The Work of a Powerful Woman

Phillip Standin... - Posted on 19 November 2013

Leontyne Smith/PNN

I am a woman with dignity, and I believe in education for all, no matter what.  I became inspired, living through my own years of shame and slander, after reading about Mukhtar Mai, a rural Pakistani Muslim woman who went through trauma and survived.


I used to be part of an organized religion, and was slandered and put to shame in front of everyone.  Why?  Because I tested the waters of my own natural hormones and lost my virginity to a man who sold me a lie.  Using manipulation to conquer my chastity, he told me he would marry me.  But as soon as it happened, I began to cry; I realized I had made a mistake.  This man promised me he would tell no one, yet immediately he called his friends, gangsters in my eyes, and tells them all that he had sex with me. 


His friends, men who were important members of the organization, took me into a large room and announced to our entire congregation that I was Mary Magdalene, that I was a hypocrite and an agent.  They never asked me my own side of the story.  They never spoke to the man who lied to me, who was known to mislead women.  They told me I did not deserve to go to college, and had to drop out and get married because I had lost my virginity and had become “wild.”  But I refused.


I walked out that night with my head down, staring at the floor, with everyone shaming me for being human.  In some religions, it seems like women are not even seen as human, but as sinful creatures with no claim to humanity.  Standing there in  front of the eyes of the whole congregation, it felt like they had stoned me merely with their words and looks. 


It has been ten years since this experience, and I have not been with a man since.  I have been too traumatized. The entire religious community threw me into the pits of hell—they told me my family would die, that if I left their organization I would lose my job, that I would amount to nothing.  I rarely speak about it because it too painful. And it all occurred because I was not living my life as a submissive woman, because I was not following their rules.


Mukhtar Mai’s story made me realize the deep injustice, oppression, and tragedy women face at the hands of men, and her triumph inspired me.   In 2002 Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped by order of her tribal council as punishment for her younger brother’s alleged relationship with a woman from another clan.  Instead of living a life of shame, or committing suicide, Mukhtar spoke out, fighting for justice in the Pakistani courts, and making world headlines.   Further defying customs, she started two schools for girls in her village, and a crisis center for abused women.  Mukhtar, a woman who had never learned to read but had memorized the Koran by heart, realized that only a radical change in mentality could break brutal, archaic traditions and social codes.


As I spoke about Mukhtar’s experience during Newsroom, a man stood up and politely asked for me to understand that the heart of Islam is not like this, that men manipulate religion due to their culture.  This made me feel a lot better.  The homeboy, always rockin’ dreadlocks, smiled after we spoke, and respected my opinion about the oppression of women.  I went home and thought, “this elder is right.  People don’t realize that it’s men who do these things, not God.”


As a poverty scholar, I believe women should be recognized and congratulated for the perseverance and hard work that they do.  I felt a strong presence in Newsroom this November, because by speaking about Mukhtar’s experience, I was able to release some of my pain without having to explain my own story. 


Like Mukhtar, I refused to live the lies of these men.  I refused their oppression, and they hate me to this day.  But thanks to Mukhtar Mai, I realize that I am not alone.


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