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Rosa Parks of Pakistan in New York City

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Last updated on: November 08, 2005 12:43 IST

Some called her the Rosa Parks of Pakistan for her outstanding courage to stand up for justice despite threats to her life. Others identified her as the new voice and hope for all women fighting torture, abuse and sexual violence around the world.

At the Great Hall at Cooper Union this weekend, Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani woman who fought for justice and secured it after being gang-raped by members of a tribal jirga, turned into an instant hero as 200-odd guests, most of them women, gathered at an event to honour the visiting woman who started her bid to become literate only three years ago.

"Mai's journey has been truly remarkable and her legacy in the area of women's rights in Pakistan is beginning.

"She believes mistreatment and exploitation of women can end only through education," said Leena Khan of Asian American Network Against Abuse of Human Rights in her welcoming remarks.

"She has started a school in her village that has already transformed the lives of hundreds of young girls and she herself is studying in 3 rd grade in her own school. She has been able to turn the circumstances and become a beacon for the whole world," Khan said before Mai entered the cavernous hall to a long, standing ovation from the audience.

Dressed in a salwar kameez with a white headgear half-covering her face, Mai was flanked by Amna Buttar, president of the ANAA and Naseem Akhtar, an adult student from Mai's newly set up school in Meerwala, who accompanied her to her US visit.

Mai, who speaks only Urdu, fielded questions translated for her by Buttar.

All through her engagement with the audience, which consisted of attorneys, activists and academics, she seemed to exude a confidence and quick wit few would expect from a person of her background.

For example, when someone asked her as to why she went to Washington DC to testify before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and meet with the Bush Administration officials given the dismal human rights record of the Bush Administration in Iraq and in many other places, she shot back: "I would like to know what you people sitting in America have done (to stop that)."

The response drew a thumping applause from the audience.

"My sisters and brothers of America, I thank you all for coming here. I am very happy that all of you have supported my mission and that has increased my courage. I am fighting against injustice and oppression in my country where the poor, especially the women, are being violated," Mai said in her opening remarks.

"This violation is done by the big landlords and the feudal people who have money and power. But all I have to change this is the support of God and support of you people. Hopefully, I will end oppression and provide protection for women because I have the people's power with me. God willing, truth will prevail someday," Mai said.

In response to a question, Mai said she was deeply saddened by President Pervez Musharraf's remarks on rape victims in Pakistan. During his visit to the US in September in connection with the UN World Summit Musharraf told The Washington Post that claiming rape had become 'a moneymaking concern' in Pakistan.

"A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped," he said. Musharraf later denied making the comments during a press conference at the United Nations.

"I am very deeply saddened by the (remarks) of the head of our country. It does not seem right that he should say such things. Why would, after all, women want to go to Canada or America. I am very sad about such statements," she said.

Mai said she felt that NGOs mostly work in cities in Pakistan and that they need to go to villages and rural areas and work among poor people and women and elderly people. "Work needs to be done in rural areas," she said.

Earlier, Buttar said her courage and determination are what makes stand apart.

"In the darkest hour of her life, she wished for death or for a life where she would fight for justice-- it is this choice that sets her apart from everyone else.

"This is what Rosa Parks did. Neither of these women knew that by making a certain choice, they would be changing history. Mukhtar Bibi is Rosa Parks of Pakistan," she said.

Sita Hellerich of Asia Society and Purvi Shah Sakhi executive director addressed the event supported by Sakhi for South Asian Women, Asian Society, Turning Point for Women and Families and Cooper Union, among others.

During her US visit, Mai was given the title of 'bravest woman in the world' by Glamor magazine that honored her.

Suman Guha Mozumder in New York