UA Opera Theater's production of 'Thumbprint' tells gripping story of Mukhtar Mai

The opera “Thumbprint” is based on the life story of Mukhtar Mai — author of “In the Name of Honor: A Memoir” — a woman whose voice has resonated around the globe. 

“Most operas in which women are the heroine end up with either the women
committing suicide or going crazy. This is unusual, in that we have a
true heroine. She is alive and she is an inspiration.” – Susan Yankowitz

Originating from a series of interviews with Mai, a Pakistani
human rights activist and author — who found her voice and Herculean
courage, challenging centuries of brutality and injustice against women,
after being sentenced by tribal council to pay for a crime that she did
not commit — the story of “Thumbprint” is told through a musical score
composed by Kamala Sankaram, and a libretto by Susan Yankowitz, filled
with Hindustani, Western classical, and European opera influences.

“The arch of the story is larger than life.” – Kamala Sankaram


In June 2002, Mukhtar Mai — from the impoverished village of Meerwala, in Punjab, Pakistan — was brutally gang-raped by four men from a powerful local clan known as the Mastoi.

The attack on the then 30-year-old woman was a punishment after her 12-year-old brother was falsely accused of having an illicit relationship with a girl from another tribe, the dominant clan in the village.

After the rape, Mai was forced to walk home nearly naked to humiliate her further as villagers looked on with disrespect.

It was expected that she would commit suicide. Which for a moment, Mai is said to have considered.

Instead, she chose to fight back, raising her voice to challenge centuries of injustice against women.

In doing so, Mai single-handedly changed the feminist movement in Pakistan — one of the world’s most hostile climates for women — replacing ignorance and violence with equality and education.

In 2004, TIME magazine listed her as one of the world’s most influential people.

“The worst thing in my life is also the best. It has given my life meaning.” – Mukhtar Mai


Against all odds, Mai sought justice and found it.

Mai took her rapists to court. Initially, six men were sentenced to death for her rape.

In 2003, she used funds she was awarded to start a school for girls, the first in her village.

She laid bricks with her own hands, Mai told writer Salma Hasan Ali in a 2010 interview.

Illiterate herself — Mai enrolled as the first student, completing primary school before becoming too busy running her organization — she understood that only education could bring about change — so that girls would no longer have to sign their names only with a thumbprint.


“God chooses certain people to do certain things.” – Mukhtar Mai


In 2011, the Pakistan Supreme Court overturned all but one of the convictions, freeing her rapists.

Mai is frustrated that laws for women are made on paper, but not implemented.

“If no one gets punished, there is no justice,” she told Hasan Ali. “A country that does not have an effective justice system will perish.”

“Perhaps Mai’s children will see justice? Even if she doesn’t,” Hasan Ali mused.

“The world exists on hope.” – Mukhtar Mai


Since publishing a 1999 report, “Pakistan: Violence Against Women in the Name of Honour,” Amnesty International has found that few positive changes have taken place in the area of women’s rights. The state in Pakistan still by and large fails to provide adequate protection for women against abuses in the family, in the community, and in the custody of the state.

The number of victims of violence appears to have risen.


The libretto for “Thumbprint” stems from a series of interviews with Mai, poetically exploring the deep family ties and tribal traditions that shaped her story.

“Her journey resonates beyond borders in its implicit belief that even in the darkest times, one person, one voice, through a single act of courage, can change life for thousands.” – Kamala Sankaram

For Cynthia Stokes, director of the UA production, fostering awareness is at the forefront.

“I think that ‘Thumbprint’ is very important now for our community to look closely at assumptions that we make about the way that people are treated and how we see ourselves in relation to others,” she said.

“There is also another aspect of this which is that literacy in Arizona is very concerning. Our community has a low literacy rate and it’s not revealed or spoken about enough,” she said.

“I hope audiences will take away a sense of inspiration for the women who have stood up to make courageous choices for themselves and for their community,” Stokes said. “This notion of change versus tradition is very important.”


The opera came into being as a song cycle first performed in 2009.

Originally commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects (Brooklyn) and HERE Arts Center (NYC) for the PROTOTYPE Festival — an annual festival of opera and musical theatre by visionary contemporary artists from New York — “Thumbprint” opened in 2014.

“The piece will creep up on you,” said Stokes. “I’ll be watching the show and all of a sudden I’m sobbing.”


Set in Pakistan between 2003-2006, the cast includes Aysen Milliogullari and Bethany Pehrson as Mukhtar Mai,
Beth Jargstorf as Mother,
Betsey Carter as Annu (younger sister),
Su Jin Park as Annu (younger sister),
Zhigiang “Luke” Xie as Father
Stefean, Vikingur as Shakur (younger brother),
Jess Barrera as Faiz (Mastoi tribe member) ,
Adam Kirchner as Abdul (Mastoi tribe member),
Troy Adams as Judg.

“The vocalists are all students who are members of the opera theater program at the University of Arizona,” said Stokes.


The orchestra is made up of conductor Kristin Roach; Fatima del Corona Toro, assistant conductor; Dr. Jacob Ransom; guest artist percussion;
Alexis Houchin, flute;
Sophia Su, piano ;
Xiao Wang, violin;
Claire Davis, viola ;
David Molina, bass.