A new book by my friend and college room-mate Sohaila Abdulali explores the idea that victims of sexual violence are not broken beings. Awful as it is, rape is survivable, and those who have been raped are deserving and capable of happiness again.
I don’t remember the precise moment when my then college roommate, Sohaila Abdulali, told me about being gangraped when she was 17. It was just an incontestable fact of her life: she was from Mumbai, she loved to dance, her parents grew orchids, she had been raped.
This is not to imply that being raped was not a big deal. It was. If I remember correctly, this is how she explained it. “It’s like being run over by a bus and getting terribly hurt. You might never fully recover from your injuries. But you go on living. You can be happy again.”
In the three decades that Sohaila has remained my friend, she has never let that single event define her life, even though it is an inseparable part of who she is. Three years after being raped and while writing her undergraduate thesis on rape in India, she created a minor stir by writing about her own experience for Manushi. Nobody, at least not in India, had ever written about being raped. Nobody had run such an article with their photograph.
The years passed, she got a degree, ran a rape crisis centre in the US, got another degree, travelled, fell in love, got married, had a daughter and got by as a freelance writer. Then, following the December 2012 gangrape, everyone was suddenly talking about sexual violence and someone posted the old Manushi article on Facebook. It went viral. Sohaila wrote another piece, this time for the New York Times with the same idea: Rape is terrible but it can be survived.
In a culture in which sexual assault is equated with loss of honour, rape tends to be shrouded in silence. Those who are raped, regardless of whether you call them victims or survivors, are put into a Shamed Victim box. Some years ago, I had met a 16-year-old schoolgirl in a village in Karnal, Haryana. She told me how, even months after being raped, even amongst her own relatives and friends, she was expected to always look crestfallen and depressed. “If I allow myself even a small smile, everyone says, ‘Look at that shameless girl’,” she told me.
Sohaila’s just published book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, seeks to break that wall of shame. It sets out to break the silence. It reminds us that MeToo is not a sudden event, but part of a process that began decades ago. It explores questions like consent (yes doesn’t always mean yes, especially if you have a knife at your throat) and victim blaming. It reiterates the need to talk about the rape of men, boys and trans people. It tells you what to do if you have been raped, or know someone who has.
But for me it is significant because it is ultimately deeply empowering. Sohaila writes : “The moment we speak, the moment we say, ‘This happened to me. I stand here before you, alive,’ we stop being victims.” Indeed, we do.
First published in Hindustan Times on December 16, 2018