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Humble Heroine: Mukhtar Mai in Sacramento
Mukhtar Mai, a humble village belle from Pakistan, was declared Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year for her fearless stand against sexist oppression. She recently visited Sacramento, and our reporter Ras H. Siddiqui was there.
(Above): Mukhtar Mai holds Naymel Munir at the Borders book store in Sacramento, Calif. [RAS H. SIDDIQUI photo]
One of the most famous personalities originating from Pakistan today is a humble woman named Mukhtar Mai from the village of Meerwala in the Seraiki language speaking belt of Southern Punjab. A few community activists in Sacramento, Calif., hosted this great woman for four days in December 2007, thanks to the efforts of the Sacramento Valley Chapter of the California Credit Union League and Loomis Lions Club member Jack Morris. Accompanied by her trusted companion Naseem Akhtar, Mukhtar Mai (also known as Mukhtaran Bibi) was received at the local airport by Jack and Freda Morris, Tariq Munir and this author.
For those who may not be aware of Mukhtar’s tragic start in Pakistan as a fighter for women’s rights, education and social justice in the feudal environment of Southern Punjab, it all started out with an assault on her in June, 2002. She was raped, an “honor punishment,” because her younger brother Shakoor was seen with a woman of another tribe. To protect the honor of that tribe, the village council “decided” that Mukhtar should pay for this “crime” by being assaulted. And the “sentence” was carried out. The village Imam, Abdul Razzak, on finding out, condemned the rape during his Friday sermon and a local journalist broke the story to the world. Mukhtar Mai bravely turned the legal table on her attackers. She filed charges in court against the men who assaulted her and they are now in prison awaiting a Supreme Court decision.
In August 2005, Mukhtar Mai was awarded a gold medal for bravery by the Government of Pakistan. In November 2005, she was declared Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year. And she was awarded 500,000 rupees (just over $,8000) in 2002 by the government, which she subsequently used to start a school and women’s shelter in Meerwala.
The rest, as they say, is history. And that includes her book “In the Name of Honor” and a movie titled “Shame” made by Mohammed Naqvi. Her welfare organization (http://www.mukhtarmaiwwo.org/) is now well known throughout the region. One in also happy to report that no such tribal council sentencing incident against women has occurred in Southern Punjab ever since Mukhtar Mai took her brave stand.
(Above): Mukhtar Mai with attendees at a reading from her book at the Borders Book store in Sacramento, Calif. Also seen is Sacramento-based neurologist, Dr. Firdos Sheikh (r). [RAS H. SIDDIQUI photo]
Meeting “Lady Mukhtar,” as Jack Morris calls her, was a humbling experience. She does not say a great deal and barely gets by in Urdu and my Seraiki speaking and understanding skills are poor. But thanks to Durriya Syed and Tariq Munir, we understood everything she said through translation. It may sound cumbersome that at times a question in English directed at Mukhtar was next translated into Urdu and a reply was received in Seraiki to be translated back into Urdu and English. But when this actually occurred, things went rather smoothly. Naseem Akhtar, who always travels with Mukhtar, speaks fluent Urdu and is more than willing to speak her mind on any occasion. She asked us to dwell more on the cause that Mukhtar has pursued and not on the politics or perceived reputation fallout that some Pakistani origin people are concerned about.
It took several weeks to plan and execute the visit and fundraising for Mukhtar Mai in Sacramento . In the process, this reporter met some wonderful people who had made a commitment to help this unique woman in a part of the world that only Jack Morris amongst us had visited. Event chairman Phil Meserve and his wife Susan, Henry Wirz, Dana Newell, Paul Hersek and Mike Webber, Terry Halleck, Carey Nicholson, Herb Long, Stephen Serfozo, Jane Einhorn and Nathan Schmidt all deserve a big hand along with Jack Morris for making this effort possible. From the Pakistani community Naeem Syed and Bashir Choudhry deserve full credit along with Rashid Ahmad, Basim ElKarra and Dr. Hamza El Nakhal from the local Muslim community. Thanks are due to all of these individuals along with the following $5,000 Classroom Sponsors: SAFE Credit Union, The Golden 1 Credit Union, Wescorp, Pakistani-American Association of Greater Sacramento and the Council on American Islamic Relations Sacramento Valley . Plus the $2,500 Teacher Sponsor: Summit Fiserv. And last but not least the $1,000 Student Sponsors: California Credit Union League, World Council of Credit Unions, Travis Credit Union, CUNA Mutual and The Tariq Munir Family.
