What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

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‘Unflinching and nuanced… Her structure is disruptive and powerful for it—never letting us forget that there is a person who suffers, a body that gets broken. And, when a body is violated, all of society is at risk. This book could not be more timely, nor could there be a better thinker—herself a survivor—to write it. If the #MeToo campaign is to have any lasting impact for change in women's circumstances across the world, it will be because of books such as this’ —Preti Taneja

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Thoughtful, provocative and intelligent, this game-changing book looks at sexual assault and the global discourse on rape from the viewpoint of a survivor, writer, counsellor and activist.

Sohaila Abdulali was the first Indian rape survivor to speak out about her experience. Gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai and indignant at the deafening silence on the issue in India, she wrote an article for a women’s magazine questioning how we perceive rape and rape victims. Thirty years later she saw the story go viral in the wake of the fatal 2012 Delhi rape and the global outcry that followed.

Drawing on three decades of grappling with the issue personally and professionally, and on her work with hundreds of other survivors, she explores what we think about rape and what we say.

She also explores what we don’t say, and asks pertinent questions about who gets raped and who rapes, about consent and desire, about redemption and revenge, and about how we raise our sons. Most importantly, she asks: does rape always have to be a life-defining event, or is it possible to recover joy?


11 March 2019

Reality check: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Sohaila Abdulali

“So what is this book? It’s about what we talk about, but also what we don’t talk about. We don’t talk enough about aggravating phobias. We don’t talk enough about rebuilding trust. We don’t talk enough about joy and rage and how to fit both into our lives. I began college weeks after being raped. I showed up at my freshman dorm still healing from physical injuries – a bump on my head and a bandage on my ankle. The ankle bandage wasn’t because of anything the rapists did. A few days after the rape, I was at the beach, so happy to be alive that I took a running leap off the front steps of the house and twisted my ankle. In college, I threw myself into the feminist movement like a drunken sailor on shore leave – these were my people, this was my place! And it still is. When you’re seventeen, with a bump on your head from almost dying and a bandaged foot from the rapture of living, clichés come easily. I joined marches and yelled, ‘Yes means yes! No means no!’ Later, running in-service training sessions for police officers and doctors, I held forth on how rape has nothing to do with sex. Now I realise that, well, sometimes yes doesn’t mean yes; and sometimes rape does have to do with sex.”
Thirty years ago, Sohaila Abdulali, then only 17, had been raped by a group of men, and defying the age-old practices of silence and shame, she wrote about its aftermath and her life as a rape survivor in the feminist journal Manushi. Later, Abdulali went on to become a novelist. On December 16, 2012 in Delhi, a young woman who went to watch a film with a male friend was brutally gang-raped and thrown off a bus with grievous injuries that led to her death. The country erupted after this tragedy and the conversation on rape was finally reopened in India. Eventually, Abdulali decided to revisit her own story as well as her insights from being an activist all these years to write the much-needed What We Talk About When We Talk of Rape, a sensitive, nuanced and long overdue account of a difficult subject.
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The Hindu Business Line

1 March 2019
Sohaila Abdulali’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is a difficult read. There is no dearth of cold statistics and reportage of rape in the media. But how do we pause, process and then eventually talk about rape? The truth is, none of us know how to grasp rape beyond feelings of denial, disgust, outrage, condemnation, and resignation. It is precisely for these reasons and more that Abdulali’s book must be read by all, especially men, irrespective of how progressive they think their politics are.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape Sohaila Abdulali Non-fiction Penguin499

Abdulali’s book starts where the newspapers finish their coverage of rape. She asks some very pertinent questions: Is rape a fundamentally life-defining event? Is it only about power or can it also be about sex? We talk about the stigmas attached to rape but never about its after-effects, in the form of phobias and triggers. Where is the space that we accord to rebuilding trust and boundaries for rape survivors? In a nutshell, Abdulali takes the discussion on sexual assault and rape from being merely a violent event to examining the very nature of violence and how it is perpetrated. This is a book not just about rape survivors, their family and friends, but very much also about rape culture and rapists. A US-based journalist, writer and activist, Abdulali spends a considerable amount of time discussing rape culture, which is a totality of big and small things that we do, say and believe, leading to the notion that it is okay to rape. She tells us that making fun of women drivers or indulging your son more than your daughter does not mean you condone rape. But what this does is to chip away women’s and girls’ self-respect, giving the boys a free pass to demand and “maraud through the world and take without thinking”. It is this brazen sense of male self-entitlement which makes men unable to take a ‘no’ or a ‘maybe’; or understand that a ‘yes’ once uttered is not an eternally binding contract. This is also one of the reasons why the #MeToo movement made all men uncomfortable, for their sense of self-entitlement may have explicitly or implicitly perpetrated rape culture. This is a book that cannot be read continuously. It demands a certain kind of pause-absorb-reflect-read mode from its readers. Through 29 short chapters, Abdulali dissects rape. Starting with her own story of being gang-raped at 17 in 1980 and later writing about it in the feminist magazine Manushi, she talks about coping strategies, the importance of an unconditionally supportive family, and a very insightful list of guidelines to saving a rape survivor’s life. As survivors recount their stories, Abdulali articulates every possible audience reaction ranging from denial, horror, discomfort, trauma and, appallingly, even awe. She shares how the act of telling is a huge commitment of time, energy and emotion because you can never predict the response. Most unfairly, survivors often have to protect their audience by narrating a sanitised version of the events. This is done either to make the incident more palatable or to avoid being labelled ‘hysterical’ or ‘dramatic’. Survivors do not owe it to the audience to be their educator. When it comes to how to behave with a person who has been raped, Abdulali states that it is a straightforward formula of listening, giving unstinting control, acceptance and support. She further elaborates this as a set of guidelines that include: Be horrified but not so much that the survivor has to take care of you; do not try to understand and analyse but just be there. This effectively speaks to well-intentioned mansplainers and other well-wishers who hasten to theorise and explain. The focus must always be the survivor and what they want. This is a book that moves beyond rape and urges us to relook how we understand sex. The bar of consent cannot be as low as a transactional affair of merely saying yes or no. On the contrary, sex should be seen as an alluring adventure of mutual pleasure and joy. Abdulali also addresses the more tricky conversation around bad sex that has divided many people. Bad sex is awful but is it necessarily rape? It is a complicated but all-too-familiar conversation around so-called good-natured entitled men not caring for their partners’ choices. Thus, bad sex is a part of rape culture. Just like the aftermath of any sexual assault, the book doesn’t follow a linear narrative. The chapters encapsulate grim incidents of assault, the apathy of the state, moments of lucidity, rage and heartbreaking confusion coupled with coping strategies and the choice that entitled men make to assault and rape. What makes this book eminently a compelling read is its rawness. It is almost like Abdulali is talking to us without mincing words or resorting to theoretical terms that at once sterilise realities and alienate people. The chapterisation is cleverly done, enabling the reader to start with whichever title that intrigues them the most. More than women, it is the men who need this book; they are not the problem but their entitlement is.
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Blank Gold Coast

