Taking on the tribe

Non-Fiction: Poor, illiterate, Muslim women don't usually make global headlines. But Mukhtar Mai is different

Non-Fiction:Poor, illiterate, Muslim women don't usually make global headlines. But Mukhtar Mai is different. When she told the shocking story of her gang rape as part of an ancient tribal punishment, the face of this withdrawn peasant woman was seen all over the world.  

Controversy raged around her in Pakistan when she chose to defy her village's patriarchal custom of "honour" by taking her rapists to court. Now she is hailed as an icon for women's rights, and her struggle for justice has attracted the support of Amnesty International and numerous human rights bodies. Mukhtar Mai was even named Glamour magazine's Woman of the Year in 2005.

Her memoir begins with her brutal ordeal. She describes being ordered before the local council to seek forgiveness from the powerful Mastois clan for a crime allegedly carried out by her brother. When the council ruled that she was to be punished on behalf of her brother, she was raped, repeatedly, by four men and left to walk home through the town, half naked. Lying traumatised for days, unable to eat, sleep or talk, she considered taking her own life.

Mukhtar Mai, however, refused to accept her fate as a victim. Speaking out against her attackers, she dared to broach one of Pakistan's most frightening, taboo subjects: the code of "honour". As her story spread around the world, camera crews, journalists and numerous supporters flocked to her small village of Meerwala. While feminist author Naomi Wolf described her as a "hero" for western women, others worried that her story fed into the Western stereotype of the Muslim woman as victim.


The book describes in detail the intimidation from policemen, officials and locals who believed that as a woman she should keep quiet. Others argued that she gave Pakistan a bad name. When the verdict was finally delivered two years later, acquitting five of the six men accused, 3,000 women took to the streets in Multan to protest.

When the case was re-opened, the six men were sentenced, while Mukhtar Mai received a settlement, which she used to set up a school in her village.

"Honour" crimes such as those suffered by Mukhtar Mai - whose brother allegedly "spoke" to a girl from a higher caste - are not uncommon in rural Pakistan. Acid attacks on women, facial mutilation and even murder frequently go unreported when they are carried out to protect the "honour" of a family. Many human rights groups have repeatedly sought reform of the Islamic hudud laws, which penalise women for sexual relations - and that term is often used loosely - outside marriage.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book describes how young girls enter into marriage knowing little about sex or childbirth, never mind being able to talk about it. "Our mothers tell us nothing," she says, insisting that education is the only way forward. Angry at what she suffered, Mukhtar Mai knows she can help other women: "my misfortune has become useful to the community".

Compiled from interviews conducted by Marie-Therese Cuny, In The Name of Honour is written in the first person and reads like many other testimonial texts. Feeding into our fascination with "true" stories, the book gives us a raw, factual account of the story as told by Mukhtar Mai. Often it feels somewhat restricted by its own genre, however, with few impressions or additional insight. You can't help wishing, for example, that Cuny had asked Mukhtar Mai to elaborate when describing her background: "My childhood was a simple one of poverty, neither wonderful nor miserable, but full of joy." The reader begins to crave the smaller details to get a fuller picture of Mukhtar Mai's life - what exactly it's like inside those huts in Meerwala; what this quiet, rural woman thought of New York when she visited seeking support; what she makes of Glamour, the magazine that gave her an award. Because of these type of omissions, the book runs the risk of being a "victim narrative", never venturing beyond the story of her horrific experience.

While it will not totally satisfy your curiosity about its protagonist, In the Name of Honour is a fascinating and shocking book. Because she fought back and demanded justice, Mukhtar Mai's is a powerful story, one that continues to inspire many women around the world.

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist

In the Name of Honour By Mukhtar Mai with Marie-Therese Cuny. T ranslated by Linda Coverdale Virago, 172pp. £10.99

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist