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Opinion | Sohaila Abdulali wants us to talk about rape

Sohaila Abdulali's articulate new book insists that there is no right way to heal for rape survivors and the ones close to them.

Sohaila Abdulali’s articulate new book insists that there is no right way to heal for rape survivors and the ones close to them. Photo: Tom Unger
Sohaila Abdulali’s articulate new book insists that there is no right way to heal for rape survivors and the ones close to them. Photo: Tom Unger

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.

Natasha Badhwar is the author of the book My Daughters’ Mum, and co-editor of Reconciliation—Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey Of Solidarity Through A Wounded India. Her new book Immortal For A Moment will be out in December 2018.

She tweets @natashabadhwar

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