Monday, January 13, 2014

An opera about Mukhtaran Mai

by Salman Hameed

In 2002, Mukhataran Mai stood up to her perpetrators after being gang-raped in a village in Pakistan as a punishment for her brother's offense. Against all sorts of threats, she took her case all the way to the Supreme Court (unfortunately, the 5 out 6 men were acquitted for 'insufficient evidence' in 2011). I heard her speak in Boston back in 2005 and she came off as exceptionally confident. Unfortunately, just like the recent case of Malala, as soon as her plight became international, there was a backlash in Pakistan. The problem is that, when it comes to women, such cases get appropriated by the "West" in the name of rescuing them, and the ensuing backlash is equally problematic. If you are not familiar with this paper, you should definitely check out Do the Muslim Women Need Saving? (pdf) by Lila Abu-Lughod (she also has a new book out with the same title). Any way, I may have another post on this at another time.

But, here I wanted to point out this opera about Mukhtaran Mai called Thumbprint. It is playing in New York till January 18th. There are some sound clips in this NPR story, and it sounds really interesting as it takes Western operatic styles and mixes it with Indian ragas and Pakistani qawwali devotional songs. However, what struck me here was the name of the opera - Thumbprint - which has a direct connection to education (yes, read it still with the caveats from Abu-Lughod in mind):
The title of Thumbprint comes from a pivotal moment in Mukhtar Mai's story, when she goes to the police to report the rape, says librettist Susan Yankowitz. 
"When she's there, she realizes she does not know how to sign her name to the document. And it has never really occurred to her that this was a disadvantage, in any way, that this was a problem! But in the context of the police and the judge and a court, she understands how important it is. She does sign the document with her thumbprint. And, in doing so, she understands the power and importance of education," Yankowitz says.


You can find more information about the show here.

This bit about literacy is interesting. A few years ago Werner Herzog had this amazing (and sad) documentary Into the Abyss (if you haven't seen it, you should definitely check it out). The film centers on Herzog's conversations with a person on death row, and those who are impacted by his crime, and those that will (and do) do the execution (I'm getting side-tracked here, but the prologue with the priest who is going to read the last rites amazing! See it here). In any case, during the course of an on-camera interview, Herzog learns that his interview subject (a friend of the guy on death-row) learned how to read while he was in prison - and now he can read newspapers, etc. In a typical Herzogian manner, Herzog starts asking him about what it feels like to be able to read? How does he about the opening of this new world? It was totally an aside, but such an awesome question.

I know that Mukhtaran Mai started schools - and that she herself was also learning to read and write. I don't know if she can read now or not - but she will be a fantastic person to ask Herzog's question. 

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