This One Goes Out To The One I Love

For more than 400 years, the people of the nations of Western Europe, and their far-scattered children, have cleaved to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the archetypal expression of “star-cross’d lovers” cruelly dealt by the triple doofi of family, culture, and fate.  

This month in Pakistan culminated a true-life tale to rival Shakespeare’s in anguish, violence, and determined ardor. Some might like it better. First, because it’s true. Second, because rather than tragedy, it is drama, resolving (seemingly) in a happy ending. “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love”: through rape, molestation, death threats, cultural upheaval, refused suicide, courtroom wrangling, long-suffering rejection, threatened suicide, and attempted suicide, Mukhtar Mai and Nasir Abbas Gabol have apparently emerged into a happily-ever-after of female bonding, plural marriage, and separate domiciles.

And, just as Romeo and Juliet has been occasionally condemned as “a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life,” wherein Romeo’s “male virility,” unopposed by Juliet’s “female code of docility,” bungs up everything through “ill-controlled, partially disguised aggression,” so too, for those so inclined, may the story of Mai and Gabol be rejected as not so happy after all.

In June 2002, in the rural Pakistani village of Meerwalla, three members of the high-status Mastoi Baloch clan sodomized in a sugarcane field an adolescent boy of the lesser-status Gujjar Tatla clan.To cover up their crime, the Mastoi accused the boy of having sexually violated a Mastoi girl. Then, as “revenge” for this fictitious violation, four Mastoi men gang-raped in a stable the sodomized boy’s sister, Mukhtair Mai, after which they pronounced their grievance against the Gujjar “satisfied.”  

Traditionally, Mai would now commit suicide. As her older brother told the New York Times:

“A girl who has been raped has no honorable place in the village. Nobody respects the girl, or her parents. There’s a stigma, and the only way out is suicide.”

But Mai refused to take her life. Instead, she insisted on bringing her rapists into the legal system. On June 30, she and her family journeyed to the nearest police station, and there lodged formal charges.The story quickly swept through Pakistani media, and even leaked into Western papers. Pakistan’s chief justice was compelled to denounce rape as the most heinous crime of the 21st Century, and publicly upbraided senior police officials for incompetence and foot-dragging.

Belated police investigation and subsequent court proceedings revealed the Mastoi’s assault on Mai’s brother, and their invention of the boy’s purported assault on a Mastoi female. Mai’s attackers, and those who conspired with them, were sentenced to death in 2002; five were acquitted on appeal in 2005; the acquittals were quickly “suspended”; today all 14 men initially charged await retrial.

Mai was awarded 500,000 rupees, or $8200, by the Pakistani government, which she used to build local schools; previously, there had been no school for girls in Meerwalla. The children of the men who attacked her she enrolled in her schools.

Mai additionally founded the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization, intended to help the local community, particularly women, become educated about gender issues; she also provides shelter and legal help for victims of violence and injustice. Mai’s work has frequently been covered by the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof.

In 2005 Mai was awarded by the Pakistant government a gold medal for bravery and courage. That same year her passport was confiscated, reportedly because President Musharraf believed Mai traveling abroad would be bad for Pakistan’s image. Pakistani media immediately raised a stink, denouncing the confiscation as “ham-fisted” “folly,” and her passport was returned.

In 2006 Mai spoke before the United Nations, where UN Undersecretary General Shashi Tharoor said: “I think it is fair to say that anyone who has the moral courage and internal strength to turn such a brutal attack into a weapon to defend others in a similar position, is a hero indeed, and is worthy of our deepest respect and admiration.”

For her effrontery in seeking to prosecute her rapists, Mai was threatened with death, and thus received police protection. Today she still gets threats from local “influential people and landlords,” and police still guard her home.

One of the men assigned early on to protect her, Nasir Abbas Gabol, found himself smitten. Mai told the Guardian that “the police constable, Nasir Abbas Gabol, had flirted with her even while he was deputed to protect her. ‘He offered to marry me but I flatly refused,’ she said.”

Gobol proved persistent, however. And after years of fruitless courtship,  he eventually threatened to kill himself, if Mai did not agree to marry him. Then, with an overdose of sleeping pills, he actually went through with his threat.

A man taking his own life, and over a woman, has traditionally not been acceptable behavior in Pakistan.