14 February 2019
Rarely does a book’s title so perfectly encapsulate its contents, as it does in the case of Sohaila Abdulali’s ‘What We Talk About When We talk About Rape,’ a modern treatise on rape and rape culture, and the global discourse that both describes and determines it. Sohaila Abdulali was the first Indian rape survivor to speak out publicly about her experience. Gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai and indignant at the deafening silence on the issue of rape in India, she wrote an article for a women’s magazine questioning how we perceive rape and rape victims that disappeared (she thought) into the ether. Thirty years later, happy and successful, Abdulali saw her story go viral in the wake of the fatal 2012 Delhi rape of Jyoti Singh and the global outcry that followed. While unsentimental in tone – even in the passages where she recollects her ordeal – the book and its wide-ranging look at the broad spectrum of global sexual violence nevertheless inspire a full gamut of (negative) emotions in the reader, ranging from the purest boiling rage to quiet despair. Meticulously researched and referenced, the book holds a mirror up to the frighteningly large numbers of sexual assault victims, and their ongoing victimisation by a society which at times seems set up to excuse perpetrators. However it also offers hope – particularly via the story of its author – that it is possible to achieve a happy life after surviving sexual assault. It is a book to be read over several sittings; one to pick up again once you’ve cooled down or perked up, but absolutely to be picked up again. Abdulali’s offering demonstrates great insight but provides little in the way of solutions, although some solace for victims will almost certainly be found amongst its pages, even if just from the realisation that they are not alone. It is not unlike other treatments of this subject, in that sense. ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape’ explores not just what we say when we talk about rape but also what we don’t say, and asks pertinent questions about consent and desire, redemption and revenge, and how we raise our sons. It’s not an easy read, but it’s an important one.
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Washington City Paper

7 January 2019
Content warning: This pick concerns rape and sexual assault.There should be many more books like Sohaila Abdulali’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape. At 17, the writer was gang raped and nearly killed in Mumbai. She wrote about this experience and her recovery from it three decades later in a 2013 New York Times op-ed. Her new book is somewhat of an expansion of that piece, an expansion on the conversation about rape, sexual assault, and rape culture, and an examination of how different cultures handle sexual violence. In addition to sharing her own story, Abdulali interviewed survivors from around the world and put these intensely personal stories on the page. It’s a book that stresses the fact that there is no singular response to rape, and asks questions that must be addressed: Who gets raped and why? And, if you’re a survivor, how do you recover a sense of safety and joy? It’s essential reading.
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Women’s Web

4 December 2018
What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulali is a powerful, solicitous and hard-hitting read which has the potential to create history. Rarely does it happen that a book leaves me flabbergasted, shattered and reassured, all at the same time. With the “Me Too” movement gaining momentum and changing the conversations around the subject of rape and consent, the timing of this book could not be better. This is an important read for all of us because the truth is that whenever a rape happens, we are all the victims – some of us realize it, some don’t.
There are many things about this book that one cannot define in quintessential ways and that is its real strength.  If someone asks me the genre of the book, I wouldn’t know how to answer this. If someone asks me about the writing style of the author, I would say it doesn’t really matter. Neither does Sohaila Abdulali claim to educate the masses about rape nor does she come across as patronizing at any point. She raises the right questions time and again, even though she might not have the answers to some. She makes us introspect and contemplate about our own behavior which is interesting because many of us think we are progressive and are doing it all right, but in reality we are not there yet.

A 360 degree look at rape

The author takes a 360 degree view, if I may call it that, on this extremely sensitive and discomfiting topic and not only does she focus on what we talk about rape but stresses more on what we don’t talk about rape. Her in-depth analysis and understanding does not just come from the place of being a rape survivor herself, but also from being someone who has actively been involved in counseling survivors. At the very beginning, she shares her own harrowing experience of being gang raped in the presence of a friend in the year 1980 when she was all of seventeen years old. She narrates how she penned a poignant account for a women’s magazine in the early 80s on surviving rape which created a trifling stir in the country because in those times, no one spoke about rape. It was soon a forgotten story only to resurface years later after the ghastly 2012 rape case shook the entire nation. Her story went viral, forcing her to face what she was trying to get past without any warning. And then this book happened!

Talking of rape as Indians

Having worked as a counselor with an NGO that rehabilitates human trafficking survivors, I do understand that there are so many complex layers to unfold as we try to comprehend the cause of rape not just in India but anywhere in the world. However, as I read through the different chapters, I realized that there are little nuances about our behavior and talks which we fail to notice, deterring us from being able to deal with the problem head on. Typically, the conversations around rape are limited to consent and harsh punishments. But, Sohaila Abdulali makes us recognize that we need to go beyond that, and make these dialogues all inclusive, specifically mentioning about how we seldom involve trans people and sex workers in these significant discussions. There is a lucid explanation of consent, and how it is not as simple as saying a “yes” or a “no”. For a long time, I thought rape was more about power than sex, which of course is true, but now I know that we cannot keep out sex from our conversations if we want to tackle this issue. The book talks about various scenarios from marital rape to date rape to incest, each viewed differently because of the different dynamics involved, although the crime is same. The survivor tales are distressing to say the least but are necessary to drive home the point, loud and clear.

