MEERAWALI, Pakistan A Pakistani woman who was gang-raped and became a human rights campaigner says she worries other women will not speak out after Pakistan's highest court upheld her alleged attackers' acquittals.
Mukhtaran Mai was allegedly gang-raped in 2002 to settle a matter of village honor. Unlike most rape victims in Pakistan, who rarely speak up, she filed a criminal case against 14 men. Six were convicted and sentenced to death later that year.
But the Lahore High court later acquitted five and commuted one sentence to life in prison in 2005. On Thursday, Pakistan's Supreme Court upheld the Lahore court's decision.
She said the verdict could prevent other women from speaking out against Pakistan's culture of punishing women through violence, mutilation and sexual assault.
"I feel now women will not speak out," she told Reuters. "They will stay in their homes ... Other women will not speak out because people in their area will look on them badly and they will not get justice."
But, she said, "it becomes like a chain -- if one woman gets justice, then the others will."
Pakistani women rarely speak out after violent assault or rape, fearing the shame it will bring on them and their families. Her decision to speak out has earned her widespread recognition. She was named Glamour magazine's 2005 woman of the year and her autobiography at one point was the number three bestseller in France.
The ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court means all but one of the 14 men charged with attacking her in 2002 could soon be free, allowing them to return to the village of Meerawali in southern Punjab where Mai lives.
"I am frightened the men will come back to this area and that I will be killed," Mai, 39, said."
Thursday's ruling could mark the end of her fight for justice if she chooses not to file a review.
Mai says she was attacked in 2002 as a punishment because her brother -- who was 12 at the time -- was judged to have offended the honor of a powerful clan by allegedly having an affair with one of its women.
Mai started the Mukhtar Mai Women's Welfare Organization to help support and educate Pakistani women and girls with money she received from the government and from donations.
In a small office at her school, Mai says of the estimated 1,200 women in 2010 who lodged rape cases, only six saw justice.
Local opinion is divided over the issue. Khan Mohammad, 50-year-old laborer, says the alleged assault "was not as big an incident" as the media has made out.
Another man walks away after he says people are too frightened to discuss it.
Family members of one of the accused men, Abdul Khaliq, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling, telling Reuters that no assault took place and maintained that Mai's brother raped the sister of one of the men Mai accused of attacking her.
Despite a lack of obvious support where she and her family live, Mai says she has no plans to leave the village where she hopes the school she has built will teach the 600 girls it educates that they have rights, and potential.
"If I leave then who will run the buildings, the school?"
Mai says, "girls here need to be educated so they know their rights and they can stand up for themselves."
(Additional reporting by Asim Tanveer; Editing by Chris Allbritton)