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What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

Rape is draining. Rape is harsh. And more than anything else, rape is complex. In her latest book, Sohaila Abdulali talks about the rage and joys of survivors, and why it’s important to fit both into our lives.

In 1980, Sohaila Abdulali was gangraped in Mumbai. A few days later, she was at the beach, running, “so happy to be alive” that she sprained her ankle. A few weeks later, she was at her freshman dorm, going on to join the feminist movement “like a drunken sailor on shore leave”, shouting “Yes means Yes!” and “No means No!”. After decades of writing and activism, Abdulali has gradually realised that “sometimes yes doesn’t mean yes, and sometimes rape does have to do with sex.”


Life went on until a piece Abdulali wrote for Manushi magazine in 1983—tellingly titled I Fought For My Life…And Won—made an appearance 30 years later during the protests after the 2012 December gangrape. “It’s not exactly pleasant to be a symbol of rape. I’m not an expert, nor do I represent all victims of rape. All I can offer is that — unlike the young woman who died in December two weeks after being brutally gang raped, and so many others — my story didn’t end, and I can continue to tell it,” she responded to the virality in The New York Times.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape carries forward where Abdulali left off, continuing to tell her story, especially with the ongoing #MeToo movement. “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. Except for the foundational belief that rape is a crime, with a criminal and a victim, I will not take anything else for granted,” she writes.

An excerpt from her book:

A brief pause for confusion

In the fall of 2017, the international news was suddenly full of women who were abused and terrorized by men, who stayed in relationships (personal, professional) with their abusers and have said they had conflicting feelings. This may sound confusing, and I’ve had friends express doubts to me about how severely these women were really victimised.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad?


No, no, no. This is a tough one to grasp, I know, so I repeat: no, no, no. How you act with your rapist afterwards, and even how you might feel about your rapist afterwards, doesn’t indicate the seriousness of either the crime or your trauma.

In the midst of my own shock and pain all those years ago, I felt a fugitive pang for the people who raped me. I had no history with them. They were strangers full of hostility and rage and I had nothing in common with them. I looked into their eyes and felt sick with panic. But I also felt a weird compassion.

I think calling it Stockholm Syndrome and labelling it a pathology or a dysfunctional response is too simplistic. I didn’t like them, or sympathise, or understand. But I did see that in some odd way they were fellow human beings.

And they were not happy. They were not having a fine old time, out for a jolly gang-bang. Maybe some men have fun committing rape, but these men weren’t. It was all terrifying for me, but they were also tormented, and I couldn’t help noticing that and feeling a tiny chord of empathy.

Oddly enough, this might have been what saved my life that day. Their plan was to kill us, my friend and me. I talked and talked and talked—I’ve never talked that much before or since. I forgot that I was supposed to be a shy kid. I talked about how I knew they were good people, we were all brothers and sisters, blah blah …

Let me be very clear, I did not think they were good people or that we were brothers and sisters. I thought, and still do, that they were extremely bad people. They were malign, brutal, and vicious. But it was the only way I could think of to get them to see me as someone they couldn’t destroy. Or themselves as people who couldn’t kill. And perhaps the only way I could do that was to believe it a tiny bit myself.

If the world were different and I had seen them in court, would I have felt sorry for them? I have no idea. I’m just pointing out that it makes perfect sense to me when I see photographs of famous women smiling and hugging men whom they later point out as rapists. The fact that you have confused feelings about the person who hurt you doesn’t make you guilty. It makes you human.

"What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape" by Sohaila Abdulali (Penguin RandomHouse India) is out in bookstores now.