Including toxic masculinity and male ‘protectors’ in the conversation

My favourite chapter in the book is “How to save a life” which cajoled me to think outside of the obvious. It discusses toxic masculinity and the impact of rape on men who are witnesses to the horrific crime but are not able to intervene. How many of us bother to think about this? This just re-affirms why patriarchy is harmful for everyone because men are expected to protect the honour of women and being witnesses to the rape of a loved one is a double blow for them. What also gave me immense hope in this section of the book were stories of heroes who make a difference. They reinstate the lost faith and reignite the extinguished flame. I think ‘The Abdulali guidelines for saving a rape survivor’s life’should be printed and distributed to one and all. Each one of us needs to know them, no matter how well-read and aware we think we are. We need to be ready to unlearn and re-learn because many a time our actions or words are well-intentioned but detrimental to the cause. For instance, in one of the chapters, Abdulali makes a case for looking at rapists as humans, which I would have never bothered to do earlier. She elucidates why violence is not the answer to violence and that furiously demanding public castration of rapists is not quite a laudable reaction. This made me pause and reflect. I evolved as a person by the time I reached the end of the book because every word in this literary work is a journey, a lesson and a plea to rise above our egos and intolerance to make the world a better place. To sum it up, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is a comprehensive, honest and enlightening attempt to normalize the discussions around rape. It is also a guide for parents, mentors and guardians on how to approach this matter with the next generation. For all this and more, it is an extremely important read. Did I say this before? Well, I would say it a thousand times over. Read it. Absorb it. Share it. Re-read it. I want to conclude by quoting the lines from the book that I believe should be drilled into the minds of every living human in the world. ‘I want to be very clear that it is never a victim’s obligation to speak up, or report, or do anything but survive. Her first responsibility is getting through it. But we are all culpable in the silence around rape, a “vast international conspiracy” if ever there was one.’
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Laura Barcella, Longreads

28 November 2018
In a 2015 documentary called “India’s Daughter,” one of Jyoti Singh Pandey’s rapists, Mukesh Singh, gave a disturbing jail-cell interview in which he placed the blame for his crime squarely on his dead victim. “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” he said. Singh’s quote is despicable, but it neatly summarizes many of the internalized myths that women all over the world walk around with each day: that women have a say in whether we end up brutalized. That we can twist our own fate by making simple choices like staying home at night, or not wearing skirts, or abstaining from drinking. It helps rapists rationalize their actions, and it makes women feel like we retain a semblance of control over what happens to us. Of course, it’s not true. What do you think about when you think about rape? If you’re someone who has also been a victim, you might think about power, the nebulous lines of control. You might think about the outfit you wore and the plan you’d made for innocent fun with a guy you met twice before. You might think about drinking wine on the patio, of consent given and later revoked. You might think about ripped underwear; the dirt beneath the nails of his callused, unfeeling fingers; and the massive blue bruises you got in places you don’t remember being bruised before or since. You might think about the shame and humiliation of the morning after, of not knowing who to tell or what hotline to call or what to preserve in a garbage bag as “evidence.” You might think about what your friends will say; whether they’ll support your story or find a way to warp it into your fault (“I’ve seen how you act with men when you’re drunk,” “but what did you expect, inviting him over so late?”). You might think about the walk-in clinic you visited afterward and the painful tests you endured there (yes, there was blood). You might think about filing a police report, or you might remember taking to your bed for a week and trying to avoid thinking about anything at all. In her powerful but accessibly written new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Sohaila Abdulali explores how cultures around the world handle rape. She approaches this intimate, sinister type of violence with a decidedly global viewpoint, delving into how both individuals and governments treat their victims, as well as how they navigate the nuances of sexual consent. Sure, it’s different in America. But is it better? Although Abdulali had never before written a book-length feminist treatise of this sort — she’s the author of two prior novels — she is no stranger to the subject matter. In the summer of 1980, shortly before she was due to leave her family in India and move to Boston for college at Brandeis, Abdulali was brutally raped by four armed men while hiking with a male friend in Bombay. She was almost killed, but her parents supported her, and her life crept on. She headed to college, wrote her undergraduate thesis about rape, and published an account of her story in an Indian women’s magazine called Manushi. The article garnered attention for daring to discuss a kind of violence that Indian women were typically encouraged to keep quiet about.

