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, former counsellor and activist.

When we talk about victims of rape, we say ‘it could be your mother or sister or daughter’. We rarely say ‘the rapist might be your father or brother or son’. Novelist and rape survivor, Sohaila Abdulali calls for franker conversation about rape. At once unblinking and subtle, she tackles the complexities of sexual violence head-on, rightly criticizing simplistic shibboleths and asking insightful questions such as 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 ‘gives in’ to a man who holds power in her professional world.

She also calls attention to the ‘institutional scaffolding’ that ‘allows abuse to flourish’ e.g. the family, political and economic arrangements, and workplaces that encourage women to fit into systems that are ultimately disempowering. As the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements blow open the topic of sexual assault and rape, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is a brilliant and entirely original contribution to our understanding.

Drawing on her own experience (Abdulali was gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai), her research, her work with hundreds of survivors as the head of a rape crisis center, and three decades of grappling with the issue as a feminist intellectual and writer, Abdulali examines our contemporary discourse about rape. She interviews survivors whose personal stories of hard-won strength, humour, and wisdom collectively tell the larger story of how societies may begin to heal.

Surya Matondkar for Right Now, Human Rights Organisation in Australia

18 July 2019
In 1980, 17-year-old Sohaila Abdulali was just another teenager in Bombay, her eyes trained to a life in the United States. Her family had recently emigrated and she was spending a few final days in her family home in India before taking off to new adventures. It was also the year that she and her male friend were abducted by four men, taken up a mountain, abused, threatened, wounded and almost killed. It was on that seemingly regular summer evening in Bombay that she was raped. Astonishingly, despite multiple voices rising up and a great deal of headway made in society, rape remains a taboo term. Even in 2019, this is more common than we like to admit. In India, we not only avoid the term “rape” we also take care to shift the blame of the rape to the victim. Indian society is programmed to do this, regardless of the brutality of the assault, and we are not alone. Many societies around the world share this system, stating that the woman shouldn’t have gone out during the evening, that she shouldn’t have been standing so close to a male friend (since this could be construed by other men as an invitation), that she shouldn’t have worn a particular form of clothing, walked a particular way or down a particular street. Even so, this sort of mentality is more prominent in a country like India where patriarchy is interwoven into the very fabric of the country. Post the Nirbhaya case of 2012, and more recently the #Metoo movement in 2018, both Indian society and media have evolved to a certain extent. However, in 1980 India when Abdulali’s assault occurred, rape was a non-existent term in India’s vocabulary. Take for example the fact that in 1973, Aruna Shanbaug, an Indian nurse was brutally raped and strangled with a dog chain at work by a colleague, rendering her blind, deaf and paralysed in a vegetative state. Despite the horrific details of the crime the story faded quickly and Indians continued to pretend it was a random occurrence and women were safe within the country. Needless to say, the Indian media rarely took a stance on rape or made an effort to bring the discussion into the forefront. This was the India that Sohaila Abdulali left behind in 1980. Three years later she came back, having secured a grant to work on her undergraduate thesis on rape in India. Unsurprisingly, she found that few women were willing to come forward to speak about rape, because despite the hard work of a few feminists in the country, rape was still considered a fairly taboo and shameful term. Speaking of that time she says “I don’t know what pushed me over the edge––all the people who kept saying rape didn’t exist for “people like us,” the upper classes; a dirty old man who heard what I was studying and decided it meant he could grope me; or just the growing conviction that I couldn’t possibly be the only one, could I?” Encouraged to action by the women she interacted with she began by sharing her own story with the only magazine in India which might have published it – a women’s magazine called Manushi. Although it created a small stir in a deeply slumbering nation, it too was quickly pushed out of the news cycle. However, to date, it is remembered as the first official article in the country which speaks openly about a woman’s experience with rape. In 2012, almost thirty years on, Abdulali had settled into her life abroad and slowly distanced herself from the occurrences of that 1980 evening in Bombay, not because she was ashamed but simply because she had filled her life with too much light to allow the darkness room. And that was when the Delhi-rape case happened. The Delhi-rape case, or rather the “Nirbhaya” case to be more specific, was possibly one of the most detailed rape cases covered by the Indian media. While rape itself is a regular occurrence in the country, so regular that not even all “Delhi-rape cases” make the media, this particular one was horrifying enough to shake the country into action. On December 16th, a young physiotherapy student called Jyoti Singh was gang-raped in a bus while she was travelling home with a male friend in Delhi. Jyoti’s story was covered extensively by the media who dubbed her “Nirbhaya” or “Fearless”. But, the brutality of her assault left her with extensive internal injuries and she died a few days later. In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya case India finally and fully awoke to the matter of rape. It was then that Sohaila Abdulali’s story in Manushi resurfaced and began trending on social media as people finally began acknowledging that violence against women didn’t just exist in India, it flourished. Around this time, Abdulali wrote an article for the New York Times detailing her beliefs, ideas and views on rape – pointing out that it wasn’t shameful, it wasn’t the victim’s fault, and it definitely didn’t define them. She emphasised that life after rape did not have to be about surviving, it could be about joyful living. Those same ideas are what What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is built on. Written with joy, love and dignity, this book doesn’t just talk about her own story, it talks about the stories of women from all over the world, each of whom have faced the same evil. Because if there is one thing that we have learned from the #Metoo movement it is that sexual assault transcends class, caste and country. She illustrates through real life experiences how we as a society have long supported rape culture by over-scrutinising the victim’s actions, carefully ignoring the fact that that there is “someone else in the picture who also has a choice: a man, who can choose between decency and dominance.” While this text is a crucial manifesto for a society that is slowly beginning to unlearn, it is also a testament to the bravery and resilience of the stories it tells. Most important of all however, is the fact that this book does not claim to have all the answers. In fact, if anything it is a book designed to help us, as a society, ask questions. In the end, Abdulali simply encourages us to speak out – any way we can. As she puts it, “Breakfast conversation, random tweets, stories in the Metro section—it is all part of the conversation, and it all matters. But the conversation doesn’t include everyone, not yet. Let’s keep talking.”
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The Telegraph

