Sohaila Abdulali has never shied away from uncomfortable conversations. In 1983, three years after she was gangraped on a hilltop in Mumbai at the age of 17, Abdulali wrote about her experience in the feminist magazine Manushi. Without concealing her identity or mincing her words, she wrote about what it took to stay alive during the rapes and face ruthless police apathy and prejudice right afterwards.
When the Manushi article was published, Abdulali became one of the only rape victims to have spoken publicly in India. Thirty years later, when she was an established author in New York, her article resurfaced and went viral on social media in the wake of the 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi. Little had changed in those 30 years: she was still one of the only Indian rape survivors to have publicly shared her story, and she was catapulted into the limelight once again.
About two years ago, in 2016, Abdulali wanted to restart what she knew would be an uncomfortable conversation on rape. She began writing a book on the many nuances about rape that are glossed over when people discuss sexual violence. This time, she did not have to wait three decades for these conversations to surface around her.
Soon after Abdulali started writing, the #MeToo movement exploded in the United States, spreading quickly to other countries around the world. Suddenly, it seemed that women everywhere were coming forward to talk about their experiences of sexual violence, and Abdulali considered abandoning the book.
“I told my publisher that I wasn’t sure I needed to write this book anymore, because people were talking about rape,” Abdulali told Scroll.in. Fortunately, she didn’t stop writing. Her book What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape was released in October 2018, at a time when India is in the midst of its own #MeToo moment.
The book is essential reading for anyone engaging in discussions about sexual violence in the 21st century. Drawing on the stories of nearly two dozen rape survivors from around the world, and on her own experiences as a survivor, counsellor and activist, Abdulali dissects the prevailing attitudes and assumptions about rape to expose the things that remain unsaid.
Rape, sex, desire and violence
Abdulali’s book asks questions that tend to slip through the cracks in rape conversations: Does rape have to define a survivor’s life? Is getting raped worse than death? Can survivors live and thrive with joy? What does trauma look like in day-to-day life?
Abdulali also explores the questions that people tend to avoid because they are difficult to grapple with. Does yes mean yes and no mean no, or can there be a “maybe”? Is rape about sex or is it not? Is violence related to desire? In the 1980s, when Adbulali wrote her college thesis on rape and worked at a rape crisis centre in the US, feminists were at pains to establish that rape is always about power and never about sex. Today, as #MeToo throws up stories of date rape, “bad sex” and societal notions about desire that feed into rape culture, Abdulali believes we need to inevitably complicate our discussions about sexual violence.
“These conversations are essential, and they are difficult, but we should have them anyway,” said Abdulali. “I don’t know if there is a right way to have this conversation but we should start by throwing out the assumption that rape has nothing to do with sex. These two are connected, and there are rapes that did begin with sexual desire on the part of the man.”
These conversations are also one of the many reasons why Abdulali wants everyone to read her book. “This is not just a book for women – I really want men to read it too,” she said.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is as much about exploring what leads rapists to rape as it is about understanding the lives of rape survivors. Across countries and cultures, people tend to respond to survivors with varying degrees prejudice, pity, misogyny, disbelief or basic ignorance of their needs. According to Abdulali, a lot of this stems from a sore lack of understanding about mental health and sexual abuse trauma – things that need to be prioritised in order to change our response to rape.
In one brief but powerful chapter, for instance, Abdulali offers crisp guidelines “for saving a rape survivor’s life”. Topmost on the list of tips is something that few would think about: “Be horrified, but don’t fall off your chair so that she has to take care of you”. Another tip is, “Remember this is the same person you knew before you knew she was raped. Treat her the same. Something terrible has happened to her, but she is the same person. She might also need reminding of this.”
In order to highlight how little the world thinks about the everyday traumas that rape survivors struggle with, Abdulali also devotes a chapter to “dentophobia”: the crippling fear of dental check-ups and other medical procedures that survivors often develop, because the sight of masked people with sharp instruments can easily trigger memories of assault. This, according to Abdulali, is one of the many reasons that trauma-informed approaches are essential when health workers, law enforcement or anyone else responds to survivors of sexual abuse.
“General sensitisation in society would be great,” said Abdulali. “We should be able to see others as human beings with their own stories, and try to be sensitive to them.”
Left out of #MeToo
The #MeToo movement, says Abdulali, has gone some distance in raising awareness and sensitivity about sexual abuse and trauma. The movement emerged out of many years of small conversations on sexual violence in different parts of the world, and Abdulali believes it has been remarkable in de-stigmatising the topic of rape. “This has never happened before, when so many women are stepping up and saying it’s ok to talk about this,” she said. “We will probably never go back to a stage where this topic is stigmatised.”
Abdulali wants #MeToo to reach a place of better effect: a place where people wholeheartedly believe that sex is about the pleasure of both people involved in it. But the author is also always cognisant of the limitations of #MeToo. Words, she says, are a luxury, and disenfranchised populations often do not have the support structures, resources or words to be able to talk about their sexual abuse stories publicly.
“You are hardly likely to talk about being raped by your husband if you have no agency in any other aspect of your life,” said Abdulali. “If you are a servant in a house in Bombay or Delhi and you are abused by the man there, you may not have a stigma with respect to talking about the abuse, but you don’t want to lose your job. If you live in a culture where being a virgin is the most important thing, it doesn’t matter how many words you have or don’t have, you will not talk about being raped before marriage.”
Addressing this disenfranchisement, she said, is a matter of social justice. “We just have to foster more equality in society.”