Fast forward to 2012, when Indian medical student Jyoti Singh Pandey, 23, was gang-raped and disemboweled on a private bus while returning home from a movie with a friend. Singh died of her gruesome injuries two weeks later, and the case, publicly dubbed the “Delhi gang rape,” sparked an international outcry. Singh’s attackers received the death penalty. Asked to comment on the case, Sohaila Abdulali, who went on to work for a rape crisis center in Boston, penned a 2013 New York Times op-ed. The piece went viral, drawing a torrent of personal letters from survivors. Though it was never Abdulali’s intention to be a “symbol of rape” — and she is adamant that survivors can live happy, meaningful lives after even the most grievous trauma — her history informed her work, ultimately leading Abdulali to write What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape (The New Press). The book is not your typical pop-academia offering. It takes a conversational approach to a painful subject, while still managing to avoid making light of rape or its legacy. Abdulali is careful not to speak for all survivors, acknowledging how rape’s after-effects manifest differently for everyone. And she examines the darkest questions surrounding what we don’t say about rape; for example, must rape victims be forever defined by someone else’s crime? Can rape ever be about sex instead of power? How can survivors find joy while still honoring their rage? “We must talk about rape, and we must talk about how we talk about rape,” she writes at the book’s beginning. I discussed the book with the author over coffee on New York City’s Lower East Side. Laura Barcella: Tell me how the book came about. Sohaila AbdulaliI had no intention of speaking up. I worked really hard not to speak up. But somebody took a picture of the old [Manushi] article I had written about my rape, and they posted it on FacebookThen everything went crazy, because rape was the only topic anybody was talking about in India. But they couldn’t find any victims; nobody would speak up. They found me and [I got the] New York Times offer, which worked out really nicely because it was the best possible platform and I could write that one piece and then say ‘no’ to every single person after that. In the last five years, I got away from the topic, wrote a column, did other stuff. Last year, I thought I would do a book. So I wrote to a publisher and said, ‘How about a book?’ And she wrote back saying, ‘What about a rape memoir?’ So I [told her,] ‘I’m fed up of this topic, and I don’t want to write about it. I can’t write a rape memoir because it’s not a main thing in my life anymore.’ She wrote back and said, ‘You don’t have to write a memoir. But you’ve obviously thought a lot about this and you have a lot to say; why don’t you just write a book about it?’ This was before #MeToo. So I started off with the idea that I would write this book about something nobody is talking about. Then I started writing it, and #MeToo happened. Just this week [in mid-October], India has gone crazy. #MeToo has exploded therea government minister just resigned. For the first time in our history, women are being taken seriously there. It’s amazing. The book is coming out at the right time; it happened organically. The minute I started writing it, I was obsessed, and I got to talk to the most amazing survivors.
I had no intention of speaking up. I worked really hard not to speak up.
How did you find the survivors you interviewed for the book? I found them through word of mouth. Also, when my New York Times op-ed came out, about 1,000 people wrote to me from all over the world. I wrote back to every single one, because I felt like, how could I not? Then I felt like I couldn’t [not save] the emails. So I put them in one file and kept them. When I was working on this book, I had this huge data bank of people to contact. In your book, you wrote about India’s Justice Verma Committee report, which was released as an official government response to the horrific 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey. More than 80,000 people weighed in for the report, which laid out new laws and amendments related to violence against women in India. Did the report have much of an impact on women there? Psychologically it had a fabulous impact. It’s an amazing thing to read. The Indian government strengthened some of its rape laws, and they strengthened some reporting. There’s a little more training. But I don’t know if there’s been even one less rape there. So who knows if it’s made any [real] difference. It’s also a historical document. They listened to people, and they went out there and talked to people. I don’t know how they did it in just one month. You touch on how we describe sexual assault versus rape, and how rape is seen as a more ‘forceful’ word for a more violent act. What’s your take on the language that we use to describe sexual assault, and how you decided to include the word ‘rape’ so prominently in the title of your book? Did you ever think of calling it, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Assault?’ No, because it was about rape. That’s a really good, thought-provoking question. All rape is sexual assault, but all sexual assault isn’t rape. The more interesting thing about language is the way that people talk about victims and criminals. You know, the whole ‘boys will be boys’ thing, and how people [sometimes] talk about rape using the same terms we use for regular sex. Like the term ‘gang bang.’ A gang bang — is that consensual or not? It’s used for both. It seems like there has been a shift in the way people talk about assault, post-Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. I remember there was a lot of dissent about Aziz Ansari, and whether his alleged actions [as outlined in January’s Babe.net article] ‘qualified’ as sexual assault. So much nitpicking over the language regarding sexual assault versus harassment versus bad sex. We make it more complicated than it has to be, but also less complicated. Because with all those discussions, even if there’s no real answer at the end, we’ve never had them before. It is important. And if you read that woman’s [story], he was disgusting. It was disgusting. He stuck his finger in her [mouth]. But even I hesitate about saying it’s the same kind of rape as some stranger jumping you on the street. Still, that doesn’t mean the trauma is lesser. It is complicated, but we need to talk about it. The more words we have, the better.

