Almost a decade after Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped, her legacy after years of activism and legal battles that made her Pakistan's most famous champion of women's rights now rests on the fate of her final appeal.
Ms. Mai made front-page headlines when she started her campaign for justice in 2002, challenging not only her attackers but the tribal code of honour that endorses rape as a tool of discipline in rural villages.
She caused barely a ripple in Pakistan's media last week, however, when her lawyers submitted a 26-page petition to the Supreme Court, asking the bench to review a decision that allows all but one of the accused rapists to walk free.
If the country's top court declines to revisit the case, her lawyers argue, Ms. Mai will have endured years in court only to set an ugly precedent: that it's easier to get away with sexual assault if the victim is not a virgin.
A lower court concluded that Ms. Mai should have complained to the police more quickly, because as a “grown-up lady” she would have suffered less shame than an “unmarried virgin victim of a young age.”
Her lawyers argued that such thinking does not belong in modern Pakistan, writing in their petition: “This inference seems to be based on the medieval assumption that women are chattel [property] of men, who then rate virgins as a higher, more valuable possession than non-virgin women.”
The mere fact that these arguments have become the final chapter in Ms. Mai's long-running saga serves as a bellwether of the mood in Pakistan, observers say.
Nadeem Saeed started covering Ms. Mai's story as a local newspaper journalist based in the small city of Multan when news first emerged that a village council had ordered the divorced seamstress to be gang-raped to settle a matter of family honour. Now living in England and working for the BBC, Mr. Saeed said he has watched the case closely and noticed a progression that reflects broader trends.
“The judges are part of the male-dominant society which is also seeing increasing religiosity in urban educated classes,” Mr. Saeed said in an e-mail. “This is the intellectual bankruptcy with which Pakistan is currently suffering.”
Now 40 years old, Ms. Mai herself says not much has improved for women in her country since she started her career as an activist. She has struggled to find Pakistani donors for her projects – a school, a shelter, an outreach centre – which leaves her dependent on funding from foreign groups such as the Canadian International Development Agency.
CIDA donated about $150,000 to the Mukhtar Mai Women's Organization; among other things, the money allowed her to build three new classrooms, purchase books and furniture and pay teachers' salaries.
She employs 19 teachers, six shelter staffers, seven outreach workers and three full-time staff at a resource centre that registers rape cases.
The organization could be forced to stop paying those salaries in a month, she says, because her bank accounts are running empty. Part of the CIDA funding was intended to help her develop fundraising capacity, but those efforts appear to have faltered despite her national and international tours to promote human rights, which have made her a household name in Pakistan.
“The number of victims is increasing every day,” Ms. Mai said by telephone from her village of Meerwala. “But we have less to give them.”
A CIDA spokesman said that Canadian officials in Islamabad are now considering a recent application for funding from Ms. Mai's group. But the number of women and girls at her project centre in Meerwala has already started to dwindle even before the money runs out, she said, because of security concerns.
Several men she accused of rape have been acquitted and recently returned to their homes in the same tiny village where she started her outreach projects. Local police posted guards outside her door, but it's unclear what might happen if the armed tribesmen in the area decide to exact revenge.
“We're still waiting for extra security,” she said. “Everybody here is under threat.”