Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Second Wife

Shabbat is my day to catch up on a week's pile of newspapers, and today I was struck by several stories--enough to write blog posts about them. But none moved me more than this one from Wednesday's New York Times.

It's the story of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who in 2002 was ordered by a village council to be gang raped, punishment for a deed for which her 12-year-old brother had been framed, as part of a clan rivalry. "As members of the high-status tribe danced in joy, four men stripped her naked and took turns raping her. Then they forced her to walk home naked in front of 300 villagers," wrote Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times that September, in the first of his many articles about her plight.

Instead of committing suicide, as many rape victims there do out of disgrace, Mukhtar Mai accused her attackers, earning national attention and becoming a symbol of courage for women in oppressive societies. The government awarded her protection and a payment of $8,300, which she used to start schools, one for boys and another for girls; she immediately enrolled in the fourth grade of the girls' school. Her biography, In the Name of Honor: a Memoir, (2006) describes her ordeal.

Since then the number of schools she runs has expanded and she also heads an ambulance service and women's aid group. And in the news this week was the announcement of her marriage.

This is seemingly the happy ending for a woman whose life has been more than difficult. At 37, with all the publicity of her gang rape and subsequent legal travails, the prospects of a joyous romantic conclusion appeared dim.

But reading the article about her marriage left me appalled. It turns out that she relented to the proposals of the "constable" who had guarded her, Nasir Abbas Gabol, who is 7 years her junior, not out of love, but out of pity for his first wife. To whom he is still married.

Gabol's mistreatment of that first wife, Shumaila, was the clincher--"I am a woman and can understand the pain and difficulties faced by another woman," Mukhtar Mai told a reporter. And so, after her future spouse attempted suicide and threatened to divorce the first wife as gestures of his intent, Mukhtar Mai gave in, so she could impose conditions: that he give the first wife ownership of his house, a plot of land, and $125 a month.

For that, she remains in her village of Meerwala while he lives in his village. But, she said, per her status as wife #2, Gabol "can come here whenever he wants and finds it convenient."

Every day, Jews begin their "bruchot ha shachar," a series of morning blessings, with grateful acknowledgement that God "has not made me of the nations," i.e. a non-Jew. But it covers more than that in my mind--I am grateful for all aspects of our privileged life in the United States, where women have always enjoyed the respect that Judeo-Christian values supply. When I read of Mukhtar Mai and her loveless marriage, the clan rivalries that a Moslem caste system encourages, the little chance of escape these women face, I am awed by the freedoms we take for granted and the lifestyle we enjoy. I don't know what I ever did to deserve so many options, so many privileges, but I am reminded again not to waste any of them, nor complain about minor snafus.

Mukhtar Mai is the second wife; her husband can have up to four. What a contrast with American marriage, which joins one husband with one wife, ideally as equals and soulmates. This is another indicator that the battle against Islamic extremism is cultural, with democracy pitted against the same sharia law that condemned Mukhtar Mai to rape and disgrace. Not all cultures are alike, and I am fortunate to live where democracy prevails. I can only hope that some day Mukhtar Mai can enjoy similar liberties.

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