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Do you think that our culture has gotten better at grappling with nuances when it comes to sexual consent? Or appreciating the nuances, if not always respecting them? I don’t know about the culture, and I’m not on the dating scene because I’m married. But I do feel that in my own family, among the teenagers, there’s a kind of understanding and discussion that there never was before in my generation. So that’s good. But to be clear, with consent, you can have all the rules [laid out], but if you don’t care how the other person actually feels, then it doesn’t matter what you sayEveryone should actually care if the other party is into it. Seems basic! What do people get wrong when they talk about rape? Oh, everything. For one thing, the idea that women somehow bring it on themselves. I mean, we have countries in the world where that’s kind of the law, right? In Iran, if you show your head and you get raped, then you’re [responsible for] it. And also [the idea] that men can’t help it. Many of the men I know absolutely can help it, and they choose not to do it. We also get the effects of rape wrong. Because we either act like it’s no big deal, or we act like it’s the end of your life. Even more so in India. But here, too, women are considered damaged goods [after being raped]. But the impact is so individual, and it doesn’t necessarily have to correspond to what actually happened to you. Like for me, [my attackers were] strangers, and I’ve always thought, ‘Phew, I am so glad.’ Because I can put that away; it’s not part of my everyday life. What about the psychological trauma? I know it’s very individual and plays out differently for everyone. But what are some of the misconceptions out there about what recovery is ‘supposed to’ look like for a survivor? In America, one of the big misconceptions is that if you’ve been raped, you’re going to have PTSD that centers around sex only. Which often happens! But we don’t realize [that PTSD] can also relate to lots of other things. Like, I have this chapter on dentistry. I used to be devastated over going to the dentist. I had flashbacks of my rape every single time I went to the dentist, but I didn’t have flashbacks during sex. So I thought I was weird and never told anyone until this dentist came along and said she treats lots of people [with PTSD from rape]. We tend to have certain notions of what trauma is like.
We get the effects of rape wrong. Because we either act like it’s no big deal, or we act like it’s the end of your life.
How did you feel about the Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford hearings? Did you watch? Oh, I couldn’t stop. It was so painful and disheartening from beginning to end. The only part of it that was good was her. She’s a hero. I can just barely imagine the courage it took her, and the months and years of thinking, ‘Should I? Shouldn’t I?’ Imagine how she feels — it didn’t even work. It didn’t work, and he was crying and screaming like a stupid toddler, and he got his way. If this educated, articulate, white, blonde, American woman can get up there and nobody gives a damn, what hope is there for the rest of us? In one of the later chapters of your book, you wrote about how there’s this constant knot of anger inside you regarding men who rape. I related to that, and many women I know have that feeling regardless of whether they’ve experienced rape themselves. What do you do with this anger? It’s not the dominant emotion in my life. But I think [many women] do have that anger, and whether we have it in regards to rape or something else, we’re doing the same thing that I’m accusing everyone else of doing in the book: using rape as a symbol for something else. It’s like, yes, I am angry that men rape — but what else am I really angry about? That, and the fact that they get more pay, plus all those other privileges? Rape is just one very easy piece; maybe the most dramatic piece. I don’t know what one does with the anger. Everyone has their own way [of handling it], but I don’t find that anger paralyzes me. It fueled me writing this book. I am also surrounded by fantastic men. So I cling to the notion that rape is a choice they make, and that they can learn not to make that choice. The anger can definitely get tangled up with so many other issues, like Donald Trump’s election — ‘why are these men in power?’ And why are we surprised that Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court? We’ve heard much worse from Trump, and he’s our president. It’s stunning. Righteous anger is good, but there’s no use getting consumed by it and getting bitter. I was afraid when I sat down to interview people for this book that it would put me into a very dark place, because all the rape survivors I’d talked to before were from years ago when I worked at the rape counseling center [in Boston]. They were all in crisis; that’s why they called. So I imagined I’d go through that again, but the people I talked to for the book are all people who have come through it. It was actually really inspirational to talk to them and see how they survived. Something else you discuss in the book is the idea that rape may not always be about power. What’s your stance on this? Do you think there are instances where rape is not about control, but simply about sex? I believe it might not always be predominantly about power and control. There’s always an element of power there, but I believe that it’s not always the motivation. It’s too simple to say that. We have to think about these oversimplifications. As you were working on the book, did you learn anything surprising that you didn’t know or realize before? There weren’t many blinding revelations. I didn’t actually plan the chapters that much; they grew out of my interviews. The first four people I talked to were all women, and they all had stories of telling people [about their rapes] and having someone really close to them say, ‘What did you expect?’ So that’s when I thought I had to have a chapter called ‘What Did You Expect?’ And then the dentist [chapter]. I told someone I was writing this book and she said, ‘Oh, I know this dentist who works with trauma survivors.’ How long did it take you to finish writing? Six months. But I had four publishers, so every editor had separate comments. Are the four versions slightly different? No, they’re all the same. I really enjoyed the process. I’ve been really lucky. I think if I had written this book ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been as clear about what I wanted. I had this BBC interview last week with a woman in London. And she said, ‘Were you surprised at your father’s reaction [to your rape]?’ And I’d never thought of that before. I said, ‘No. He just acted like my father.’ That’s the other thing with rape, right? Somehow we put all this baggage on it and we expect people to behave differently from how they otherwise would. But people behave true to themselves. If you’re a jerk, you’re going to act like a jerk [when your loved one is raped]. If you really believe that your daughter’s welfare comes above all else, then that’s how you’ll act. Who do you most hope will read your book? I really feel strongly that this book is for everyone. I really, really hope a lot of men read it. Not because it will help them not to rape, but it might help people to think about the dynamics in their lives and how to help people they know to whom this has happened. Of course it’s a feminist book because I’m a feminist, but it’s not a feminist book that is only meant for certain people. I really hope it has a broad readership. And I know it’s weird, but I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope that comes across.
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23 November 2018
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. 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.” 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.”
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Natasha Badhwar, Live Mint

16 November 2018

When I get stressed from words, or trying to frame something stressful in words, I often, quite suddenly, become very sleepy.

As I read Sohaila Abdulali’s new book What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, I found that I would often be holding the book open in my hands and doze off into a dark, black sleep. My guess is that my mind was trying to escape from having to consciously think about rape and sexual assault. A vague anxiety would get triggered in me. If this is a subconscious response to just reading other people’s stories and experience, imagine what it is like to be the victim of sexual assault. To have to find a way to survive, to seek justice, to rebuild one’s trust and deal with recurring trauma. To have to console the distress of others. To tell one’s story and have to face the confusion, wrath and callousness of those who are unable to deal with your truth. “Rape is no different from any other trauma,” writes Abdulali. “You can’t make it unhappen. No matter how much you heal, you can never be unraped, any more than you can be undead.” The trauma returns repeatedly in the survivor’s life.

Abdulali was gang-raped over three decades ago when she was 17-years-old. Four men had overpowered her and a male friend she was with. Through a long, gruesome night, they raped her, wounded both of them and left them alive only after the terrified victims managed to convince them that they would never speak of the crime to anyone else.

“I must be missing the Shame Gene that other Indian women are born with, because, for all the guilt, horror, trauma and confusion that followed my rape, it never occurred to me that I had anything to be ashamed of,” writes Abdulali.

Three years later, she wrote a first person account of the crime that was published in Manushi, a women’s magazine. Her undergraduate thesis was on rape and her first job out of college was at a rape crisis centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “If we don’t put it out there, this conversation will always be muted,” Abdulali quotes a marital rape survivor to explain why she has felt compelled to write and talk about rape, even as she remains determined to never allow the assault by four strangers to define her. “Words are the enemy of impunity,” writes Abdulali. “They can create real change.“ In the same chapter she adds, “But words are also a luxury.” To talk about sexual abuse takes courage, she reiterates. For many survivors, speaking up can be lethal. For some, their livelihood may be at stake. For others, speaking up about incest or rape can literally mean death. “I want to be very clear that it is never a victim’s obligation to speak up, or report, or do anything but survive. Her first responsibility is getting through it.”

Throughout the book, Abdulali’s analysis is clear-eyed, unsentimental and searingly realistic. She is unafraid to repeat that she doesn’t know the answers to the questions she raises. She insists on underlining nuance again and again.

