Pakistani gang-rape victim Mukhtar Mai, who won a tragic fame in the West as the cause celebre of oppressed women, is all smiles since marrying a police constable and defying yet another stigma.
Ensconced in a bungalow with air conditioning, sofas and a computer, the woman who can read only some of Pakistan's national language Urdu and admits the English alphabet is beyond her has never been happier.
AdvertisementSeven years after her ordeal, she may still be a pariah among illiterate and older women but her transformation from victim to queen of her own destiny is complete since becoming the second wife of Nasir Abbas Gabol.
"Marriage gives you a sense of responsibility. It is a sacred relationship. You also get a sense of security and protection and a woman gets the status of mother," the 39-year-old told AFP.
"He says he fell head over heels for me," she gushed of her new husband.
Mai runs three schools -- two for girls and one for boys -- where around 1,000 children from poor families get an education. She heads a staff of 38, half of them teachers, the rest working in her office and welfare centres.
They shelter female victims of violence who trek far and wide to seek refuge with Mai, organise seminars to boost awareness of rights, dispense legal aid and operate a mobile unit that reaches out to women in their communities.
Human rights groups say Pakistani women suffer severe discrimination, endure domestic violence, fall victim to "honour" killings, and that growing Islamist fundamentalism leaves them increasingly isolated.
The recent emergence of a video depicting the public flogging of a woman, apparently filmed in the Swat valley, raised alarm about the growing encroachment of the Taliban and underscored the extent of female misery and vulnerability in Pakistan.
Like the northern Swat valley, Mai's village of Meerwala, a backwater 120 kilometres (75 miles) southwest of Multan in the Punjab countryside is isolated from the glittering sophistication of the cities.
It has no hotel. The small market is confined to grocery shops, cold drink and cigarette kiosks, and vegetable sellers in makeshift wooden cabins. People are farmers or small landowners who cultivate cotton, wheat and vegetables.
Mai was gang raped here in June 2002 on the orders of a village council as a punishment when her younger brother, who was 12 or 13 years old at the time, was wrongly accused of having illicit relations with a woman from a rival clan.
In conservative and patriarchal Pakistan, rape victims frequently kill themselves. Those who don't live as social outcasts abandoned by their families. There is no prospect of marriage.
But Mai has defied the norm.
Gabol was part of Mai's security detail after she took her rapists to court and has been in love with the brown-eyed girl for years.
Nine years her junior, Gabol first proposed in 2007.
When he was rejected he tried to kill himself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
"The morning after he attempted suicide, his wife and parents met my parents but I still refused," Mai said.
Gabol then threatened to divorce his first wife, Shehla Kiran.
Panicked at the prospect of enduring the stigma of divorce, Shehla sought to persuade Mai -- who was married and divorced before her rape -- to consent to becoming a second wife.
In Pakistan, steeped in Islamic law, a man can have up to four wives, provided each wife gives permission to subsequent unions, and as long as he promises to devote equal time and attention to each.
On Mai's insistence, Gabol transferred ownership of his family house to his first wife, agreed to give her a plot of land and a monthly income -- all designed to guarantee Shehla's rights.
In exchange, Mai tied the knot.
But she has no intention of moving to her husband's village, away from the hive of activity she has created here with the help of aid money.
"I have seen pain and happiness in Meerwala. I cannot think of leaving this place," she said.
Meerwala is where she became a beacon of hope for voiceless and oppressed women after successfully challenging her attackers in court.
She won international renown for her bravery, became Glamour magazine's woman of the year in 2005, and wrote an autobiography.
Her determination was all the more remarkable given her lack of education.
"I can read and write Urdu a little but I don't know English. The teachers at my schools try to teach me the ABC but I always forget," she said.
The groom, in the first flush of newly married bliss, said he will be a loyal foot soldier in Mai's struggle for female emancipation.
"I am happy and thank God that I've married a woman who is known worldwide.
"I will work shoulder to shoulder and fully support Mukhtar Mai in her struggle for women's emancipation.
His first wife, bright eyed, was happy to chat to reporters.
"She is a good woman. I like her and we will live like sisters," she said.
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