Saturday, February 25, 2012

See Mukhta Mai Conquer "Shame"

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See Mukhta Mai Conquer "Shame"

(from 5/29/07)

  • picture Mohammed Naqvi
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  • picture Mukhtar Mai

MUKHTAR MAI's transition from obedient, uneducated, anonymous young Pakistani woman into an internationally renowned spokesperson for victimized women is so incredulous that Hollywood hasn't touched her story. Instead, acclaimed, socially-conscious Pakistani filmmaker Mohammed Naqvi (who is now 27) spent years following Mai with his camera and the result is the must-see documentary "Shame," which was showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival and makes its television debut on Showtime Thursday, May 31.  At a time there is increased outrage about the "honor" killings of young women in the Muslim world, make it a point to see this story of an innocent woman who was gang-raped because her younger brother had supposedly had been sneaking around with a girl from a richer family.
The rape of Mukhtar Mai by four members of the offended family took place in June 2002 on the orders of council of tribal elders in the remote village of Meerwala, Tehsil Jattoi, Pakistan in Southern Punjab.  Instead of killing herself as expected for the "shame" of being raped, she went to a neighboring town and raised an outcry to bring the four men to justice. The media picked up on the story and she became a cause célèbre, first in Pakistan, and then around the world.  While her case against the jailed men is still pending, she has used compensation money to build the first schools in Meerwala.  Dedicating herself to reduce illiteracy and give power and awareness to women, she founded the Mukhtar Mai Women Welfare Organization in 2003.  While the head of the organization, Naseem Akhtar, looked on, Lise Stevens (of Offscreen and I had the rare privilege of speaking to Mukhtar Mai and Mohammed Naqvi at the Tribeca Film Festival.  The genial Naqvi served as our translator when we asked questions of the lovely Mai, who was patient, cheerful, and extremely soft-spoken.  You will notice that her answers below are brief, but please note that her actual responses seemed twice as long as what Naqvi translated back to us. 

Q:  Your village was so poor that it didn't have a school, much less a place to show movies.  Had you ever seen a documentary before "Shame?"

Mukhtar Mai: Yes, but only over the last four or five years.

Q: Did you have a goal in mind when you agreed to make the movie with Mohammed?

MM: I'm confident that at least the women who see it will be encouraged to speak out is something similar happens to them. I am hopeful.

Q: Has your story inspired other women to protest when it has happened to them?

MM: Absolutely.  Other women have gone to the police. 

Q: Mohammed, how did "Shame" come about?

Mohammed Naqvi: I was working on a documentary called "Terror's Children" for the Discovery Channel here in New York.  For that I returned to Pakistan, where I'm from. I had no idea I was going to go make a documentary about Mukhtar Mia.  At the time I was just interested in meeting her because she was such a big story.  There were many people who came to meet her--journalists and media from all over the world, including several filmmakers.  When I visited her, it was her dream to open a school where she could educate the next generation of boys and girls.  For someone who isn't educated to have the foresight and desire to do that was amazing to me.  There are very few people who can take the very worst of a situation and turn it into the opposite of that.  At the risk of sounding like a cliché, I was really inspired by her and the work she was doing and I called her the next day about making a film.

DP: Did you plan to make the movie about what already had happened or did you expect it to be about what would happen in her life over the next few years?

MN: I had no preconceived notion of whether it would or wouldn't be about only what had happened.  But pretty early on I felt that I wanted to concentrate on moving forward, what was happening as I followed her story.

Q:  When making the film, were you with her the entire time or were you on other projects?

MN:  I was on other projects, too, but I would come basically for three or four weeks, or a month, at least twice a year, and also at key moments over the last several years.  I went to her village specifically but also to big cities like Karachi, wherever she was.

Q: Mukhtar, were you surprised that your story wasn't just about yourrself and that people everywhere cared about it?

MM: I am still surprised to this day and can't fathom it.  I must have been blessed by God to be that one soul that so many people all over the world love.  I am in shock. 

