, Zameen Zaur’ is translated as ‘Land, Gold and Women’ and is the sum total of a tribal code of conduct in many remote areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh. In these societies women are accorded no value except as the property of men.
When I arrived at the remote village in the Punjab to meet Mukhtar Mai (pictured at left), a young woman who had been gang-raped by several men in her village, two heavily armed police officers were posted at the entrance of her home. Even as her rapists were in custody awaiting trial, the authorities knew Mukhtar’s life was in danger and that she had to be protected. Mukhtar Mai was not raped because she was a poor villager. Like Sonia Naz, Shazia Khalid and countless other women, she was raped because she was a woman.
Sonia Naz, a mother of two, recounted how in 2005 she went to the police station to report that she had been raped and was in turn detained, confined and raped by an officer on duty. Shazia Khalid, a highly educated woman was forced to flee Pakistan after she was raped in 2005 while working for the Pakistan Petroleum Company in a remote part of Pakistan. While company officials told Shazia to remain hush, her accused rapist, a Captain in the Pakistani Army, was pronounced not guilty by President Pervez Musharraf himself.
When the Washington Post asked President Musharraf about the Shazia case and why his government denied giving Mukhtar Mai a passport to attend a human rights conference, he said, “You must understand the environment in Pakistan. This has become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”
Thousands of women came out in protest in Pakistan. They shut down main thoroughfares in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and other major cities. They let him know that his words were hurtful and callous.
When it dawned on Musharraf that women from all walks of life were united against him, he said he had been misquoted by the media. The Post produced an audio recording of his comment which confirmed the original quote.
What good is a government that is unable to protect its most vulnerable citizens from abuse and violence? Women’s organizations in Guyana, regardless of social class, race, or religion, must stand united and hold the government’s feet to the fire until it acts decisively to prevent further violence against women.
In the case of Mukhtar, it was the intervention of a local Imam that led to the arrest and prosecution of her rapists. Religious leaders, whether they be Hindus, Muslims or Christians, must preach a unified message that women are equal to men in God’s estimation and violence against them is a transgression against God’s decree.
Like women in some communities in India and Pakistan, women of Guyana must create vanguards in their towns and villages. I am not advocating violence, but when I read recently how women in some villages of India are resisting domestic abuse and protecting their daughters by learning how to use firearms and openly demonstrating their willingness to use them against violent men, I was duly impressed. If the police and judiciary systems refuse to protect and defend the honour of women, then perhaps women might have to do it for themselves.
Inspired by the horror inflicted on Mukhtar Mai, Guyanese women who are victims of abuse must refuse to be cowered in the shadows of evil men. Women have to support each other and find means to recover physically and to acquire the means of spiritual and psychological rehabilitation.
When her story made international headlines, Mukhtar began receiving substantial donations from individuals, governments and human rights groups in Europe and North America. She took that money and built a school on her father’s property. I visited that school and heard the children recite the most moving morning prayers I have ever heard. Among the neatly dressed boys and girls that stood in assembly were the sons and daughters of Mukhtar’s rapists.
Mukhtar’s selfless act of forgiveness and compassion proved to me that women – our mothers, sisters and daughters – have a resilient and a formidable nature. They are naturally merciful and loving and a society that tolerates violence against women will never experience happiness and prosperity.
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This piece was published in Guyana’s Stabroek News as a Letter to the Editor.