Meerwala Firsthand: Memoirs of a Visiting Physician
The following account is from a New York-based physician deployed by Virtue Foundation to visit Mukhtar Mai and render medical assistance and supplies to children in the hospitals and shelters Mukhtar has established in her village with the compensation money she received:
After meeting Dr. Amna Buttar, President of the Asian American Network of Abuse Against Women (ANAA), and Rienne, the Dutch Law PhD, on the evening of the 19th in Lahore for dinner, the following morning Rienne and I met The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristoff in the hotel and went to the airport to fly to Multan. Amna and Kristoff’s cameraman met us at Lahore airport, and we all arrived in Multan together.
Amna’s cousin had arranged for two armed security guards to pick us up at Multan airport. From there we drove about four and a half hours before we reached Mukhtar Mai’s home/school complex in Meerwala. On the way to Meerwala, we passed many villages and towns. As I was looking around, my eyes happened to meet some of the local men’s eyes, and I immediately felt that they would easily have killed me for having daring to look them straight in the eyes. At that point, I realized that these men will probably never change their attitudes, and that the only effective way to bring about real change is through the education of their children. Later, I found out that Mukhtar felt exactly the same way.
At the gate of Mukhtar’s complex, we had to register our names with the police. I met Mukhtar upon my arrival. I gave her all the medical supplies I had brought and assured her that Virtue Foundation would do everything it could to support her courageous efforts in Meerwala. Mukhtar’s friend, Nassim, informed me that it costs approximately $10,000 per year to maintain Mukhtar’s elementary school for one year, and that she would provide me with a complete budget for the school’s expenses. I was heartened and impressed to see that Mukhtar now had 250 students enrolled in her school.
Mukhtar and her family were very gracious and served us an early dinner. After dinner we all accompanied Kristoff to interview two rape victims who where now housed in Mukhtar’s home. During our conversations with Mukhtar she revealed that she had received death threats not only from the locals, but also from high-ranking government officials. Yet, she reiterated that she would not be deterred from her mission by these threats.
The first victim was Parveen, whom Kristoff has written about extensively. The second victim’s story, however, was what brought me to tears. She was a 7-year-old girl who was raped by her uncle, after which her mother took her and her infant sister and walked for 24 hours to Mukhtar’s complex. When I looked at the little girl’s eyes, her pain was evident and it felt like a dagger that pierced my heart. When Kristoff asked her what she would do to her uncle if she could, she replied, “I would take a gun and kill him!” Once we finished the interviews, it was late at night and we all retired for the evening.
The next morning there was a big event planned for the students to receive their grades. There was a large tent set up in the complex for this event, and I estimated there were over 500 people in attendance. On our way to be seated onstage, a row of schoolgirls threw rose petals as we walked by. There were other Pakistani human rights dignitaries there as well. Each of us addressed the audience and the students in turn. I introduced the children to Virtue Foundation and its goal of raising awareness and implementing change, as well as its commitment to support Mukhtar’s noble efforts in any way it could. I also noted I was impressed at how confident the students looked and what a great role Mukhtar had played in this achievement, again congratulating her on her efforts. Mukhtar then announced the names of the students who had received the highest grades and asked us to hand out their prizes. After the awards, there was a school play in which the students depicted a young girl being forced into marriage by her mother and then being killed by her husband for not doing what he demanded of her. At the funeral of this young bride, the mother-in-law was feigning crying and was saying what a shame it was that her bride had killed herself. It was a chilling experience, especially when I recalled the type of plays students perform in the US by comparison.
On our way out, I was approached by a man who looked like a local reporter seeking an interview, but my gut feeling was that he was part of the secret police. I apologized and declined the interview under the pretext that we were late in catching our flight. Before we left the compound, we were approached by Pakistani intelligence officers who collected all of our business cards before allowing us to leave. At that point, Kristoff and Amna went to the brothel where Parveen was imprisoned, and Riene and I returned to Multan airport accompanied by one of the armed security guards plus a police escort that led us all the way to the airport. On my way back home, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of gratefulness for having had this experience and for the numerous details that we take for granted everyday in the U.S. I truly believe that if every person could witness what I had seen in Meerwala, he or she would undoubtedly feel the same way and would be compelled to help those less fortunate in any way possible.
The picture I have selected for this article depicts the anxious uncertainty of the little girl, who is not in school, in contrast to the confidence of the uniformed schoolgirls surrounding her.