Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Quoting Nicholas Kristof's Column in July 27th of Aug Herald Tribune and following up info on Newyorktimes.com/ontheground. Help Assiya show the way.

Op-Ed Columnist

Not a Victim, but a Hero

After being kidnapped at the age of 16 by a group of thugs and enduring a year of rapes and beatings, Assiya Rafiq was delivered to the police and thought her problems were over.

Then, she said, four police officers took turns raping her.

The next step for Assiya was obvious: She should commit suicide. That’s the customary escape in rural Pakistan for a raped woman, as the only way to cleanse the disgrace to her entire family.

Instead, Assiya summoned the unimaginable courage to go public and fight back. She is seeking to prosecute both her kidnappers and the police, despite threats against her and her younger sisters. This is a kid who left me awed and biting my lip; this isn’t a tale of victimization but of valor, empowerment and uncommon heroism.

“I decided to prosecute because I don’t want the same thing to happen to anybody else,” she said firmly.

Assiya’s case offers a window into the quotidian corruption and injustice endured by impoverished Pakistanis — leading some to turn to militant Islam.

“When I treat a rape victim, I always advise her not to go to the police,” said Dr. Shershah Syed, the president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Pakistan. “Because if she does, the police might just rape her again.”

Yet Assiya is also a sign that change is coming. She says she was inspired by Mukhtar Mai, a young woman from this remote village of Meerwala who was gang raped in 2002 on the orders of a village council. Mukhtar prosecuted her attackers and used the compensation money to start a school.

Mukhtar is my hero. Many Times readers who followed her story in past columns of mine have sent her donations through a fund at Mercy Corps, at www.mercycorps.org, and Mukhtar has used the money to open schools, a legal aid program, an ambulance service, a women’s shelter, a telephone hotline — and to help Assiya fight her legal case.

The United States has stood aloof from the ubiquitous injustices in Pakistan, and that’s one reason for cynicism about America here. I’m hoping the Obama administration will make clear that Americans stand shoulder to shoulder with heroines like Mukhtar and Assiya, and with an emerging civil society struggling for law and social justice.

Assiya’s saga began a year ago when a woman who was a family friend sold her to two criminals who had family ties to prominent politicians. Assiya said the two men spent the next year beating and raping her.

The men were implicated in a gold robbery, so they negotiated a deal with the police in the town of Kabirwala, near Khanewal: They handed over Assiya, along with a $625 bribe, in exchange for the police pinning the robbery on the girl.

By Assiya’s account, which I found completely credible, four police officers, including a police chief, took turns beating and raping her — sometimes while she was tied up — over the next two weeks. A female constable obligingly stepped out whenever the men wanted access to Assiya.

Assiya’s family members heard that she was in the police station, and a court granted their petition for her release and sent a bailiff to get her out. The police hid Assiya, she said, and briefly locked up her 10-year-old brother to bully the family into backing off.

The bailiff accepted bribes from both the family and the police, but in the end he freed the girl. Assiya, driven by fury that overcame her shame, told her full story to the magistrate, who ordered a medical exam and an investigation. The medical report confirms that Assiya’s hymen had been broken and that she had abrasions all over her body.

The morning I met Assiya, she said she had just received the latest in a series of threats from the police: Unless she withdraws her charges, they will arrest, rape or kill her — and her two beloved younger sisters.

The family is in hiding. It has lost its livelihood and accumulated $2,500 in debts. Assiya’s two sisters and three brothers have had to drop out of school, and they will find it harder to marry because Assiya is considered “dishonored.” Most of her relatives tell Assiya that she must give in. But she tosses her head and insists that she will prosecute her attackers to spare other girls what she endured.

(For readers who want to help, more information is available on my blog at: www.nytimes.com/ontheground.)

Assiya’s mother, Iqbal Mai, told me that in her despair, she at first had prayed that God should never give daughters to poor families. “But then I changed my mind,” she added, with a hint of pride challenging her fears. “God should give poor people daughters like Assiya who will fight.”



Helping Assiya and Mukhtar

My Sunday column looks at Assiya Rafiq, a teenage girl in Pakistan who is challenging tradition by trying to prosecute the criminals and the police who raped her. She is just an amazing, courageous young woman, for it takes unimaginable bravery in rural Pakistan to acknowledge having been raped. When this came out, her brothers came home crying because she had been called a whore.

Assiya is being helped by Mukhtar Mai, whom I’ve written many columns about (along with a few videos). In the older columns, she used a variant of her name, Mukhtaran Bibi, but she’s the same person. Mukhtar is also a star in the forthcoming book, Half the Sky, that my wife and I have written. Mukhtar is giving legal counsel and other assistance to Assiya, and helping keep her alive. But Mukhtar is herself in danger, and many people in the feudal class would like to kill her; even with an armed bodyguard, Mukhtar doesn’t dare go more than 100 feet from her compound. I’ve told Mukhar to set up a steel gate to make it harder for gunmen to get to her.

So one way to help Assiya is through Mukhtar: funds can be sent through Mercy Corps. On the Mercy Corps home page, by the time you read this there should be something about giving to Mukhtar. Then, depending on your stipulation, those funds can go just for Assiya or for the other projects that Mukhtar is working on. (Given that Assiya has no bank account and is in hiding, there’s no way of getting money directly to her.) (UPDATE: Mercy Corps advises that to stipulate that the money should go to Assiya, go ahead and donate it to the Mukhtar Mai fund and then, in the comment field at checkout, say that it is for Assiya.)

The other thing one can do is call on Pakistani leaders to protect both Mukhtar and Assiya. Here are a couple of people you can write (if faxing from the U.S., replace the “+” with “011″):
—President Asif Ali Zardari, President’s Avenue, Islamabad, Pakistan, fax: +92-51-920-3297;
—Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani, Prime Minister House, Islamabad, Pakistan, fax: +92-51-922-1596;
—Mr. Mumtaz Gillani, Federal Minister for Human Rights, fax: +92-51-924-4542. (UPDATE: an email address I had for Mr. Gillani here apparently doesn’t work.)

Let me add one thing: Pakistanis are sometimes sensitive when I write about the country’s underside, and I can understand that. But women like Assiya and Rafiq reflect the best of their country, not the worst, and all Pakistanis should be so proud of them. One Pakistani government after another — and, sadly, one American government after another — has done little for ordinary Pakistanis. If improvement is going to come, it’ll be because of the emerging civil society, because of change bubbling up, not dribbling down. In a word, it’ll come because of courageous game-changers like Mukhtar and Assiya and others like them.

I’ll let you know how the case proceeds.

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