Pakistani Rape Victim Comes to US to Speak Out for Women's Rights

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Five years ago, in a village in Pakistan, an event took place that would eventually make news around the world. A tribal council decreed that a woman named Mukhtaran Mai had to be raped multiple times. The sentence was carried out, but instead of staying quiet, she sought justice, and today, she's an international symbol of women's rights who takes her message around the world. WNYC's Arun Venugopal has more.

REPORTER: It's a lavish event at a large party space in the West Village, featuring an open bar, silent auction and a performance by a Bollywood dance troupe. The networking is intense. And then Mukhtaran Mai takes the stage.

MUKHTAR: [Speaks in Urdu]

REPORTER: Her remarks are brief. She gives thanks in Urdu to the audience and the organizers, Sakhi for South Asian women, a local domestic violence group. And then she makes a plea for women's solidarity around the world.

MUKHTARAN/TRANSLATOR: She wants to convey the message that All women need to support each other.... against violence, against abuse.

REPORTER: Dressed in a simple salwar kameez, her head covered out of modesty, Mukhtaran looks completely out of place in this glamorous setting. But that's a large part of her appeal. Five years ago, she achieved international fame - the illiterate villager who took her alleged rapists to court.

MUKHTARAN: [In Urdu]

REPORTER: Mukhtaran says she's glad to have drawn attention to the status of women in Pakistan. Last year, the country changed its rape laws -- now, a rape victim is tried under the civil law, and doesn't need to produce 4 men who witnessed the attack, as was required under the country's Islamic law.

But she says she'll continue to speak out, because women are attacked, not just in Pakistan but around the world.

Mohammed Naqvi is a New York filmmaker whose documentary about Mukhtaran, Shame, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

NAQVI: I think Pakistani and South Asian audiences - Indian and Pakistani audiences - they react a lot more strongly to the film, they're a lot more inspired by it...

REPORTER: According to Purvi Shah, the executive director of Sakhi, Mukhtaran's story has had a galvanizing effect on South Asian men and women in the U.S. Shah says domestic violence in the community is by nature a transnational issue.

PURVI SHAH: For example, in an immigrant family, the abuser might be not only threatening her family here but her family back home. There might be issues of international child kidnapping and custody. So it's not only that there's women's solidarity in terms of our communities and the experiences of wanting to end violence. But the issues cross national and international boundaries.

REPORTER: Shah says Mukhtaran's celebrity status dovetails with another development: In the last 5 years, the call volume to Sakhi's New York helpline has tripled. But Shah says this is a positive sign, evidence that more South Asians, including men, are unwilling to tolerate domestic abuse.

For Mukhtaran, the attention to her case has been a mixed blessing. Hundreds of children attend the schools she started with money received from the government of Pakistan and international donors. She also runs women's sensitivity training camps and advocacy groups.

But according to Naqvi, she continues to live near the family of her alleged rapists, and their tribe and other feudal lords would like nothing more than to see her dead.

NAQVI: She's empowering the next generation of boys and girls, so they will get out of this servile mindset that has existed for thousands of years, and because of that, feudals will lose their power in that area, and to them, that is a huge price to pay.

REPORTER: Mukhtaran Mai seems well aware of the threat to her life, but as much as she enjoys meeting new people and traveling around the world, she refuses to leave her village.

And she's resigned to her fate. The day of death, she says, is within god's hands.

For WNYC, I'm Arun Venugopal.