Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LIII

Here are two excerpts from a book I just read, "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Mukhtar grew up in a peasant family in the village of Meerwala in southern Punjab. When people ask her age, she tosses out one number or another, but the truth is that she doesn’t have a clue as to when she was born. Mukhtar never attended school, because there was no school for girls in Meerwala, and she spent her days helping out around the house.

Then, in July 2002, her younger brother, Shakur, was kidnapped and gang-raped by members of a higher-status clan, the Mastoi. (In Pakistan, rapes of boys by heterosexual men are not uncommon and are less stigmatized than the rapes of girls.) Shakur was twelve or thirteen at the time, and after raping him the Mastoi became nervous that they might be punished. So they refused to release Shakur and covered up their crime by accusing him of having had sex with a Mastoi girl, Salma. Because the Mastoi had accused Shakur of illicit sex, the village tribal assembly, dominated by the Mastoi, held a meeting. Mukhtar attended on behalf of her family to apologize and try to soothe feelings. A crowd gathered around Mukhtar, including several Mastoi men armed with guns, and the tribal council concluded that an apology from Mukhtar would not be enough. To punish Shakur and his family, the council sentenced Mukhtar to be gang-raped. Four men dragged her, screaming and pleading, into an empty stable next to the meeting area and, as the crowd waited outside, they stripped her and raped her on the dirt floor, one after the other.

“They know that a woman humiliated in that way has no other recourse except suicide,” Mukhtar wrote later. “They don’t even need to use their weapons. Rape kills her.” 

After administering the sentence, the rapists pushed Mukhtar out of the stable and forced her to stagger home, almost naked, before a jeering crowd. Once home, she prepared to do what any Pakistani peasant woman would normally do in that situation: kill herself. Suicide is the expected way for a woman to cleanse herself and her family of the shame. But Mukhtar’s mother and father kept watch over her and prevented that option; then a local Muslim leader—one of the heroes in this story—spoke up for her at Friday prayers and denounced the rape as an outrage against Islam.

As the days passed, Mukhtar’s attitude mutated from humiliation to rage. Finally, she did something revolutionary: She went to the police and reported the rape, demanding prosecution. The police, somewhat surprisingly, then arrested the attackers. President Pervez Musharraf heard about the case and sympathized, sending Mukhtar the equivalent of $8,300 in compensation. But instead of taking the money for herself, Mukhtar decided to invest it in what her village needed most—schools. “Why should I have spent the money on myself?” she told Nick on his first visit to Meerwala. “This way the money is helping all the girls, all the children.”


Mahabouba has light chocolate skin and frizzy hair that she ties back; today, she tells her story easily, for the most part, occasionally punctuated with self-mocking laughter, but there are moments when the old pain shines through in her eyes. Mahabouba was raised in a village near the town of Jimma, and her parents divorced when she was a child. As a result, she was handed over to her father’s sister, who didn’t educate her and generally treated her as a servant. So Mahabouba and her sister ran off together to town and worked as maids in exchange for room and board.

“Then a neighbor told me he could find better work for me,” Mahabouba recalled. “He sold me for eighty birr [ten dollars]. He got the money, I didn’t. I thought I was going to work for the man who bought me, in his house. But then he raped me and beat me. He said he had bought me for eighty birr and wouldn’t let me go. I was about thirteen.”

The man, Jiad, was about sixty years old and had purchased Mahabouba to be his second wife. In rural Ethiopia, girls are still sometimes sold to do manual labor or to be second or third wives, although it is becoming less common. Mahabouba hoped for consolation from the first wife, but instead the woman whipped Mahabouba with savage relish. “She used to beat me when he wasn’t around, so I think she was jealous,” Mahabouba remembered angrily, and she paused for a moment as the old bitterness caught up with her.

The couple wouldn’t let Mahabouba out of the house for fear she might run away. Indeed, she tried several times, but each time she was caught and thrashed with sticks and fists until she was black, blue, and bloody. Soon, Mahabouba was pregnant, and as she approached her due date Jiad relaxed his guard over her. When she was seven months pregnant, she finally succeeded in running away.

“I thought if I stayed, I might be beaten to death along with my child,” Mahabouba said. “I fled to the town, but the people there said they would take me right back to Jiad. So then I ran away again, back to my native village. But my immediate family was no longer there, and nobody else wanted to help me because I was pregnant and somebody’s wife. So I went to drown myself in the river, but an uncle found me and took me back. He told me to stay in a little hut by his house.”

Mahabouba couldn’t afford a midwife, so she tried to have the baby by herself. Unfortunately, her pelvis hadn’t yet grown large enough to accommodate the baby’s head, a common occurrence with young teenagers. She ended up in obstructed labor, with the baby stuck inside her birth passage. After seven days, Mahabouba fell unconscious, and at that point someone summoned a birth attendant. By then the baby had been wedged there for so long that the tissues between the baby’s head and Mahabouba’s pelvis had lost circulation and rotted away. When Mahabouba recovered consciousness, she found that the baby was dead and that she had no control over her bladder or bowels. She also couldn’t walk or even stand, a consequence of nerve damage that is a frequent by-product of fistula.

“People said it was a curse,” Mahabouba recalled. “They said, ‘If you’re cursed, you shouldn’t stay here. You should leave.’” Mahabouba’s uncle wanted to help the girl, but his wife feared that helping someone cursed by God would be sacrilegious. She urged her husband to take Mahabouba outside the village and leave the girl to be eaten by wild animals. He was torn. He gave Mahabouba food and water, but he also allowed the villagers to move her to a hut at the edge of the village.

“Then they took the door off,” she added matter-of-factly, “so that the hyenas would get me.” Sure enough, after darkness fell the hyenas came. Mahabouba couldn’t move her legs, but she held a stick in her hand and waved it frantically at the hyenas, shouting at them. All night long, the hyenas circled her; all night long, Mahabouba fended them off.

She was fourteen years old.

When morning light came, Mahabouba realized that her only hope was to get out of the village to find help, and she was galvanized by a fierce determination to live. She had heard of a Western missionary in a nearby village, so she began to crawl in that direction, pulling her body with her arms. She was half dead when she arrived a day later at the doorstep of the missionary. Aghast, he rushed her inside, nursed her, and saved her life.
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