Q: Mohammed, this question has to do with the rape itself.  Does she think she was raped because that higher-class neighbor family had some misguided sense of honor, or does she think was she raped just because they simply wanted to do it? 

MN: I'd feel really uncomfortable asking her that, so can you please rephrase your question?

Q: What about the concept that rape around the world has been used as a means to destroy families?

MN: Oh, I see what you're saying.  You're looking at it from a really Western context, and I know that's not what it is.  I'll explain what I think it is and I'll answer your question then if you don't mind.  Basically, if you look at the mechanisms of the tribal councils of villages in the Southern Punjab of Pakistan, you will see that there are three ways to resolve conflict: land, money, and women.  I say women as they're used as conflict resolution mechanisms between two clans. (Meerwala is a very informal, a rural backwater town and what happens between families who don't get along is very much like the Hatfields and McCoys.)  When I say women are used, they're not usually used as it was in this case.  Typically a woman from the offending Family A will get married to a male from Family B, and a woman from Family B will marry a male from Family A.  You see what I'm saying?  In that way, you will have a relationship between the two families and since you have a relationship the conflict is watered down. In this case, Mukhtar was supposed to get married to Family A to resolve what happened between her brother and their sister, but Family A didn't accept her because her family, Family B, was lower class.  So what they did to her instead of agreeing to the marriage was an aberration to this whole system that people respect.  It was truly heinous. 

Q: It seems that the family of the girl who had the romance with Mukhtar's brother, of which four would rape Mukhtar for what her brother did, would have punished the girl as well. But in the film when the girl gives testimony on their behalf, she seems fine. So why did nothing happen to her?

MN: The fact is the family's story was fabricated after the fact.  They made up an entire defense story, including what she was saying.

Q: At one point in 2005, the high court's decision to punish the four rapists was overturned because of a lack of evidence.  But weren't there a lot of villagers who witnessed the rape who could testify for Mukhtar?

MN: That's correct. There were witnesses, but they were scared to step forward.  Mukhtar had fears herself.  She worried about her family if she spoke out. 

Q: Mukhtar, what about fear for herself?

MM: I was very upset and thought about killing myself, as was expected of me because of my shame.  But I felt that if I was going to die anyway from committing suicide, then I might as well die fighting.

Q: Did you ever think of finding a way to get retribution without spending years dealing with the courts?

MM: No, I don't believe in taking the law into my own hands.

Q: In the movie, we see Glamour magazine holding a star-studded ceremony for you, naming you the "Bravest Woman in the World."  What was your reaction to this?

MM (laughing): I had no idea what Glamour was but it was nice of them.

Q: Mohammed, at a public screening at the Tribeca Festival, you called Mukhtar one of your heroes.  Did your admiration of her as a hero change into other aspects as you made the movie because you had insight into her that we don't have?

MN: What insight I did have was to see that she's essentially a very ordinary woman.  I think those make the best of heroes as it is-just ordinary people who have extraordinary responsibilities.  I think what I learned is that she's not only a hero herself, but she really truly does bring out the best in everyone else, including myself--I'd like to think so. I'm just astounded by how much work they have to do every single day, with all these women from all over Pakistan and all over the world coming to them for counseling at their crisis center.  They have these twenty-hour days.  That's true of both Mukhtar and Naseem, who you can see in the movie as the head of the Mukhtar Mai Women's Welfare Organization.  (We're actually here in America to gain support from the New York State Department and Congress in D.C. when they have meetings next week.)  There's a school for boys now, a school for girls, a woman's crisis center, which is grossly understaffed, and they're almost done with a hospital.   But what they're doin is such a massive undertaking  and, I repeat, it's literally just two or three people, and everyone else around them helps. 

Q: Mukhtar, one of the great scenes in the movies is of the press conference, where the female government official is cheerfully saying that that it was for your own good that you were being watched around the clock and denied freedom to leave the country to speak about your case.  And there you were sitting next to her and contradicting everything she said.  Did you understand why people watching the film laugh?

