“It has to go either one way or the other,” said Mohammed Naqvi as he described the Pakistani legal system’s treatment of rape: an approach that’s half British common law, half sharia. Naqvi is the director of Shame, which airs on Showtime tonight at 9 P.M. It is a moving documentary about Mukhtaran Mai, an illiterate 30-year-old woman from rural Pakistan who was gang-raped in 2002 on the orders of a local tribal council, which in those parts are the law.
His comment echoes across a greater Middle East that is resolutely stuck in the middle. Iraq’s democratic experiment is fighting for survival against medieval decapitators. On Gaza children’s TV, a Palestinian Mickey Mouse character reminds children to brush their teeth and pursue eternal jihad against the Jews. Forward or backward, the region has to go one way or the other.
If it ever settles on “forward,” Mukhtaran’s hometown Meerwala — an unpaved, un-electrified town of 500 — appears to be the last place on earth that will hear about it. Residents linger in dark doorways, eyeing the camera with sideways suspicion for a second before retreating within. As Shame opens, the Mastois, the clan whose members raped Mukhtaran, exalt the town as a Punjabi Mayberry.
Initially, Mukhtaran is less sanguine: “After they raped me, my brother said ‘Had you been married this never would have happened.’” In footage shot in 2002, she clutches a veil around her face as she speaks. Her father was reluctant to go to the authorities. The Mastois threatened to kill anyone who talked. Victim and perpetrator both understood the shame and everyone, most of all Mukhtaran, just wanted it to go away. As per tradition vis-à-vis shamed women, she attempted suicide. When it failed, she realized she had nothing left to lose. So she went to the police.
Shame observes Mukhtaran’s epochal honesty in a mode somewhere between meta-documentary and epilogue. After the police reluctantly took her report, a local paper wrote up a story. Within hours it was a national story; within days, international. Nicholas Kristof swung by. Mai gives persistent interviews to curious press. She doesn’t talk about women’s rights or rule of law. In a distant tone she repeats that she was wronged, and the courts have to set it right.
Leaving the big denouements to the copious news footage, Shame captures Pakistan in reactive flux. Mukhtaran is a fixed position. Everyone around her — omnipresent crowds of men jostling to see the action and speak their piece — is reacting.
It’s tempting (though patronizing) to believe in a broader Middle East that’s perpetually incapable of adopting Enlightenment norms. Authorities arrest and prosecute six Mastoi men. But it isn’t just an embattled secular government that understands modernity when it wants to. The Mastois’ defense lawyers show up outside the tiny concrete courthouse and claim for the assembled cameras that their clients are the victims of a media frenzy. The familiar quality of their spin—nearly indistinguishable from what you’d hear from an American celebrity attorney — almost warms the heart.
Government ministers pose for pictures with Mukhtaran and write her a hefty check for her bravery. Meerwala suddenly gets electricity and roads. Her attackers are convicted. In more recent footage, she’s no longer hiding her face. There is more to the judicial plot, but the film shifts gears and midway through begins Mukhtaran’s second story.
With her government compensation, she could have left Meerwala forever. “If I had left, everything in my village would have been like it was before,” she says. Mukhtaran pours all her reward into building the area’s first girls school. Uneducated herself, she believes that only education can prevent what happened from happening again. As Shame flips through 2004, 2005 and 2006 Mukhtaran builds a boy’s school, a dairy cooperative, and a women’s crisis center. Naqvi updates me that her new high school, open to every child in the village, just opened this spring.
As Americans try to figure out where the Muslim world is headed, there’s no shortage of experts to inform us that, for various historical, religious, and cultural reasons that only experts can really understand, we just can’t apply our concepts of human rights, pluralism, and proper government to the region.
In my conversation with Naqvi, he doesn’t mention grave historical, religious, or cultural forces. “At the heart of it is a very universal theme,“ he tells me, “an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances.” He adds that as a result of Mukhtaran’s courage, Pakistan’s evidence standards for rape cases, which previously made prosecuting the offense nearly impossible, have been loosened.
Pessimism about the prospects for change in the greater Middle East is plentiful and cheap. Shame is a precious rebuke. And it suggests that progress generates momentum. The remaining Mastois are bitter about it all, but not enough to keep their children from attending Mukhtaran’s school. Local elders argue vigorously for the cameras about the injustice done to Mukhtaran. Even her father has outgrown the shame.
“I thank god for giving me a daughter like Mukhtaran,” he says in closing.
–Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York City.