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Not a victim, but a hero

Pakistan, July 27, 2009

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Nicholas Kristof

The New York Times
July, 2009

After being kidnapped at the age of 16 by a group of thugs and enduring a year of rapes and beatings, Assiya Rafiq was delivered to the police and thought her problems were over.

Then, she said, four police officers took turns raping her.

The next step for Assiya was obvious: She should commit suicide. That’s the customary escape in rural Pakistan for a raped woman, as the only way to cleanse the disgrace to her entire family.

Instead, Assiya summoned the unimaginable courage to go public and fight back. She is seeking to prosecute both her kidnappers and the police, despite threats against her and her younger sisters. This is a kid who left me awed and biting my lip; this isn’t a tale of victimization but of valor, empowerment and uncommon heroism.

“I decided to prosecute because I don’t want the same thing to happen to anybody else,” she said firmly.

Assiya’s case offers a window into the quotidian corruption and injustice endured by impoverished Pakistanis — leading some to turn to militant Islam.

“When I treat a rape victim, I always advise her not to go to the police,” said Dr. Shershah Syed, the president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Pakistan. “Because if she does, the police might just rape her again.”

Yet Assiya is also a sign that change is coming. She says she was inspired by Mukhtar Mai, a young woman from this remote village of Meerwala who was gang raped in 2002 on the orders of a village council. Mukhtar prosecuted her attackers and used the compensation money to start a school.

Mukhtar is my hero. Many Times readers who followed her story in past columns of mine have sent her donations through a fund at Mercy Corps, at mercycorps.org, and Mukhtar has used the money to open schools, a legal aid program, an ambulance service, a women’s shelter, a telephone hotline — and to help Assiya fight her legal case.

The United States has stood aloof from the ubiquitous injustices in Pakistan, and that’s one reason for cynicism about America here. I’m hoping the Obama administration will make clear that Americans stand shoulder to shoulder with heroines like Mukhtar and Assiya, and with an emerging civil society struggling for law and social justice.

Assiya’s saga began a year ago when a woman who was a family friend sold her to two criminals who had family ties to prominent politicians. Assiya said the two men spent the next year beating and raping her.

The men were implicated in a gold robbery, so they negotiated a deal with the police in the town of Kabirwala, near Khanewal: They handed over Assiya, along with a $625 bribe, in exchange for the police pinning the robbery on the girl.

By Assiya’s account, which I found completely credible, four police officers, including a police chief, took turns beating and raping her — sometimes while she was tied up — over the next two weeks. A female constable obligingly stepped out whenever the men wanted access to Assiya.

Assiya’s family members heard that she was in the police station, and a court granted their petition for her release and sent a bailiff to get her out. The police hid Assiya, she said, and briefly locked up her 10-year-old brother to bully the family into backing off.

The bailiff accepted bribes from both the family and the police, but in the end he freed the girl. Assiya, driven by fury that overcame her shame, told her full story to the magistrate, who ordered a medical exam and an investigation. The medical report confirms that Assiya’s hymen had been broken and that she had abrasions all over her body.

The morning I met Assiya, she said she had just received the latest in a series of threats from the police: Unless she withdraws her charges, they will arrest, rape or kill her — and her two beloved younger sisters.

The family is in hiding. It has lost its livelihood and accumulated $2,500 in debts. Assiya’s two sisters and three brothers have had to drop out of school, and they will find it harder to marry because Assiya is considered “dishonored.” Most of her relatives tell Assiya that she must give in. But she tosses her head and insists that she will prosecute her attackers to spare other girls what she endured.

(For readers who want to help, more information is available on my blog at: www.nytimes.com/ontheground.)

Assiya’s mother, Iqbal Mai, told me that in her despair, she at first had prayed that God should never give daughters to poor families. “But then I changed my mind,” she added, with a hint of pride challenging her fears. “God should give poor people daughters like Assiya who will fight.”