How Mukhtaran Mai’s Fashion Week Debut Is a Win for Women
Long before young educational activist Malala Yousafzai became the face of Muslim female resilience, long before this year’s bitter fight for the American presidency made necessary new ways to frame discourse on misogyny and sexual assault—there was Mukhtaran Mai, a victim of “revenge gang rape” who refused to go down quietly as her assailants expected her to.
On June 22, 2002, in her village in Southern Punjab in Pakistan, four men raped Mai as a means of settling a dispute that cropped up between two opposing clans. When Mai said she’d rather fight to see her tormentors jailed than commit suicide out of shame—as tradition dictates—rights groups all around the world recognized her as a champion in the fight to destigmatize survivors of sexual assault.
In the years after her assault, Mai received awards for her courage, wrote a book, and started a school that caters to children in her village. She traveled the world at the invitation of influencers, meeting, at one 2006 international summit, then–Senator Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem.
Though Mai had, in a sense, emerged from her ordeal emboldened rather than diminished, challenges remained: Her rapists were ultimately freed, and, in Pakistan, rape is still widely perceived to be the victim’s fault, and a source of shame for their families.
And so, this year, more than a decade after her rape, Mai found financial support for her school waning. Luckily, Pakistan is not too far removed from the rising tide of pro-women, feminist values that tug at even the most remote, resistant hearts. With global icons ranging from Emma Watson to Priyanka Chopra unabashedly pushing feminist agendas, it was only a matter of time before the South Asian fashion industry, which watches American fashion closely, latched on to what’s trending and sought to frame empowerment within a local context. Just this September, in fact, an Indian designer showcasing at New York Fashion Weekfeatured acid attack survivor ReshmaQuereshi on the ramp to raise awareness about violence against women.
Of course, not every attempt to push a feminist agenda is free from bias or even correct—in Pakistan and India, in a strange paradox, the same companies that talk about confidence and empowerment also push skin-whitening “fairness” creams on young women.
But when I watched Mai proudly stride down the ramp as some rocking tunes played at a fashion event held in Karachi, Pakistan, last week, I felt what was being done was right.
Thirty-five-year-old fashion designer RozinaMunib, who brought Mai to Karachi for Fashion Pakistan Week, believed the same. “At Fashion Week in Pakistan, most designers feature a celebrity as a ‘showstopper’—someone recognizable from films or TV to draw attention to the clothes. I wanted to do something different. Rape, sexual abuse, the treatment of survivors—these are issues close to my heart. I wanted to celebrate women who’ve survived despite the odds,” she says.
She reached out to former model and veteran publicist FriehaAltaf for help. It was Altaf who connected her with Mai.
“Mai hadn’t been receiving the support she needed to run her school,” says Altaf. “I thought: ‘What better way to bring her back into our consciousness?’ After all, fashion can be about more than just dressing beautiful people.”
And yet, not everyone thought featuring Mai in a fashion show was the right move. The fashion industry in Pakistan is often accused of being elitist and out of touch, and as critics rumbled, Altaf had concerns. Would Mai be accused of “selling out,” she wondered? Would Munib, a relatively fresh face in fashion, be accused of exploiting Mai’s pain for publicity?
In the end, when Mai appeared on the gleaming white ramp, these concerns seemed unwarranted. Dressed simply in a traditional green embroidered salwar kameez with a scarf draped lightly over her head, standing solidly in a circle of light as tall models strode around her, it was clear that even smack in the middle of a fashion show, Mai was never going to be anyone but herself.
When I spoke to Mai a few days after her moment in the spotlight, she assured me that she had known exactly what she was getting into.
“I don’t watch a lot of TV, and I barely watch fashion shows,” Mai said. “But once Frieha and Rozina explained why they wanted me to participate, I was happy to do so.”
“I was prepared for a backlash if there was any. But there really wasn’t. [When I walked the ramp] people stood up for me and applauded; they gave me so much respect. It made me feel loved. Since the fashion show I’ve been fielding so many calls offering support and donations. That’s all I want: to be able to go on supporting women and children.”
It’s telling that Mai was brought back to the public’s consciousness by the effort of a group of dedicated women—a testament to what’s achieved when women support each other. Munib points out how, beyond simply encouraging people to fund Mai’s charitable efforts, Mai’s moment on the runway was a triumph for all rape survivors.
“In Pakistan, [rape survivors] think we have to suffer in silence. That’s wrong. It’s not something you need to hide,” she said.
After a moment’s pause, Mai agrees with this sentiment. “When [the rapists] did that to me . . . I thought my life was over,” she said, adding: “I know I can’t change what happened to me. But I can change the future.”
Pictures from last week’s fashion show have been shared across world, with thousands celebrating the survivors as heroes. It sends a strong message that for women in Pakistan, the future’s looking a little bit brighter. VOGUE. Photo Movie Shoovy