This is a column to give thanks to you, the reader. You don’t know it, but some of you are keeping women like Sajida Bibi alive here in this remote Pakistani village. And that is a far grander reason to celebrate Thanksgiving than even the plumpest turkey.
Sajida is a 29-year-old college-educated woman from a Christian family here (and a reminder that oppressive values in Pakistan are not rooted just in Islam). She scandalized her family by marrying a man she chose herself — and then becoming pregnant.
The next step was brutal: Several women held Sajida down as a midwife conducted an abortion, while she struggled and wept.
Then her brothers weighed what to do next. Sajida’s eldest brother wanted to sell her to a trafficker who offered $1,200, presumably intending to imprison her inside a brothel. Two other brothers just wanted to kill her.
The brothers fought for days over this question. So Sajida ground up sleeping tablets and baked the powder into chapati bread that she fed her brothers for dinner — and then sneaked out as they slept.
Sajida made her way to Mukhtar Mai, one of my heroes, and that is why this is a Thanksgiving column. For years, I’ve written about Mukhtar, an illiterate woman who used compensation money after being gang-raped to build a small school in which she herself enrolled.
Readers responded to the columns by flooding Mukhtar, who then used a variant of her name, Mukhtaran Bibi, with more than $290,000 in donations, funneled through Mercy Corps, an international aid group based in the U.S.
With that financial support, Mukhtar now runs four schools with 900 students. She also operates an ambulance service, a school bus, a women’s shelter, a legal clinic, and a telephone hot line and women’s crisis center — all in this remote village in the southern Punjab. (For information about how to help, go to my blog.
Sajida is now safe in Mukhtar’s shelter, while hoping to rescue her 14-year-old sister, Shafaq. Her brothers have forced Shafaq to drop out of school and may now be trying to sell her to a trafficker. When Sajida and I managed to contact Shafaq, she balked at fleeing — fearing that if her brothers caught her, they would kill her.
These women in Mukhtar’s shelter are extraordinary, partly because in a culture where women are supposed to be weak, they are indomitable. These aren’t victims. These are superheroes.
Another of those whom Mukhtar is helping is Shahnaz Bibi (Bibi is a second name used by many young Pakistani women; none of these women are related). Shahnaz is short, frail and wears a traditional full veil on the street — and is as courageous a person as I’ve ever met.
Shahnaz was kidnapped when she was taking her 10th-grade examinations, then gang-raped for two months by her kidnappers (including a policeman and a cousin) and, eventually, sold for $2,500 to be the third wife of a 65-year-old businessman. After being locked up for two years in a windowless room, Shahnaz was finally rescued by her family.
Her father begged her to drop the matter, for otherwise word would spread that she was not a virgin — utterly dishonoring her entire family. Yet Shahnaz insisted on prosecuting her kidnappers.
The police refused to act, so Shahnaz sought out Mukhtar, who paid for a good lawyer. The case is now proceeding. As a result, the kidnapping ring is using its police connections to try to force Shahnaz to withdraw charges, according to Mukhtar and Shahnaz.
The mayor himself has threatened Shahnaz and ordered her to drop the case, she says. The police chief called in Shahnaz and her family, slapped her and threatened to throw the entire family in prison for life unless she signed a paper withdrawing the charges. Then the police tortured Shahnaz’s father and brother in front of her until they gushed blood, demanding that she sign the document, according to her account and her brother’s.
The brother pleaded with her to sign. She refused.
“After what I endured for two years, I refuse to give up,” she said. Shahnaz keeps getting death threats, but she keeps pushing ahead. “I strongly believe in God and the power of truth,” she said.
(Note to President Asif Ali Zardari: The mayor is from your political party, so expel him before he discredits you. And, to the mayor and police chief, a Thanksgiving pledge: If anything happens to Shahnaz, I’m coming after you, armed with my notebook.)
So how about a Thanksgiving toast: Let’s give thanks for the courage of these magnificent women, and to those readers who had the faith to send checks to an illiterate rape victim in a remote Pakistani village.