Study areas: Asian Studies, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Comparative Law, Pakistan, Social Movements, South Asia, Women's Studies.
Dishonored opens with shots of the streets of New York and the glitz of a gala event hosted by Glamour magazine to celebrate Mukhtar Mai as the magazine’s Woman of the Year. After Brooke Shields introduces Mukhtar Mai to the assembled crowd, the film quickly cuts to Pakistan where the viewer learns how this exceptional woman came to be the center of international attention. In 2002, in a small community in Pakistan, a teenaged boy addressed an unmarried woman of a higher status clan than that of his own. In a tribal council, local men ruled that a woman of the boy’s family should apologize to the clan of the woman he had addressed and dishonored by doing so. As the boy’s older sister, Mukhtar Mai was chosen by her family to go to the tribal council and apologize to the other clan.
While apologizing and pleading her brother’s case to the tribal council, Mukhtar Mai was raped by four men in retaliation for her brother’s act. It was expected that Mukhtar would commit suicide after being so dishonored. Contrary to these expectations, however, Mukhtar Mai instead reported the rape to the police and pursued her case through multiple judicial proceedings. Mukhtar’s story was picked up by the local, and then international, press and became the center of national controversy and then international attention, making her a rallying point for women’s rights in Pakistan and abroad. Most of the film tells the story of the ups and downs of Mukhtar’s pursuit of her case in the judicial system. It follows her case from the initial days after the rape, to reporting it to the local police station, and then through the multiple court cases that followed. It also covers her decision to continue to live in her community and start a school for local children.
In telling Mukhtar Mai’s story, this film tells the tale of an exceptional woman who not only met extreme adversity with strength and perseverance, but turned that adversity into an opportunity to help others. Students and others who watch this film will be inspired by Mukhtar Mai. The film’s focus, Mukhtar Mai’s experience with the law, also does an exceptional job of showing the intricacies of legal proceedings in Pakistan and how gender inequality, politics, religion, and activism influence these proceedings. For example, an early setback in her pursuit of justice powerfully illustrates the significance of women’s lack of education. The local police did not want to pursue Mukhtar Mai’s case and the first information report that the police prepared said she had not been raped. Mukhtar, who was illiterate, did not realize that the report was inaccurate and put her thumb print as a signature to the report. This focus on Pakistani laws and how they are carried out makes the film of special interest to students with an interest in comparative law and judicial systems.
While the film profiles Mukhtar Mai, it is important to note that the filmmaker’s decision to focus on the legal system leaves other aspects of Mukhtar’s story in relative obscurity. While we are told that Mukhtar chose to remain in her village we never learn how relations with her family were after she was raped. Did she remain living with her family? Did they fully accept her after she was dishonored by the rape? Did her neighbors accept her? What happened to the brother who started it all? How did he feel about the case? The viewer never learns the answer to these questions. Similarly, there are occasional frustrating gaps in the narrative. At one point, Mukhtar notes that she did try to commit suicide and it was her mother who told her not to. Yet we never learn more about her mother’s role and for the rest of the film Mukhtar’s survival is attributed to her individual strength alone. Viewers who wish to pursue some of these questions may find answers in writings about Mukhtar Mai and in her own autobiographt. Further, for students and other viewers with interests in women’s studies or gender inequality it should be noted that the film does not use Mukhtar’s case to illuminate women’s status in Pakistan more broadly. The film briefly highlights the cases of a few women who experienced domestic violence and went to Mukhtar for help after she became famous. However, the film does not set out to provide a broad portrait of women’s status in Pakistan.
Dishonored, because it focuses on the aftermath and not on the rape itself, is suitable for students in high school and above. Students in classes in women’s studies, human rights, South Asian area studies, and comparative law and society will find it of particular interest.
Keera Allendorf is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois. Her work focuses on gender, family behaviors, and maternal and child health in South Asia.
Dishonored is distrubuted in the U.S. by Icarus Films. Sale price: $348
Last Updated: February 28, 2011