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Opera Tells Story of Pakistani Rape Victim Turned Women's Rights Advocate

  • Ayesha Khalid

Mukhtaran Mai gives an interview at a school in Meerwala, in Pakistan's central Punjab province, April 22, 2011.

Mukhtaran Mai gives an interview at a school in Meerwala, in Pakistan's central Punjab province, April 22, 2011.

An infamous 2002 gang rape in Pakistan is the unlikely subject of a new opera which recently premiered at New York’s Baruch Performing Arts Center. Called Thumbprint, the opera shows how the victim in the case turned the tragedy around - and became a women's rights advocate.

The opera tells the story of Mukhtaran Mai, the Pakistani woman who became known around the world for her struggle to bring to justice the men who allegedly raped her in 2002 - and then became a champion of education for girls.


The title of the production - Thumbprint - refers to the fact that many illiterate people in Pakistan and many other countries use their thumbprints to sign their names. Composer and lead singer Kamala Sankaram, who plays the role of Mukhtaran, says that’s an important part of the plot.

“We felt that the central, pivotal moment of the story is when Mukhtaran realizes the fact that she is illiterate has kept her from awareness of the laws of her country and of her rights and so it symbolizes, really, what we think the show is about. It’s about this person who rises up to become an advocate for women’s education,” she said.

The performance opens with the day Mukhtaran was allegedly gang raped at the orders of a tribal village council - because they believed her brother had had an affair with a girl from a prominent local family.

With a score influenced by traditional South Asian and western classical music, Thumbprint shows an illiterate woman struggling for justice after being let down by her tribal traditions.

Rachel Dickstein, the show’s director, says, “Mukhtaran Mai never set out to be a revolutionary for the sake of being a revolutionary. She found her own voice and for us, as artists, telling a story about that is very inspiring.”

Composer and lead singer Sankaram says, “There is so much silence that surrounds the acts of violence [against] women in India, in Pakistan, in America, everywhere and the fact that she chose to speak out to continue by becoming an advocate for women’s education. I guess for me, it's inspirational because it shows that one person with conviction can make a change."

Producing Director Kim Whitener had no doubts that Mukhtaran Mai’s story would resonate with the audience. Whitener says, “The degree to which they have sort of outpouring of tremendous empathy and personal reaction to the story has just been astounding to us.”

Thumbprint played to full houses during its eight days of performances. The producers believe that because of this response, they will be taking Mukhtaran Mai’s story to other American cities.
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