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.
In their small garden, Mukhtar, her sister Annu, and their mother are busy with their daily routines, making chapattis for dinner, hanging laundry, singing folk songs and teasing about marriage, when suddenly men of the powerful landowning Mastoi tribe enter. They report that they have jailed the family’s 12 year old son Shakur for molesting a girl of their clan and demand that Mukhtar come to their compound and ask forgiveness for his sin. Mukhtar’s father agrees that this is an accepted custom. She will do as Faiz asks and Shakur will be released.
When Mukhtar and her father enter the Mastoi estate, Mukhtar kneels at Faiz’s feet and performs the accepted ritual, but in an instant it is clear that he has no intention of forgiving her. The violence that occurs determines the entire course of her life.
Afterward, she is forced to walk back 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, mourning the young life she must lose, but her mother’s fierce love gives her the courage to speak out and go to the police, a decision encouraged by the local Mullah.
The Mastoi find the whole idea ridiculous but they are brought to trial and to their even greater incredulity convicted. Mukhtar is offered a settlement by the Pakistani government, and, shocked to realize she does not even know how to write her name, chooses 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, April 18, 2022