Abdulali refuses to divide the world into a permanent battleground of men versus women, or even good people versus bad people. She articulates the connection between rape and desire, violence and sex. She insists that it is important to verbalize the dynamics of date rape and violent stranger rape without diminishing the horror of both. We cannot influence the minds of others until we learn to examine the complexity of human motivations. It is here that Abdulali’s gift as a writer comes to the rescue. She creates pauses to express rage, fury, confusion and even ennui. She wishes she were writing a book about art and music instead of rape. She gives the reader a glimpse into the fear that still revisits her unexpectedly, slamming into her with a rush of sheer terror. Yet, this is a book that is as much about happiness as it is about destruction. It is also a tribute to Abdulali’s parents. Her father who wrapped her in his arms after she had been gang-raped and asked her, “What do you want? We’ll do whatever you want.” Her mother who tried to discourage her from working as a rape crisis counsellor, but when Abdulali got the job, joined her team every afternoon with cake and “just sat there, knitting implacably against fear and horror and isolation.” This is a book about rape but it is also a book about the rest of life. “Hi, I’m Manassah. I was raped, I’m happy. I’m not happy I was raped, but I’m happy,” Abdulali quotes a survivor who introduces himself with these words every time he starts a talk. He wants all of him to be seen together. Abdulali insists on dealing with the totality of life—what Zorba the Greek had called “the full catastrophe”. Birdsong and brutality don’t cancel each other out—they co-exist. She refuses to step back from paradoxes that may be hard to categorize, from realities too complex to process. There is no right way to heal, she writes. Some people are destroyed by rape, most are not, Abdulali has learnt. They come through it, “wearing with great dignity a mantle of bitter grace.” But they shouldn’t have to, she reminds us. And they certainly shouldn’t have to do it alone. With this book, Abdulali hopes to end some of the silence around rape, to illuminate the shadows. “I want to let some light back in,” she writes, handing over the rest of the responsibility to the reader. It is the rest of the world that is culpable in the silence around rape. This book spells this out clearly. Allow yourself to be immersed in Sohaila Abdulali’s words. There is hope and laughter here, there is redemption and forgiveness in the stories narrated. There is humour, compassion, wisdom and light on these pages. The author’s search for answers is bound to resonate with yours and mine.
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Business Standard

16 November 2018
On the night of December 16, 2012, two of my friends— a man and a woman — had gone to watch Life of Piat a movie theatre in South Delhi. Failing to make it in time for the last Metro, they decided to take an autorickshaw and my male friend had to accompany the woman right to her doorstep. There is nothing unusual with this account, except when they woke up the next day to a chilling account of a young woman’s gang-rape and brutal assault. She was watching the same film in the same theatre, possibly even the same show. And yet, her night ended so violently different from my friends’. Most people in Delhi would remember where they were when they heard the news of the 2012 gang rape case. Widespread protests followed, the Justice Verma Committee was set up and the government announced the Nirbhaya Fund, a non-lapsable, Rs 10- billion corpus dedicated to women’s safety. For Sohaila Abdulali, travelling on a train from Boston to New York, a young woman’s rape had an entirely different impact. An article Ms Abdulali wrote for Manushi 30 years ago had become viral on social media. This piece detailed her ordeal as a 17-year-old gang-rape survivor in 1980. In three decades, Ms Abdulali had learnt to academically engage with and detach herself from her own trauma, but it all came crashing down in 2012. Her phone rang incessantly and her inbox was choked with emails from friends, family, rape survivors and the ubiquitous trolls. Ms Abdulali’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, is a product of her nuanced engagement with the subject of rape. It would be naïve to assume that she is qualified to write a book on sexual assault solely because of her own experience with it. If that were the case, countless women in India would be churning out books by the hour. While her own experience is a constant reference point in this book, her ability to examine rape as though it were a tangible, three-dimensional object comes from her theses on the subject, protesting for change, raising funds and working with survivors at the rape crisis centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What We Talk About… is a book like no other for various reasons. For one, as Ms Abdulali points out in the Introduction, this book is not a compilation of essays, does not fit into the sociology or psychology genres, cannot qualify as research nor is it a memoir. As she exultantly declares, “This is just what I want, because in this space lies my freedom.” The book, she adds, explores both what we say about rape and what we don’t. Second, it raises questions about rape survivors, rapists, about empathy and loss of power and it defiantly answers none. “In this book, I will contradict myself. Rape is always a catastrophe. Rape is not always a catastrophe. Rape is like any other crime. Rape is not like any other crime. It’s all true.” But despite its myriad contradictions and needling questions, Ms Abdulali’s prose is in no way confused or confusing. She uses pithy phrases to put forth piercing arguments, offering a degree of refreshing perspective that at once emotionally charged and objective. For instance, in a chapter titled “The official version”, Ms Abdulali writes about the time when she was called for jury duty in the US for a rape case. As is the norm, the judge asked if anyone had been or knew someone who was sexually assaulted. Ms Abdulali was one of the several people who raised their hands. She was called into the room for a brief interrogation and was soon judged unfit to be an unbiased member of the jury. “If you’ve been raped, then you can’t have an opinion about it because you’re too biased, too emotional, too close to it. Yes, I know. Crazy. But true,” she writes. She goes on to talk about the language in which rape is defined, the way in which a criminal or a survivor is addressed and how the official version is important no matter the statue of limitations on the crime. In her own case, the official version states that nothing happened on the night she was raped. Ms Abdulali is joyously irreverent and does not shy away from using colloquial phrases such as “the system universally sucks” or “d*** conquers all”. For an (the) Indian readership particularly, calling a spade a spade is the need of the hour.  There is enough anecdotal evidence from the reaction around #metoo that suggests that we are still a country not equipped to comprehensively talk about and deal with the issue of gender-based violence. What We Talk About… not only sets the record straight, but it also explores the yet unthinkable idea that a survivor’s life isn’t ruined after he or she is raped, that his or her identity lies beyond the victim checkbox. Remarkable is too feeble a word to describe Ms Abdulali’s courage, surreal is a misplaced word to define something that is so firmly rooted in the reality of our times and delightful seems rather inappropriate an adjective for a book about unimaginable pain. And yet, all three capture the essence of Ms Abdulali’s book that resolutely escapes all efforts to be pegged.

