I n a victory for human rights, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has suspended the acquittals of men accused of gang-raping a villager. The victim has become an international cause celebre for her refusal to accept humiliation by her attackers and Pakistan’s legal system. Those who dare claim that such behavior should be tolerated out of respect for cultural differences deserve nothing but derision. No woman should be treated this way.

The case of Ms. Mukhtar Mai is a sad one. In June 2002, she was gang-raped by eight men. The attack was ordered by the council of village elders, the real power in many villages in rural Pakistan. The brutalities against Ms. Mai were allegedly authorized as punishment for her 12-year-old brother’s alleged affair with a woman who was from a higher-caste family or, according to other stories, from a rival clan known as the Mastoi. One of the rapists was a member of the woman’s family.

The Mai family maintains that the charge against Ms. Mai’s brother was fabricated after the boy was sodomized by men from the Mastoi clan and the family threatened to report the matter to police. Three men were eventually tried for that crime and sentenced to five-year prison terms.

In August 2002, a trial court sentenced six of Ms. Mai’s attackers to death and acquitted eight others in the rape. In March of this year, however, a provincial court acquitted five of the men and reduced the death sentence of the remaining defendant to life in prison. The court said it had doubts about the attack as a result of inconsistencies in the medical evidence and the fact that Ms. Mai had waited a week before reporting the rape. (Her defenders acknowledge the delay in going to the authorities, but said it was understandable given the abuse of victims that follows going public.)

Days later Pakistan’s highest Islamic (Shariah) court suspended the provincial court’s acquittals and sentence reduction, ruling that the provincial court did not have jurisdiction to hear appeals under Islamic law.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court then intervened and set aside the Shariah court’s ruling until it could decide on the merits of Ms. Mai’s appeal. Last week, after reviewing the case, the Supreme Court suspended the acquittals of the five men convicted and ordered that all 14 men charged in the first trial be held pending retrial, a process that could take months.

The denial of Ms. Mai’s rights extended beyond the legal process. Unlike virtually all other Pakistani women brutalized in such a manner, she did not suffer in silence. Instead she went public with her ordeal and focused international attention on the sordid treatment of women in Pakistan’s rural communities. Her efforts earned her the enmity of the Pakistan government. After being invited by a U.S. human-rights group to speak on women’s rights in rural Pakistan, her passport was confiscated by the government.

Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf reportedly said he ordered the seizure to prevent her from traveling abroad to “bad-mouth” the country. Protests from key allies of Pakistan, such as the United States, compelled Islamabad to return her passport.

Sadly, Ms. Mai’s treatment is far from unusual. In 1999, a Human Rights Watch report estimated that as many as 90 percent of Pakistan’s women suffered abuse at the hands of their spouses. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in 2003 more than 600 women were killed for alleged breaches of “honor.” By one estimate, about 1,000 women are killed annually “in the name of honor” by close relatives; in well over 60 percent of cases, no one is punished for the crime.

The treatment of women is exacerbated by their low social status and low level of education. Despite considerable efforts to educate women, one study finds that only 36 percent of Pakistan’s women are literate, as opposed to 60 percent of men. Even many of the women who are educated know little about their rights. Given the confusion surrounding Ms. Mai’s case, their ignorance is understandable.

This sad situation can be remedied. Women have legal platforms to assert their rights in Pakistan. The Declaration of Human Rights states explicitly that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of the person.”

In 1996, Pakistan joined the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which requires the government to take action to eliminate violence against women as a form of discrimination that inhibits the ability of women to enjoy their rights and freedoms on an equal basis with men.

Pakistan must embrace the spirit of these conventions and enforce them to realize the gender rights it professes to believe in. The Supreme Court ruling is a start.

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