29 March 2019
Many will remember Sohaila Abdulali for an article written three decades ago, remarkable for the author’s refusal to be defined by rape as well as the fresh young face accompanying the article in Manushi. Abdulali’s recent book is, in part, a continuation of her earlier efforts from the 1980s to challenge ideas about rape survivors being “the living dead”. The rage that ensued the December 2012 gang rape set the stage for discussions across the nation, many strands of which were relatively new in their understanding of gender, violence, and the onus of sexual violence. Today these debates are more familiar because of the digitally mediated/inspired #MeToo movement. But years ago, Abdulali was possibly one of the first who publicly refused to be “defaced” by her experience, suggesting possibilities of understanding life after rape. The resurrection of her article and the publication of this book indicate the relevance of her ideas today. The book seeks to blow open the public secret of rape through many anecdotes and to facilitate sensitive, yet pragmatic, discussion. Abdulali attempts to rip apart the pity and shame that inflect much of the talk around rape in connection with “victims”. Through her own experience as well as those recounted by other survivors, she strives to put rape in its place, refusing to grant it the power that can erode identities and undermine people’s sense of being. In the 29 chapters she recounts stories of survivors including male survivors from Maharashtra to Midwestern America to Ubuntu, discussing cases varying from mob sexual assault to rape by a trusted figure and themes from consent to forgiveness. In Chapter 11, for example, she explores how in spite of her earlier dismissal that rape had anything to do with sex, violence and desire are closely linked as reflected in elucidations like little boys bully girls they are sweet on, or in grimmer incidents among adults when the survivor is blamed for not making boundaries evident. A particularly unsettling moment in the book is in Chapter 17 when she recalls the matter of fact reaction of her eleven-year-old daughter when told about her mother’s rape years ago. While she is attracted to how children can have distance from the more grown-up notions of stigma, devastation, shame, there is also a gentle urgency to educate them. The anecdotes are cobbled together cursorily to suggest a sprawling world of rape with many experiences that even Abdulali cannot claim solidarity with, like the forgiveness project between a rape survivor and her rapist. Some chapters are simply an inventory of words as in Chapter 26. The book leaves readers with a sense of incompleteness, abandoning possibilities for contemplation and analysis. But it is also significant and necessary that a book on rape can be unpremeditated and casual, regardless of its intent. The tone of the book is far more striking. Abdulali employs a cheerful voice that often becomes irreverent when talking about her own rape. She recognizes this narrative style “with intonation but no real emotion” in another rape survivor. The politics to this gaiety is reminiscent of philosopher Susan Brison’s reflection that the “rape narrative” can stop being central to a person’s biography with time. Abdulali, no longer held in thrall to her rape, can be vocal and declare that her daughter’s math progress feels more important at present than her long ago rape. The irreverence is not to belittle the trauma, far from it. She returns to the horrors time and again and in spite of her anguish admits relief that in 2012 she “had nothing to do with any of it because I had done my bit three decades ago”. The anthropologist, Michael Taussig, had argued that knowledge or revelations cannot destroy a public secret. Here too, the public secret of rape remains unaltered, even as Abdulali hews away at its shell. But the chinks that she produces through her sometimes distant, sometimes fraught voice, above all, facilitate conversations that have always been much needed.
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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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