Speaking Out Against Tribal Injustice:Dishonored

Bobby Gulshan

A Film by Sigrun Norderval & Gard A. Andreassen
Icarus Films
2008, 52 Minutes

Pakistan stands at a crossroads. Like many nations throughout the global south, this Muslim majority land struggles with collisions and contradictions borne from its unique history and contemporary reckoning with modernity. The forces of Islamic fundamentalism, indigenous tribal tradition, and Pakistan’s increasing relevance on the global scene, have conspired to create an air of contention and conflict. The international headlines often paint a bleak picture.

Mukhtar Mai is a light in the dark. “Dishonored,”a film documenting her struggle, shows how the numerous forces vying for power in Pakistan converge in one woman’s heroic effort to rise above, while providing women throughout the developing world a way forward.

The filmmakers, Sigrun Norderval and Gard A. Andreassen,combine documentary interviews with dramatic re-enactments to tell Mukhtar’s story. In June of 2002, her brother Shakoor stood accused of fornicating with Salma, a young woman from the powerful Mastoi tribe of the village of Meerwala. The Mastoi elders formed a panchayat, or tribal court, and demanded recompense for Shakoor’s crime. Mukhtar was subsequently required to ask for forgiveness from the Mastoi clan. However, according to numerous accounts, rather accepting the formal apology, four members of the clan seized Mukhtar at gunpoint and gang-raped her.

It was expected that Mukhtar Mai would succumb to the shame brought upon herself and her family, and take her own life. It was expected that she would submit to the old tribal ways, to the obscure and entrenched interpretations of Sharia law.

Instead, Mukhtar Mai spoke out against her attackers. The film documents the events that brought Mukhtar’s story to the international stage, as well as depicting her struggle for justice through the Pakistani court system. The film excels in detailing Mukhtar’s emergence as a symbol for women’s rights in the developing world. She was named as Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 2005. Her memoir was published in France and subsequently translated into 23 languages. Mukhtar stood at the front of international protests, demanding that women of the Islamic world and the developing world in general be freed from the chattel-like conditions that plague millions.

Mukhtar’s strength and courage bore down on numerous centers of power. The filmmakers do a tremendous service in showing the parallel conflicts involved in the story. Most immediately, Mukhtar challenged the power of tribal patriarchs. In so doing, she exposed the contradictions inherent in certain Muslim societies, in which Sharia law is wedded to aboriginal practices. Jurisprudence and interpretation of scriptural intention is dodgy at best, oppressive and violent at worst. Mukhtar maintains on more than one occasion in the film that she sees no contradiction between being a woman who speaks against the injustices brought upon her, and her status as one of the Muslim faithful, thus taking possession of the faith, rather than allowing a narrow view of Islam to dispossess her. 

Furthermore, the film depicts her struggles with the state of Pakistan itself. President Pervez Musharraf declared publicly that Mukhtar’s passport was seized in order to prevent her from leaving Pakistan and besmirching the nation’s reputation. Through Mukhtar’s international media presence, Pakistan – and the Pakistani elite in particular – was forced to look upon itself and evaluate its own contradictions, its internal conflicts and its future. This is further embodied in a trial process that included two appeals as the Pakistani justice system vacillated between succumbing to its tribal past and embracing the rule of law and democracy.

And this is perhaps the great value of this film. The details of Mai’s case can be obtained from any number of sources. However, “Dishonored”succeeds because it manages not only to pay sufficient homage to a contemporary hero, but also to put her achievement in the very context that gives it meaning. A film of high production value and little dramatic embellishment, its brief 52 minute running time inflates the viewer with hope and inspiration.

Mukhtar has used proceeds from her book sales and speaking engagements to build numerous schools in Pakistan.  She receives death threats to this day. “Dishonored”gives the viewers a chance to see exactly the conditions and tribulations that beset those who would dare to push humanity forward.   

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009) 

Copyright (c) 2009, 2016 by Al Jadid

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