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Mukhtar Mai: The Opera

by Phyllis Chesler

Picture via TimeOut.

In the course of human events, certain actions and special individuals have been known to inspire operas. Like life, most operas also end in death—but the dying go down singing—and beautifully. Women, especially, die on the operatic stage. Their names are legion: Bellini’s pagan priestess Norma,  Donizetti’s Queens Anna Boleyn and Mary Stuart, Puccini’s Mimi and Cio-Cio-San, Puccini's Tosca, Aida, Desdemona, and Violetta, Wagner’s Isolde, Wozzeck’s Lulu. In the 20th and 21st century, operas have been written about real-life heroes such as Virgil Thomson’s Susan B. Anthony, Douglas Moore’s Carrie Nation, and Jake Heggie’s Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking.

In Thumbprint, we have a new operatic heroine: Muhtar Mai. Like so many women, world-wide, Mukhtar Mai was illiterate and could not sign her name. Hence, her “thumbprint” was her only signature.

This is an amazing ninety minute opera—it is moving, compelling, beautiful, and terrifying. Composer Kamala Sankaram, who also sang the part of Mukhtar Mai, has given us a thrilling, blood-stirring score that musically fuses East and West. The librettist, Susan Yankowitz, has given us a heroine for the ages, one who speaks in poetry. Mukhtar’s triumph gives voice to “thousands of women buried in the earth/buried in shame/without a stone to show that they lived/their names erased from memory.”

By now, the global village knows her story. In 2002, a higher caste Mastoi clan tribal council (or Jirga) ordered that she be gang-raped and forced to walk naked through her village of Merwalla in the Punjab, in Pakistan. Three members of the powerful Mastoi tribe needed to cover up their own rape of Mukhtar Mai’s young brother, and so they accused him of having committed adultery with one of their women. They demanded retributive tribal “justice;” their honor had been impugned and the twelve year old boy’s sister had to pay. She could have been forced into an unwanted marriage and literally tortured for the rest of her days by her in-laws and husband--but since she was of a lower tribal caste (she is a Gujjar biradiri—and yes, everyone is Muslim), they instead decided to shame her, spoil her. What they did to Mukhtar was meant as a prelude to her suicide.

Yes, that is what some Pakistani Muslim men living in the Punjab do but this also happens in Hindu India. The best known example of another victim of gang-rape is that of Phoolan Devi who, after being similarly shamed by higher caste gang-rapists, became a bandit and eventually murdered twenty two of the men who had gang-raped her. She lived an outlaw’s life, eventually surrendered, spent eleven years in jail, won a seat in Parliament in Utter Pradesh, and was shot dead by masked men in 2001.

Our Mukhtar is a different kind of heroine. According to librettist, Susan Yankowitz, who interviewd Mukhtar three times, she tried to kill herself multiple times, failed, and decided that since she was “as good as dead,” she might as well go to court and demand justice. In an act that was the first of its kind, Mukhtar accused fourteen powerful men of having gang-raped her. Incredibly, six men were sentenced to death. They spent years in jail—but in 2011, five convictions were overturned and the men were released. The fact that they spent an hour in jail is absolutely unprecedented. A sixth rapist remains behind bars. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Again, this is unprecedented for the Punjab.

Such justice is an incredible accomplishment for any woman who lives in southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. While rape is a global phenomenon and has increasingly been used as a weapon of war on at least four continents, tribal religious councils that decree gang-rape as a punishment mainly exist in India and Pakistan. In 2013, the United Nations released the results of interviews with 10,000 men in Asia and the Pacific. The men confirmed how rampant rape is: 1/4th admitted they had raped a woman. The men also confirmed how difficult it is for women to prosecute their rapists. Women are not believed, they are shamed and blamed if they come forward; further, the police are corrupt and favor whichever party can bribe them. The United Nations study, reported by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times in 2014, found that “more than two-thirds of men who acknowledge raping said that they had faced no legal consequences.”

Pakistan, especially the Punjab, is virulently misogynist. Daughter- and wife-beating are normalized as is polygamy, forced child marriage, often to a first cousin, forced veiling, and the honor killing of any girl or woman who is perceived as even slightly disobedient, or who has shamed her family in any way.

And so, Mukhtar symbolically changed all that. She paid, and still pays the price for such whistleblowing: She and her family have been death threatened. But what did our heroine do? She transformed her village which, for the first time, now has electricity and some infra-structure. She began a school, first for girls, then for boys too—and expanded it to three schools which currently serve 1500 students. She set up a hot line and a crisis center for abused women, built a police station, and bought an ambulance. Mukhtar also published an autobiography and inspired a film, ‘Shame,” which was directed by Mohammed Naqui, a Canadian-Pakistani.  