MM (laughing): Yes, I knew why they laughed!

Q: What is it like for you to see your father speak near the end of the film about how proud he is of your being so courageous, and saying no one has a daughter like you?

MM: I never really knew he said or thought all these things until I saw it in the film yesterday.  I was really happy and proud because it was after so many years that I actually brought him to say that.  I was very moved. 

Q:  At the end of the film, the mother of the neighboring family is still so angry. Are there other individuals and families in the village that feel that way or is everyone else pleased with the changes to the town that you brought about, including the schools and the women's crisis center?

MM: There are absolutely some people who don't like me, especially from other families.  That's like with anyone--some people like you and some don't.  But I have to say there are a lot more supporters now than ever before. 

Q: Do you think that through educating girls that this will happen less, where men feel free to take this kind of punishment on women for the transitions of family members?

MM: Absolutely, but it's just as important to educate the boys.  Only through that can both genders really respect each other and love each other.  And that's what my hope is for the next generation.

Q: Do you see it getting better?

MM: Yes.

Q: At the end of the film you were in the fifth grade at your girls school.  Today you're playing hooky, but where are you now in your education?

MM (laughing): I'm still in the fifth grade.  It's been a slow process because I have to travel everywhere.

MN: In addition to the travel, she has to maintain the NGO and manage all the schools.  But in late May she goes back to take the primary school exams-like the GDE equivalent but for primary school before you go to middle school-so she has those exams.  She thinks she'll fail, but hopefully she'll pass--we'll see. 

MM: Education is so important.  It's important for every woman and I'm no exception to that.

Q: Having grown up in that isolated town, is travel intimidating to you?

MM: No, I'm not intimidated or daunted by travel or anything I experience, but I get tired while traveling, so I don't like to do too much of it.   Also, I prefer staying in my house to hotel rooms. 

Q: Mohammed, how long did you work on the film and when did you know it was time to stop?

MN:  I followed her for four or five years. I knew when to stop because when I visited her in Meerwala for the last time, in March 2006.  When I began on the film her really big mission or goal in life was to get justice and revenge.  She is still determined to put her attackers behind bars, where they are now, and get a ruling in her favor in the case that is still pending in the Supreme Court.  But that agenda, while it still exists in her, was slowly replaced by her desire to educate the next generation of boys and girls, and her work at her women's crisis center. It became basically larger than her, you know?  It became about taking something so bad and awful and turning it into the very best.  That to me was the end because the story that we had wanted to tell was now two stories.

Q: Now that your film is over and you've been together so many years, are you going to have a hard time pulling away?

MN:  Oh, definitely.  I'm still sort of involved in their projects.  And I make it a point to go to Meerwala at least once a year when I to back to Karachi, which is where my family is.  I'll make a point of visiting her and seeing the school.  After working with Mukhtar to the extent that I have, I think it would be really selfish or opportunistic of me to just drop the ball. I don't think I could do that.

Q: Talk about your film being shown on Showtime.

MN: It comes on Showtime on May 31, in North America.  After that we hope to be showing in territories in Europe and Asia, normal distribution platforms.  What I'm most excited about is that it comes out in Pakistan in December. It will be on GEO television, which is our big 24-hour news channel. 

Q: What is the one main reaction you want for the film?

MN: I think people will see that "Shame" is a very simple, universal story about an underdog who really overcomes and makes things possible.  But if there's any reaction I want, and I hope I'm not overreaching here, it's that the film do what Mukhtar continues to do.  If it somehow inspires women or victims to speak out rather than remain silent than I've more than done my job.  I'd be so happy.

Q: Muhktar, what if people see the movie and are moved to ask, "What can I do to help you?"

MM: If people support me by seeing the movie, that's enough of a human bond to help me continue what I'm doing in my fight for justice and education. I thank them for that.

Q: The title of the movie is "Shame."  You say you are still haunted by what happened, but considering your upbringing do you ever feel shame?

MM: Absolutely not.  I feel no shame.


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