Thumbprint was inspired by the true story of Mukhtar Mai, a young illiterate peasant who was gang-raped as retribution for an alleged ‘honor’ crime by her little brother and who became the first woman in Pakistan to bring her rapists to justice. From someone who had not even known that her country had a constitution, she became a voice for the women ‘buried in shame/without a stone to mark their graves,’ and an international advocate for human rights.
NOTE: The scenes in the opera are not entirely discrete and tend to bleed into one another, moving from location to location and event to event fluidly. The events depicted take place in Pakistan in the early 2000s.
As the opera starts, Mukhtar is at home with her mother and sister, Annu. Their joyful daily routine, making chapattis for dinner, hanging laundry, singing folk songs and teasing about marriage, is interrupted when suddenly men of the powerful landowning Mastoi tribe visit their home. Faiz Mohammed, the Mastoi tribe’s representative announces that they have jailed the family’s 12-year-old son, Shakur, for committing a “dishonorable” act with a girl of their tribe. They demand that a woman from the opposing tribe comes to ask for forgiveness. Mukhtar steps forward and offers that she will come later that day to beg for forgiveness for her family to restore “order” and for brother’s release. Mukhtar’s father agrees that this is an accepted custom. She will do as Faiz asks and Shakur will be released. But instead of accepting Mukhtar’s apology, Faiz, supported by the tribal elders, orders his men to gang-rape her.
Returning home from the violent attack, Mukhtar is forced to walk half-naked along a road lined with villagers who believe she must kill herself to cleanse the stain on her family’s honor. She, too, believes it, and contemplates suicide—mourning the young life she must lose. But her mother’s fierce love and her Iman’s encouragement gives her the courage to go to the police and “bring these evil men to justice.”
At the station she is asked to sign a statement and refuses, since she cannot read and does not know what the statement says, but is persuaded to do so. For the first time she realizes that she cannot even write her name and is forced to do the same as other women - sign with her thumbprint.
A trial is held and the Mastoi are judged guilty and sentenced to death. Mukhtar is offered a settlement by the Pakistani government and decides to spend that money on a school where girls in her village could be educated so that they, unlike her, would never know the humiliation of having to sign their names with a thumbprint. Ironically, she says, The worst thing in my life was also the best: it has given my life meaning.
-Susan Yankowitz and Omer Ben Seadia, 2022