I was privileged to view the world premiere of this very unique opera performed at Baruch Performing Arts Center as part of the Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, which present opera theatre and music-theatre.  

 The cast was composed of six absolutely marvelous singers: three women (Kamala Sankaram, Theodora Hanslowe, Leela Subramanian), and three men  (Steve Gokool, Manu Narayan, and Kannan Vasudevan.) They played a total of twenty six characters and were supported by a superb six piece orchestra (flute, piano, bass, violin, drums, viola, harmonium). The orchestra members also sang and clapped rhythmically.    

One might say that the music is atonal but that would not be exactly right because the arias were melodious and the harmonies were quite lovely and easy on the Western ear. The composer, Kamala Sankaram, describes her music best so I will quote her. “I drew on my background as a sitar player and my training in Western music. The piece is largely written using Hindustani ragas, but the harmonies are not found in Indian music but are essential to Western composition. Still, the music is inspired by Pakistani and Indian traditions including Qawwali music, kirtan, and table bol.”

Susan Yankowitz distilled a complex and powerful story into a poetic libretto. In response to the Mastoi accusation against his twelve year old son, Mukhtar’s father sings: “If the Mastoi say the sky is below/and the earth above, it is true/ If they say the sun shines at night/it is true, they are right/Truth dies in the mouth of power.” Muhtar, upon being raped, sings: “They take me/ from darkness into darkness/From night into a darker night/I fall away from myself/This is not me/Is this me?"

She is joined by a chorus of women who sing: “…Every girl fears this fate/It is like a vulture flying right above our heads.When we walk or work or play/A man can grab you/take you into darkness, break into your body/take you into darkness/Day and night, night and day/ Every girl/Fears this fate will come to her…

But from such “darkness,” a great light shines forth. The women sing: “In a dark season,/Someone must be the first ray of light.” Mukhtar replies: “Let it be me, let it begin with me.”

And so it has. Make no mistake: Muhktar’s life and the lives of so many women in Pakistan remain endangered. Although some women are wealthy and educated and at least one (assassinated) woman served as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, most women are very poor, illiterate, and devalued as daughters and wives, and treated as beasts of burden, domestic and agricultural slaves, forced breeders, and as the literal property of husbands and in-laws.  

Usually, when I attend an opera, I barely pay attention to all the credits. This wonderful setting, this intimate theatre option for New Yorkers, compelled me to actually study the program. I was astounded by how many people were involved in this production: no fewer than forty four people were behind this stellar production, from the director Rachel Dickstein  to the technical director Markus Paminger, to the costume stitchers, the lighting crew, the scenic crew, the video crew, the backdrop construction crew, and of course, the orchestra, and conductor Steven Osgood. Twenty four foundations are listed as funding HERE—which, in addition, thanks sixty additional individual donations.

Afterwards, at the end of an all-star panel discussion, which included the librettist, composer-performer, filmmaker Mohammed Naqui; Shantha Rau Barriga, Director of Disability Rights for Human Right Watch; Maitreyi Das, Lead Social Sectors Specialist at the World Bank, Mukhtar Mai herself—the real Mukhtar Mai—joined us via Skype. An Urdu translator was present. Mukhtar Mai  does not have the funding necessary to continue her schools. She still lives in the same village as her gang-rapists do. I still have faith in her indomitable spirit. As Naqui says of Muhtar Mai: “One person can really change the world. I have seen it with my own eyes.”

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Dr. Phyllis Chesler is the author of 15 books including the best selling Women and Madness, Mothers on Trial. The Battle for Children and Custody and Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman. Her new book, An American Bride in Kabul may be purchased here. She may be reached at her website 


Lou Santacroce posted: 2014-01-13 17:15:19

Full disclosure: Dr. Chesler was a frequent guest on my program, "At the Opera," during its three year run on NPR. I mention this only to emphasize the fact that she is as knowledgeable about opera as she is about the other subjects she has written and spoken out about over the years. Her review makes me sorry that I did not know about the existence of this new work, as I would have loved to attended the premiere. I am happy that an opera has been written about Mukhtar Mai, and -- according to Dr. Chesler -- such a melodic one at that. History has shown us that many real-life characters are remembered today only because they were immortalized by great composers in opera. Some examples of this include Marie DuPlesis, the real Violetta in "La Traviata," and the real "Cho-Cho San" of "Madame Butterfly" fame. I trust Dr. Chesler's judgment, so I believe that Kamala Sankaram has given us a first-class opera. But, she has done more; in bringing Ms. Mai's story to the opera stage, she has committed that story to posterity. Just as we know of how Cho-Cho San was abandoned or what Marie did for love, so we will know of Mai's triumph over her tormentors whenever this opera is performed. And, if Dr. Chesler's review is anything to go by (and I believe that it is), "Mukhtar Mai" will be performed for a long time to come!

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