Mukhtar Mai was once an anonymous Pakistani villager – but that was before she was gang-raped, apparently on the orders of local elders in a neighbouring village.
From then onwards she has been determined to bring them to justice, and her fight made her an international figure.
Some of the men she said attacked her were convicted, but then the appeal court in Lahore overturned their convictions, amid an outcry from human rights groups.
Now Mukhtar Mai, who is in her mid-30s, is writing her own internet diary, or blog, about her life and her concerns, as a woman from a remote village in southern Punjab.
Girls in Mukhtar Mai’s village have her to thank for their education.
She established the school and others with compensation money awarded to her by the courts in her rape trial.
Mukhtar Mai is exceptional because she defied the shame of the gang-rape four years ago by not only bringing her attackers to justice, but also by fighting for a change in traditional attitudes towards women.
In that role, she hears many of the problems facing the women of her village. And she now contributes a weekly diary or weblog to the internet site of the BBC Urdu Service.
“Mostly I talk about incidents which are cruel and painful. I try to discuss only the most serious things in my blog: the poor treatment of women, sometimes leading to killing,” she says.
Mukhtar Mai’s blog is unique. Although she cannot read or write, she tells her stories to a local BBC journalist, who types it up as a web diary.
And it provides an insight not only into the crimes committed by men against rural women, but also the hardships of their daily lives.
“I sometimes talk about my childhood memories – events that take place at my schools; or perhaps just about the household chores.
“I don’t think that the people in our village know what it’s all about and what I am writing. But I’ve received a few e-mails from other places – people who have been reading my blog on line and who encourage me to continue.”
When Mukhtar Mai says her blog has prompted a few emails, she does herself a disservice. Scores of emails have flooded into the BBC Urdu site, in response to her diary. Mostly they are from men and mostly they have been encouraging.
“Mukhtar Mai, you have begun a wonderful thing. Such crimes as the one committed against you will continue to happen if the powerful continue to harass the weak,” says one man.
“May God grant you the power to continue your endeavour. For the illiterate people of the village, it’s not easy to bring these thugs to justice,” says another.
The comments received have been not just from within Pakistan, but from the Urdu-speaking diaspora worldwide.
But they are not all positive. Some – a significant minority – speak of Mukhtar Mai’s disservice to the image of Pakistan, and the unbalanced view she gives of rural life.
“All of us sympathise with what happened to you. Everyone feels bad about that. Please now try to forget and stay at home, and don’t make us a laughing-stock in the world,” says one writer.
Another is equally outspoken: “What a shame! Are women in Europe and elsewhere not raped every day? The way certain Western organisations have given prominence to Mai in their reports – to me, it’s a conspiracy to humiliate Pakistan.
“I accept that Mai has suffered; but I am against the things she did afterwards, exposing such incidents as really wrong, when the Pakistani government is trying to provide justice. She should stop it right now.”
Make what you will of those railing against her – perhaps 5-10% of the mailbag. But it is a measure of the controversy she has stirred up within Pakistan, and the hidden issues so rarely talked about that she has managed to bring into mainstream discussion.
For Mukhtar Mai, it is the overwhelmingly positive message she has received which she says gives her the strength to carry on.
“It’s their kindness that they read the material. I am grateful to them. They encourage me to continue in my work in the village, and for women everywhere in Pakistan.
“And I set up my school because I believe education is the key to ending the cruelty I see around me every day,” she says.
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