From Victim to Women’s Rights Activist: “Thumbprint”

January 12, 2014 Updated: January 12, 2014

“Thumbprint,” having its world premiere run as part of Beth Morrison Projects and HERE’s Prototype Opera Festival, is a powerful piece about a remarkable person.  Mukhtar Mai is a Pakistani woman who was gang-raped in 2002 because her 12-year old brother was accused of seducing a girl from a neighboring tribe. Mukhtar (illiterate at the time of the attack) found the strength to open a school for girls and a women’s shelter with the money she received from the government as compensation.

The chamber opera has music by Kamala Sankaram (who also plays the lead role) and a libretto by Susan Yankowitz. Steven Osgood led the chamber ensemble, which contained piano, bass, percussion, flute, viola and violin.

The opera begins with an evocation of Mukhtar’s simple village life with her family. She spends her time cooking and sewing and, with her sister, imagining the kind of men they will marry. (The sisters’ scene together is reminiscent of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from “Fiddler on the Roof” in concept, albeit not musically.) Though she is unable to read, she teaches the Koran to young children in the area.  Then, the family learns that the young son is charged with a breach of honor with a girl from the Mastoi tribe.

The supposedly wronged Mastoi demand that a woman from Mukhtar’s family appear in person to deliver an apology. Mukhtar goes in the company of her father. Her pleas for her brother’s release are futile. The men drag her off and rape her.  Afterward she contemplates suicide but ultimately decides to take the unprecedented step of bringing her assailants to justice. The libretto brings out the fact that, while she faced hostility and ridicule from the authorities and villagers, she was supported in her effort by the local imam.

When she is asked by the police to sign a written statement, she admits that she cannot read or write. She is told to provide a thumbprint in lieu of a signature.  This is the meaning of the title of the work.  At the outset she is told that she needs four witnesses to support a charge of rape but the prosecutor circumvents this requirement by charging the men with acts of terrorism. One receives the death penalty and the others are sent to prison.

Mukhtar receives compensation from the government and decides to set up a school to educate the girls of her village.  

The work is an intriguing mix of Hindustani and Western music. It effectively uses repetition of text and melisma (the stretching of a syllable over a run of notes, as is also common in soul music). The score is percussive and achieves an incantatory power. Yankowitz’s text is spare and poetic and Rachel Dickstein’s direction is imaginative with dance movements by the cast and evocative video projections. One example, is the rape scene, which is handled metaphorically by a man cutting into a bag of rice.

The cast is superb, led by a searing vocal/dramatic performance by the composer Kamala Sankaram. Ned Rorem once commented that composers who can sing their own music were a rare breed. Sankaram is one of those multi-talented artists. The others in the cast, playing multiple roles, were also excellent:  Theodora Hanslowe as Mukhtar’s mother; Leela Subramaniam as her sister; Steve Gokool as her father and the trial judge, Kannan Vasudevan (who plays numerous parts including the Imam) and Manu Narayan (impressive as Faiz, the Mastoi leader and others).

After the performance I attended on January 11th, there was a panel discussion moderated by Peter McCabe. Members of the panel were Maitreyi Das (Lead Social Sector Specialist, World Bank); Mohammed Naqvi (director of SHAME, an Emmy-winning documentary about Mukhtar Mai; Shantha Rau Barriga (Director of Disability Rights, Human Rights Watch); the creators of the opera: Kamala Sankaram and SusanYankowitz. Mukhtar Mai joined the conversation via Skype with the help of an interpreter. They brought out the fact that ultimately all the convictions were overturned except for the one who had received a death sentence. His punishment was reduced to a prison term.

While there has been some progress, that has been followed by a backlash and crimes against women continue around the world. The difference is that, after the New Delhi rape/murder in 2012, there were widespread protests. At the time of the crime against Mukhtar, support for the victims of such violence were limited.

Mukhtar herself spoke via Skype. She is struggling to find the finances to support her schools and women’s shelter. Initially, the schools admitted only girls but later allowed boys to attend as well. One of the panel members, Mohammed Naqvi, who had interviewed her several times for his documentary, said that she had already been forced to close some of her facilities.  

“Thumbprint” is running at Baruch Performing Arts Center (25th St. between Third and Lexington Ave.; through Jan. 18. In my opinion, this work should be performed at high schools and colleges here and in other countries. Those who want to learn about Mukhtar and to contribute to her organization can go to