It was heartening to see Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani survivor of a brutal gangrape, walk the ramp at Pakistan’s Fashion Week. In 2002, a tribal council sentenced Mukhtar to being gangraped and paraded naked before hundreds, to avenge a perceived slight by her brother. Mukhtar survived and determinedly fought for justice, making her case public in a context where shocking crimes against women are often covered up. But Mukhtar courageously took her plea all the way to Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which gave six of the 14 accused the death sentence. In 2011, though, all 14 men were released.
But Mukhtar wasn’t crushed — instead, she emerged as a beacon of hope for others, running a women’s shelter and a girls’ school, speaking about her experience fearlessly, despite threats from feudal chiefs and government officials. In 2005, she was even put on Pakistan’s Exit Control List to prevent her from travelling and presenting an account Pervez Musharraf feared would spoil Pakistan’s image abroad. From living with such constrictions to walking the ramp now, Mukhtar has emerged from deep darkness with tremendous style.
Mukhtar follows in the footsteps of Reshma Qureshi, an Indian acid attack survivor, who, in 2014, was held down and doused with industrial-strength acid by her estranged brother-in-law. Despite losing part of her face and an eye, Reshma gathered herself together with great spirit and verve, walking the ramp during the recent New York Fashion Week. It is heartening that fashion, which notoriously fixates on perfect bodies, is now celebrating bodies that have been battered, tortured and humilated in the hope that their spirit might break. Of course, this could be a cynical ploy, only a gimmick to deflect criticism over fashion’s fripperies, its obsession with anorexia, its emphasis on whiteness. But even if this is a crowd-pleasing tactic, it works. It reminds both the fashion industry and observers of the most stylish thing of all — the human will to survive terrible ordeals and walk forward with great heart.