The truth is finally out. It was none other than President Pervez
Musharraf who ordered the travel ban on Mukhtaran Mai, as he himself
told members ofthe Auckland Foreign Correspondents Club. Wire
services reported him as saying that he had placed Mukhtaran Mai's
name on the Exit Control List to prevent her from proceeding abroad,
in an effort to protect Pakistan's image. The president said that
Mukhtaran Mai was being taken to the United States by foreign
non-government organisations "to bad-mouth Pakistan"
over the "terrible state" of the women in the country.
In the same breath, he described the NGOs as"Westernised
fringe elements" that "are as bad as Islamic extremists."
The president's straight talking in New Zealand runs contrary
to earlier claims by the government that there was no restriction
of Mukhtaran Mai's movements. It also exposes the force-obsessed
mindset of the Pakistani state. Certainly, public relations are
important, but they are not "the most important thing,"
as the president claims.
Having good public relations does not mean silencing the voices
of resistance that challenge the stifling status quo.
The way the mass media have evolved has already made it impossible
for states to remain isolated, covering up all what goes on within
their boundaries. Keeping Mukhtaran Mai in the country will not
stop her voice from being heard internationally. In fact, this
travel ban has had the opposite effect, and revived the international
media's interest in her story.
There may be some reality in the president's analysis that Pakistan
is the victim of poor perceptions. However, these perceptions
are created by the actions of the government and other state functionaries.
Stopping Mukhtaran Mai from travelling abroad will yield perceptions
that may be worse than what could have arisen from her talks in
the United States. If the Western countries can accept a military
general in view of peculiar the political environment in Pakistan,
they can certainly understand that Mukhtaran Mai's ordeal is not
a reflection on the government, but of a society governed by a
set of decadent traditions.
It is this conservatism in society that gives credence to Gen.
Musharraf's agenda for the transforming the country into a modern,
forward-looking state. Instead of alienating progressive forces
in the country, the president must endeavour to strengthen them
as one of the prerequisites to resist the conservative tide that
is shaping in Pakistan in reaction to his avowed claims of moderation.