Book review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulali

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November 25, 2018 3:11 AM

A rape survivor makes an honest attempt to normalise the discourse around rape

The book incorporates chapters that are individual stories of rape survivors

It’s a four-letter word that makes an appearance in newspaper headlines everyday in India. And yet it is not a subject that is discussed with ease—neither in courtrooms nor in households. Rape became a topic of national outrage when a young girl in Delhi was gangraped in a bus in 2012 and died from the brutalities inflicted on her by her perpetrators. Laws were rewritten, fast-track courts were set up and punishment was handed out swiftly, but the Nirbhaya movement failed to make rape a non-taboo topic or bring in a national discourse on how to help survivors.

And that’s where Sohaila Abdulali’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, comes in handy. The book incorporates chapters that are individual stories of rape survivors, interspersed with the author’s personal experience of sexual assault, highlighting multiple issues relating to rape around the world.

The timing of the book couldn’t have been better as the #MeToo movement gained currency in India recently. The author takes great pains to explain what consent is all about. A ‘no’ is still a ‘no’ irrespective of what followed previous to the sexual assault. Things like the way a woman was dressed or that she was drinking too much or went to her rapist’s house by her own will become inadmissible in the face of non-consensual sex.

The chapter, The Abdulali guidelines for saving a rape survivor’s life, gives the reader a brief idea about what the book is all about. The key takeaways are: “Be horrified, but don’t fall off your chair so that she has to take care of you… Don’t question her judgment. Encourage her to get help—medical, legal, physical, mental. But don’t force it.” These pointers can be kept in mind while dispelling the flawed notions of honour when talking to a survivor. The author’s sincere request is to treat the survivor the way you treated her before rape, allowing her to bounce back and lead a normal life.

Every rape is different. Every survivor is different. And so are the stories. But to put it under a broad framework is the biggest injustice that we can do to the survivors. And who would know this better than the writer herself, who was gangraped as a teenager in 1980, but went on to become one of the fiercest voices against sexual assault.

In 1983, when Abdulali wrote a moving account in a women’s magazine of how she survived rape, it created a minor stir in the country, as no survivor had ever talked about her rape before. But little did Abdulali know that, 30 years later, her story would resurface in India, as the country got engulfed in the 2012 horrific gangrape case. With her piece going viral on the internet, Abdulali was once again forced to relive her past. And all of it drained out in the shape of this excellent book, which is a must-read for everyone.

There is no name-calling or victim-shaming, there is no right or wrong, the book is an honest attempt to normalise the conversation around rape. It’s an attempt by the author to look at rape from outside the box. She doesn’t get emotional while talking about sexual assault, even though the reader might find it emotionally taxing to read survivor tales. But each story in the book has a purpose. And the purpose is simply to tell the world what to talk or rather not talk about rape.

There’s also serious effort by the author to talk about often overlooked subjects. One is the lack of counselling services for men and boys who are sexually abused, a topic which barely finds mention when we talk about rape. Then there is the attempt at “humanising the rapist” or trying to figure out what makes a rapist.

Then comes telling the tale. And Abdulali has done that really well.

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