Sohaila Abdulali On What We Talk About Rape & What We Don’t

Sohaila Abdulali Rape

Sohaila Abdulali was the first Indian survivor to speak out about rape publicly. Abdulali, who was gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai, had shared her account through a woman’s magazine, questioning about conversations of rape and perceptions about rape survivors. Three decades later, in the wake of the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, her story from the magazine got viral and created a stir. Drawing on her own experience, and her work with hundreds of survivors from across the world as the head of a rape crisis centre in Boston, Abdulali has penned down her latest book – What We Talk About When We Talk About RapeCoinciding with the #MeToo age, Abdulali asks some fitting questions about everything that we talk about rape and everything that we don’t. 

Sohaila Abdulali, who was born in Mumbai, holds a BA degree from Brandeis University in economics and sociology and an MA from Stanford University in communication. Author of two novels as well as children’s books and short stories, she currently lives in New York with her family. SheThePeople.TV spoke with Sohaila Abdulali about What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, the things we don’t say, and more.

Why What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape?

With What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape Abdulali is tackling some really barbed questions about rape. Talking about what led her to write this particular book, she shares that the book is the culmination of all the odd thoughts she has had over the years. “I knew writing a memoir would be impossible, since my rape wasn’t the biggest event of my life. But I have thought about and worked with the issue a lot, so a first-person rumination was the way to go, with lots of stories from around the world.”

“We don’t talk about rape enough.”

Abdulali believes, as a society, it’s “just about everything” that we get wrong when we talk about rape. In 1983, Manushi, a women’s magazine in India, had published Abdulali’s account and created a stir, with her being the only survivor to openly talk about rape. 

Talking about India, Abdulali says that women in India, even in the educated middle class, don’t report rape publicly because of the associated notion of shame. So, three decades later, has there been a change? “I think it’s too soon to tell, since the current conversation is just starting,” she says, reflecting on whether the society has been more accepting of survivors’ stories now.

“Societies are very different. For instance, some societies think consent isn’t an issue in marriage. Some think sex workers can’t be raped. Some think rape is worse if you’re a virgin, some think it’s not as bad.”

While we’re clearly struggling in understanding what consent really means, Abdulali says she disagrees with the notion that all societies are the same. Although, she believes, we’re going wrong in dealing with conversations about consent, there’s a different sense of understanding about consent among distinctive societies.

“We judge women who go on with life AND we judge those who don’t.”

When it comes to trauma, there are several misconceptions that the society presumes about how a survivor’ recovery is supposed to look like. Abdulali feels there’s a sword of judgement hanging over survivors all the time. She believes, “we often put survivors in a bind.” 

Reacting to the conversation around rape, worldwide, whether it is women in Ireland who were posting photos accompanied by the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent, calling out Ireland’s judicial system, or when, President Trump, commenting on Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation against Kavanaugh, asked why she didn’t come forward earlier, and India’s endless accounts of victim shaming and blaming, Abdulali says, “this whole circle of unloading the entire burden on the survivors is rubbish!”

Rape is not Gender Specific

Drawing from her interactions with hundreds of survivors, she says rape is not gender specific. In one of the chapters in the book, Abdulali also mentions a male survivor.  She says, “conversation surrounding men being raped also do not happen. This, among many other things, is something we don’t talk about.”

Rape and Power

What We Talk also discusses the relationship between rape and power. “It is always about power. It’s just not always ONLY about power,” the author says. 

While it’s even more important for men to read this book, she says “it’s important for everyone to read the book” as it reaches out to all sections of the society regardless of gender or region. It took Abdulali about six months to complete the first draft of the book, which is the result of three decades of thoughts and interactions. “Six months for the first draft, then a few months of back and forth with editors in four countries,” she adds. 

The Writing Process

“The survivors really drove the structure of the book – my chapters developed from my conversations.”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape chronicles Abdulali’s conversations with survivors from around the world – their personal accounts tell the larger story of what rape means and the aftermath of incidents. So, how has this particular writing process been for her enclosing an ocean of moving experiences? “It was stupendous! Every single person I talked to on every continent was spectacular in his or her own way,” she recalls. 

Finally, we asked her, while the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case changed the deafening silence on rape in India, the Kathua rape case, this year, questioned the very existence of humanity. Looking back to thirty years ago and witnessing what’s happening today, it’s not incorrect to say that nothing really has shifted in a culture that gives men entitlement and power over women. So, what is the most immediate change that our country requires to go through to establish that men actually don’t have the right to abuse women?

To which she responded, “I can’t think of one change that would make all the difference, but I do think a concrete way to start is with ensuring equality under the law for every person in every circumstance, regardless of gender, caste, class, etc.”

If the rights don’t even exist on paper, what hope is there for change?

Featured image credit: Sohaila Abdulali

Also Read: Why We Need A Global Pact To End Workplace Sexual Harassment

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