Mai had been reluctant to accept Gabol’s proposal primarily because he was already married, and she did not want to upend the life of Gobol’s first wife.

In Pakistan, a man may lawfully wed up to four women.

After Gabol’s suicide attempt, Mai met with her family, and his, the despairing Gobol now vowing he would divorce his first wife, Shumaila, if Mai did not also marry him. Only after meeting with Shumaila, and receiving her blessing, did Mai relent. Even then, she insisted Gobol transfer the ownership of his ancestral house to his first wife, and agree to give her a plot of land and a monthly stipend of roughly $125.

Mai and Gobol were married in a simple ceremony on March 15. A picture of the couple may be viewed here.

Asked what so attracted him to Mai, Gobol told the AP he “was enraptured by Mai’s ‘extreme courage.’” “I will do whatever is possible to help my wife in her efforts aimed at raising her voice for the rights of women,” he said.

“He says he madly fell in love with me,” Ms. Mai said with a big laugh when asked what finally persuaded her to say yes.

Though Mai has also told various inquiring news organs that it was only after Shumaila, Gabol’s first wife, approved the marriage–and even “implored her” to enter into the union–that she ultimately decided in favor of wedding Gabol.

“Eighteen months ago, he sent his parents to ask me if I would marry him. I declined because I knew he was already married and I didn’t want to ruin his first wife’s life,” Mukhtar Mai told the BBC Urdu service.

“I would adjust (to marriage) because the co-wife is very positive,” she said.

“I am a woman and can understand the pain and difficulties faced by another woman,” [she] said. “She is a good woman.”

Mai wasn’t sure she would ever marry, but had never ruled it out, either.

“When you get married, you have to have faith in your partner and his family. I will try to cooperate with them,” she told Associated Press.”You know, I never said that I would not marry, I said that these things–relationships–are in the hands of Allah. I said if I got a good man I would get married.

“Now, as I thought fit, and with the agreement of my parents and other people, I’ve got married.”

Mai does not plan to actually live with her new husband, though; she will remain in Meerwalla, in the home of her parents.

Asked whether she had plans to leave her village to live with her husband in his village, Mukhtar said no. “I have seen pain and happiness in Meerwala. I cannot think of leaving this place.”She said her husband “can come here whenever he wants and finds it convenient.”

Mai told the Guardian that she doesn’t believe this will be a problem, closing with a line that sounds, well, French:

“I think he will be supportive. The precondition of marriage is that we would not disturb each others’ lives.”

Although I am not usually much inclined to credit anything that crawls out of Forbes, to be “fair and balanced” I offer the contrarian view of Forbesian Elisabeth Eaves, who posits that Mai’s marriage is no pleasant thing. Eaves’ reading of the text dismisses Mai’s statement that she married “as I saw fit”; Eaves instead opines that Mai was forced to marry–by her parents–”a man she didn’t particularly want to marry,” a man who blackmailed her into matrimony by threatening to take his own life and/or banish his first wife.

According to the New York Times reporter who interviewed Mukhtar about her marriage, the constable first formally proposed a year and a half ago. She–now a 37-year-old woman–told her parents that she didn’t want to marry. So four months ago, the constable tried to kill himself, after which his first wife, his parents and Mukhtar’s parents got together to persuade her to marry the fellow; she still refused. Then the constable threatened to divorce his first wife if Mukhtar refused to marry him, essentially forcing her complicity in making another woman an outcast.So Mukhtar started bargaining: She told the constable he had to transfer ownership of his house to his first wife and give her a plot of land and a monthly stipend. He agreed, and they married. Mukhtar doesn’t intend to move in with him, but said he can visit whenever he likes.

She has, once again, extracted a benefit from an oppressive situation, in this case using what power she had to insist on another woman’s marital rights . . . .

Basically, her situation has changed thusly: A man she didn’t particularly want to marry can now show up and ask for legal, socially sanctioned sex.

She is now part of a bigamous marriage (in Pakistan men may have up to four wives), meaning, more or less, that he gets a legal claim on a whole person and she gets a half of one.

And she becomes the instrument of yet another man’s “honor”–a dangerous thing, as her life has shown. She was raped to punish her brother, now she marries under pressure from her parents. One would like to hope that the constable will turn out to be a gentleman. But, let’s face it, he blackmailed Ms. Mukhtar into marriage by threatening another woman. In free societies, that’s the kind of guy you run away from.

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