Mukhtar Mai spent the afternoon of Dec 8 visiting the Folsom area with Jack Morris. The following day included a visit to local Westminster Church and their Sunday morning services. This was followed by her address to a large congregation at the Spiritual Life Center which Steve Magagnini of the Sacramento Bee has covered very well. Mukhtar Mai and Naseem Akhtar next visited the SALAM Islamic Sunday school in session and had lunch there. Durriya Syed, who is currently president of the Sacramento Interfaith Service Bureau, translated for Mukhtar at these events and at local television channels along with Tariq Munir. The visit to a local area school that morning (Highlands Academy of Arts and Design in the Grant Union School District ) was widely covered in the local media. The visit of Mukhtar to Borders Bookstore for her book signing of “In the Name of Honor” also went really well in a standing room only presentation.
(Above): Mukhtar Mai (seated, 2nd from l) at SALAM Islamic Sunday school. [RAS H. SIDDIQUI photo]
We visited Mehran Restaurant located next to Borders for dinner, where the person whom Time magazine had designated as one of the most influential people in the world only requested “bhindi” (okra) on the menu. The following morning we saw Mukhtar on another television channel and she was present at a radio show or two before the main fundraising dinner that evening.
“An Evening with Mukhtar Mai: Building Schools of Hope Fundraising Event” at the Arden Hilton in Sacramento was extraordinary. Introduced by event chairman Phil Meserve, a United States Marine Corps Color Guard presentation started the formalities. Two young Pakistani-American girls Javairia Abbasi and Hibba Munir read and translated an invocation from the Holy Qur’an. They were followed by an inspirational invocation by the Reverend Benny Ellis , the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Church CoOp Credit Union.
Phil Meserve took the opportunity to thank all the sponsors and supporters of this event.
“We are here tonight to honor and support a most unusual woman. We all have an interest in the work she does and we want to help her and her organization bring literacy and education to the rural areas of Pakistan,” said Phil. “We don’t criticize her country or her government for what she experienced because we have gone through much the same in our own country, as have most countries in the world. Few people can change the hearts of a nation, and like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King changed the hearts of America , Mukhtar Mai is changing the hearts of Pakistan ,” added Phil Meserve.
Jack Morris was introduced next. The fact is that without Jack, there would not have been a Mukhtar Mai visit to Sacramento . It all started when Jack, the Lion from Loomis , California , visited Mukhtar Mai in Meerwala in 2005, with the help of the Lions Club Members in Karachi and Multan , Pakistan . He started with Assalamalaikum and asked everyone to respond with Walaikumsalam. “Did you touch your heart?” he asked. In a passionate presentation, which included slide pictures from his visit, Jack described Mukhtar’s school efforts for the over 300 people in attendance. He took everyone present along as co-passengers on his guarded journey through rural Pakistan .
Mukhtar Mai herself next came on to the stage. Speaking in beautiful Seraiki which Durriya Syed and Tariq Munir translated into English, she thanked everyone for their valued support. “With your help and the courage that God gave me, I see success in future,” she said. She said that close to 1,000 kids go to her school now, 700 girls and 300 boys. She added that her motto was “Zulm Ko Ilm Se Khatam Karo” or “Fight Injustice through knowledge and education.”
After an interesting question and answer session Phil Meserve formally concluded the event. “To close the evening I am pleased to announce that by a rough accounting we have collected close to $30,000 from the event this evening. We will forward those funds to Mercy Corps, the funds transfer agent her organization has used in the past, and will be put to wonderful use. I might add that Mercy Corps has waived all expenses and fees to insure all the proceeds of the event get to Pakistan ,” said Phil. “God Bless America ” were the closing words of the event.
It was wonderful to finally meet this quiet and humble lady from Pakistan who has inspired many people overseas to help her to spread education in an area of Punjab in which the feudal environment did not allow functional schools before. A lady whose courage has drawn admirers throughout the world, yet who travels all the way from Lahore with only one small carry on bag, speaks softly in Seraiki and asks for only bhindi and roti at a restaurant in Sacramento.
(Interested readers can find more information on the Web at www.sacvalleychapter.org/).
Ras Hafiz Siddiqui is a South Asian American writer who lives in Sacramento, Calif.