The AU Review

8 November 2018
Combining memoir, social science, and collected stories, author Sohaila Abdulali provides readers with a well-researched exploration of the many discursive threads surrounding rape and sexual assault. It is, quite simply, a vital piece of literature for the post #MeToo world and beyond. All around the world, definitions differ, and coping mechanisms vary, making the topic both black and white AND full of shades of grey. The goal of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is not to narrow that definition. Indeed, far be it for anyone to tell someone how to respond to their own trauma. Instead, the goal is to explore the jarring impact of these mismatched ideas, of the dangers of differentiating between good girls and bad girls, and of the problems inherent in telling people how not to get raped instead of defining consent and, pretty much, just telling people not to rape. Throughout this short book, Abdulali, drawing on both her own experiences as a gang rape survivor and as former head of a Boston rape crisis centre, as well as extensive research, eloquently examines how the way we choose to talk about rape impacts our ability to understand what is happening, judge how it should be punished, and empathise with survivors. The reality is that our general view of rape, what it is, who it affects, and who perpetrates it is so narrow, so contradictory, and so damaging that the aftermath can seem worse than the crime, with victims made to feel like they must rank their suffering against that of other survivors, or, worse still, feel that they themselves were responsible in some way. What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape rages fiercely against that, filled to the brim with stories of men and women who suffered not just during or as a result of their assaults, but also when they tried to get on with their lives after the fact. Whether choosing silence and repression or speaking out and risking everything, the evidence Abdulali has gathered is clear: the odds are stacked against survivors, and not just in the courts. Abdulali has a wry and occasionally quite blunt sense of humour and when you’re dealing with such heavy, sensitive subject matter, it’s an absolute godsend. There are moments when you can almost picture her eyes all but rolling out of her head as she recounts some of the stories – the outcomes are, after all, what many women have come to expect, and there’s very much an attitude of ‘same shit, different day’, that will likely appeal to readers of forthright writers such as Clementine Ford and Caitlin Moran. Oh, and speaking of shit: “Flowers grow from shit”. Ultimately, that’s the message we need to take from What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape. Not everyone survives it. Not everyone moves on. But the tales of resilience and rehabilitation that abound in this book make for an affirming exploration of refusing to let an act of sexual violence define a life. It’s a heartening counter to the often stomach-churning trauma discussed throughout, a real testament to the strength of the human spirit. We absolutely need to talk about rape, but we also need to change how we talk about it and ensure that we wrestle control of that conversation from those who would silence victims with blame and shame. Sohaila Abdulali and writers like her are providing us with the means to do that. Pick up this book and lend a hand, won’t you?
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Publishers Weekly

27 October 2018

Sohaila Abdulali has written two novels, three children’s books, a newspaper column, grants, annual reports, web copy, op-eds, blogs, articles—you name it; her eclectic list of credits will be familiar to any freelance writer. But she didn’t intend to write a book like What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, which the New Press will publish in November. As she recounts in the book’s opening pages, Abdulali was raped by four armed men in the summer of 1980, shortly before she left India to start college at Brandeis University. Three years later, back in India to do research on her undergraduate thesis about rape, she published an article about her own rape in the women’s magazine Manushi. It created a stir in India—where it was not culturally acceptable to discuss such things in public—but, Abdulali writes, “the next issue came out, life went on, and 30 years passed.”

Then in December 2012, a female student was raped on a bus in New Delhi and later died from her injuries. “I thought all the protests were great, but it had nothing to do with me,” says Abdulali, who is now 55 and lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “But then somebody found a copy of that article and posted it on Facebook. The whole thing went crazy; the media kept calling and asking, ‘Do you have something to say?’ I really didn’t, but I looked at the piece again and thought, ‘Boy, I was really young then,’ and it seemed like maybe I did have something to say. So when the New York Times asked if I wanted to be interviewed, I said, ‘No, but I might write one piece’—you know, keep it classy.”

Abdulali’s op-ed ran in January 2013 and garnered a huge response. She received emails from some 1,000 rape survivors and made a point of acknowledging each one. She was less responsive to agents who called suggesting that she write a memoir. “The rape isn’t the main thing in my life, and it would be fake to write as if it was,” she says. “So I said no to everybody and moved on. But every time I pitched a book to someone, they would say, ‘Why don’t you write a memoir?’ I got annoyed.”

Abdulali was mad enough to write “a real stinker” to Penguin Random House India editor Manasi Subramaniam. “She wrote me this really intelligent email saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be a memoir, but you have a lot to say on this subject; think about another kind of book.’ It never occurred to me that I could write about rape but not as a ‘rape victim.’ I got excited and wrote this completely crazy proposal, which I ultimately sold to Candida Lacey at Myriad Editions in the U.K.”

The resulting book incorporates the individual stories of rape survivors into a wide-ranging consideration of the multiple issues relating to rape around the world: what constitutes consent, rape as a political weapon, the “rape culture” of male entitlement, the healthiness of anger, and also the possibility of forgiveness. Abdulali writes about these thorny subjects in a blunt, conversational style spiked with the same humor evident in her conversation. “I’m not a terribly serious person, but this message is serious,” she says. “So I just wrote as I talk and trusted Candida to cut parts that were too flippant, which she did. I wanted this balance: rape is serious but, like everything else in life, you can be light. In fact, part of the whole problem, certainly in India, is that if you’re raped, you’re supposed to be overcome with heaviness and die.”

“I found there’s a lot of positivity in how people cope with rape,” Abdulali continues. “My friend Sarah McNally, who owns the McNally Jackson bookstore, put me in touch with her friend Yasmin. She was amazing, talking about how she and her friends would go into a mob situation in Cairo during the Arab Spring, when men were assaulting female demonstrators, and try to rescue women. That made me think, ‘I want to write about heroes,’ so I did. Themes emerged from people’s stories. For example, among the first four people I interviewed, every single one of them told me that when they told someone—mother, lover, whomever—the response was, ‘What did you expect?’ So I wrote a chapter called, ‘What Did You Expect?’ Some of the stories were from friends, some were from the people who wrote me about the op-ed piece; I avoided the ones who seemed immediately traumatized, because it seemed unfair five years later to say, ‘Remember this?’ But I contacted the ones who seemed when they wrote to have come to some kind of terms with it, so I had this pool of survivors from all over the world.”

The abundance of material was initially intimidating, Abdulali says. “I said to Candida, ‘How am I ever going to stop?’ She said, ‘Just write and see what happens.’ I thought, ‘I’m just going to keep going until I’m done.’ I would write and write and write, talk to people and write; I thought it would just go on forever. Then, one day in March, it was done. I actually turned it in ahead of the deadline.”

By that time, Lacey had sold subsidiary rights to Meredith Curnow at Penguin Random House in Australia, Ellen Adler at New Press, and—coming full circle to the initial inspirer of Abdulali’s proposal—Manasi Subramaniam at Penguin Random House India. Each of them made her mark on the text, Abdulali notes: “Candida said, ‘Look, I’m your editor, but why don’t we open it up? Why don’t we send everyone the first draft when we’re done with it and see what they have to say?’ I was nervous at first, but they have been amazing. They all read it three or four times, and they all had extensive comments. They were great, and they were putting in so much time that I felt I had to respond to all the comments: I’m using this, I’m not using this and here’s why not. I got this input from four continents, and they didn’t feel like rivals—I call them my four wives!”

In addition to not intending to write a book about rape, Abdulali says she didn’t intend to write any more nonfiction books after publishing the novels The Madwoman of Jogare and Year of the Tigerin India. “Madwoman was set in the village where my parents lived for many years and sold orchids; that’s the book of my heart, but it’s out of print. Then I thought it would be fun to do a New York novel, so I wrote Year of the Tiger—McNally Jackson actually carries it. I thought of myself as a fiction writer after that; I loved writing fiction. But then I got the column for the Indian newspaper Mint, and I loved that too. And this book was so exciting to write—I cannot tell you what fun I had. So I don’t know what I want to do next. I might write another novel. Maybe this time I can get it published here.”

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Staunch Book Prize

27 September 2018
Written post-Weinstein and #MeToo, Sohaila Abdulali has produced a timely, deeply affecting and comprehensive work on the subject of rape. In it she notes how shamefully victims are often treated in comparison to their assailants, and investigates the not-so-simple question of who gets raped and who are the rapists. One minute calmly, the next in anger, Abdulali challenges misconceptions, prejudices and misogynistic thinking, demanding to know why rape is so prevalent and so casually excused. Using both anecdote and cold statistics, she never flinches from asking tough questions or from bringing us back sharply to the often catastrophic affect rape has on the lives of victims. Reasoned, realistic and unwavering, gang-rape survivor Sohaila Abdulali is a compassionate voice of authority who refuses to let that experience define her. She has achieved something quite remarkable here – a book that, without sensationalising this highly emotive subject, manages to be both a burning roar of outrage and coolly sensational.
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3 September 2018
In 2013, Abdulali wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about her own experience of rape and its aftermath. This book expands that essay, examining rape and rape culture on a global level and in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In the three decades since her rape, Abdulali has worked at a rape crisis center, interviewed survivors from around the world, and written extensively on the topic. But her book is by no means meant to be the final word on rape; she intends, in fact, to start a dialogue. In the introduction, she admits that she may contradict herself but that hers is no simple topic, and individual experiences of and responses to rape vary dramatically. She writes in a conversational style and injects a levity that, rather than betraying the seriousness of her subject, makes it more possible to handle the necessary yet horrifying details of rape of all kinds. An important book working towards an important goal: meaningful and thoughtful discussion of a taboo subject.
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Publishers Weekly starred review

3 September 2018
Abdulali (The Year of the Tiger) brings precision, clarity, and style to her exploration of a topic often treated as more confusing than it is. A former coordinator of a rape crisis center, she uses her own brutal rape as a touchstone and springboard for this series of extended reflections on the discourse surrounding rape, with stories from Australia, Egypt, India, Italy, South Africa, and the U.S. Drawing on interviews, personal emails, government reports, and other documents, Abdulali discusses varied scenarios, from date rate, marital rape, and incest to gang rape and war crimes, acknowledging the high rates of rape perpetrated against trans people and sex workers. She approaches debates about consent, responsibility, motive, honor, and prevention with deep compassion, humor, a healthy dose of irony, and anger. Though Abdulali doesn’t claim to have answers, the book’s assertions are clear: victims deserve belief, support, and a fair hearing; rapists, not their targets, are responsible for rape; and survivors can go on to live full and joyful lives. Her clear-eyed assessments, grace, and literary touches will make this book valuable reading for sociologists, therapists, feminists, and anyone who believes women should be able to move through the world free from fear.
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Kirkus Reviews

27 August 2018

In an expansion of her popular 2013 New York Times op-ed, novelist and rape survivor Abdulali (Year of the Tiger, 2010, etc.) calls for franker conversation about rape. Modeling discourse about rape that is at once direct and nuanced, unblinking yet subtle, the author tackles the complexities of sexual violence head-on, rightly criticizing simplistic shibboleths. For example, she encourages survivors to talk about their rapes, yet she recognizes that ‘telling’ is sometimes costly and ‘doesn't always come with a reward: comfort, closure, justice’. (Abdulali acknowledges that when discussing her own rape, she has sometimes worried that people think she should just get over it.) The author insightfully asks whether the ‘yes means yes and no means no’ model adequately accounts for a woman who ‘chooses’ to be raped over being killed or a woman who ‘give[s] in’ to a man who holds power in her professional world. Abdulali also calls attention to the ‘institutional…scaffolding’ that allows ‘abuse to flourish’—e.g., the family systems, political and economic arrangements, and workplace norms that deprive women of meaningful agency and that sometimes reward women for going along with systems that are ultimately disempowering. The book is distinguished by its global view; Abdulali includes examples and illustrations from the United States but also from India, South Africa, and Egypt.There's a little bit of snark and dash of self-help. Spliced throughout are shorter chapters (‘A brief pause for ennui’, ‘A brief pause for confusion’) that offer snapshots of the author’s emotional landscape: a feeling of rage that overtakes her, seemingly out of nowhere, while attending a bat mitzvah, or her envy of writers who get to write about bird song and other happy topics while she’s pondering brutality and violence (‘Art! Joy! Life! It’s so much more inviting than discussing getting gonorrhea from one’s older brother or rape as a weapon of war’). Susan Brownmiller, vitally updated.

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