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JLF’19: Author Sohaila Abdulali On Rape, Consent, And Changing The Notions Of Society

  • IWB Post
  •  January 28, 2019

A rape survivor herself, author Sohaila Abdulali says, “Being raped was like being knocked down by a bus.” In her book What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, published last year, Sohaila addresses the issue of rape on many levels and according to her it’s never the victim’s fault and there is no loss of honour involved whatsoever.

The book is revolutionary not because it talks about just rape, but because the book at its heart is a fundamental theory that rape is survivable and a person who has been raped has the right to happiness. When we talk about rape we only talk about it in terms of violence, brutality, awfulness, legal processes, and the stigma associated with it, which we should be outraged about, however, we don’t give any thought that a raped person is a human being and not a ‘bichari’. The person should be allowed to live a full life unmarked by stigmas or how to behave like a victim or survivor.

At the ongoing Jaipur Literature festival, Sohaila says, “Rape doesn’t have to define the life of a victim.” Reading an excerpt from her book that talks about ‘consent’, Sohaila says, “Blue seeds studios created a charming little video that said consent is as simple as tea. It uses stick figures to illustrate why having sex is like having a cup of tea. If you wouldn’t force someone to drink tea, why would you force them to fuck? If some said they wanted tea and then changed their mind when you made it, would you pour it down their throat? It’s a nice tool for children but sex isn’t a cup of tea. If you don’t really want a cup of tea but you drink it because you’re afraid you’re gonna offend your host that’s good manners. If you don’t really want sex but you do it because you are afraid it will offend your date, that’s not quite the same thing. It might not quite be rape and then again it might be.”

“A friend of mine went to a brothel when he was a teenager and he had had only a few sexual experiences and wanted to expand his horizons. He went swaggering in and put his money down. A sweet and young little girl took him to a room where they both sat on a bed and he told me I didn’t know what to do. She was looking at me so I said take your clothes off, she said no so then I asked I didn’t know what to do. Was I supposed to force her? She said no. I said okay, and then we lay down next to each other for a while and then the time was up and I left.”

Adding to this story, she said, “This made perfect sense to me. Yes, he paid for sex but if she didn’t want to take her clothes off he had no right to rip them off. He couldn’t have asked for his money back but he was correct not to force her. It’s obvious to me but plenty of people might think that once he paid, she was his to do with as he pleased. But being a sex worker doesn’t mean you deserve to be ripped, neither being a spouse does. Your ability to consent depends on who you are and where you are.”

Sohaila was 17 years old when she was raped and talking about its aftermath, she said, “I was 17 and I had just graduated from high school and we shifted to America when I was about to start college in three weeks. But I was in India with my father for the summer before that and one evening I had gone for a walk in my neighbourhood in Bombay with a boy and we were called by four men who threatened to kill us. They kidnapped us, wounded us, and raped me but didn’t kill us because we promised we wouldn’t tell anybody. Then we went home. My father was completely devastated but he didn’t show me and I had to comfort him. He asked me what I wanted to do and I think he also didn’t know what to do and we just proceeded according to me. It seemed to me that promising them not to tell anyone about what had happened was nonsense and we called the police. However, filing charges would mean that I wouldn’t be able to go back to America, so we decide not to press charges. I lied about not being raped because the police would actually not leave the house unless I wrote something down, so I wrote on an affidavit that nothing had happened.”

The whole stigma around rape and the silence maintained on it is one of the factors that doesn’t help the situation, and talking about it, Sohaila says, “Silence is very damaging because it helps perpetuate rape as it protects rapists. It seems to me that the person who really has lost the honor is the rapist and it’s not good that the burden of the entire situation goes where it shouldn’t (to the survivor).”

A lot of women contacted Sohaila when she wrote about her story in The New York Times and that’s what influenced her book. “There were certain things that I knew I wanted to say, I wanted to talk about how people in the society talk and don’t talk about rape. I had my points but a lot of things just unfolded in the process.”

When Namita Bhandare asked Sohaila what should we do if someone comes to us telling that they had been raped, she said, “I have a chapter on it in my book. The guidelines in the chapter apply to all genders and I have written in it – be horrified, but don’t fall of your chair so that she has to take care of you. Believe her, no ifs, ands or buts. Just believe her. Let her take the lead, if she wants to talk then it’s okay and if she doesn’t want to talk about it then also it’s fine, if she wants to cry, joke, or throw things it’s all okay. Ask her what she wants, no need to guess. Encourage her to get help, be it medical, legal, physical, or mental but don’t force it. Don’t ask for details but let her know that you are open to listening if she wants to share. Don’t even question her judgment, let her frame it the way she wants, in the words she chooses. Just be there. Remember her as the same person who you knew before she was raped and treat her the same way. Something terrible has happened to her and she might also need a reminder that she is still the same person.”

Talking about the notions of the society in bringing up sons and daughters to encounter such cases, Sohaila says, “My daughter was in class three and she didn’t want to go for school trips. When I asked her why she said there was a boy who used to pull her hair every time they would stand in a line and she also added that sometimes he blows on my neck. This used to bug her and since she was shy she never said anything to him. So when I informed the teacher, she said: “oh ya, he has a huge crush on her”. I am giving you this example to tell you that how is all this okay? These are all assumptions that are taken lightly, that a small boy likes a small girl, but when he grows up to go to college and asks someone on a date and if she refuses to go out with him, what is he going to do? Is he going to think that it’s his right to covet her?”

“I met a woman who is a sex educator at schools and she said that sex education and rape education go together. You can’t say rape is sex because it’s not. But if you teach people that sex is for pleasure for men and not women then you are getting into a really shady ground there. Rape is a sexual act which involves violence, whereas sex is a joyful consensual act. I agree you can’t talk about rape without talking about sex as it is a sexual act of violence so sometimes we just put it out there and don’t realise that it is a perversion of something that is acceptable. We often confuse sex with rape because what do you call a marriage when somebody as old as 13 or 14 years is married off to an older guy and they go off on a wedding night. What follows is sex or rape? Rape, right? So we do need to talk about this or we often confuse the two.”

On the ongoing #MeToo Movement, Sohaila said, “We think that we are talking about rape but what we are not really talking about are some of the things that really matter. If we just have people talking about this thing happened to me or that happened to me, we are not exploring bits of it that don’t come out. We need to open up our minds a little bit on what people go through and not expect them to behave a certain way or be traumatised in some ways and not in others. We need to give that space to the victims to open it up and we don’t have to look at them in a way where they have to behave in a certain way.”

On being asked what are the affirmative actions that should be taken on marital rape, Sohaila said, “The first affirmative action is that law should be changed. It’s ridiculous that marital rape is not considered rape. Laws become of what people think and one can only hope that most people think that it’s not okay.”

How is the #MeToo movement equipping women in the process of reporting and speaking up on such instances, Sohalia added, “The movement doesn’t do that yet. I don’t live in India but I haven’t heard that anything has changed at the level of police, according to the reports. Me Too movement is a great start that needs to go further and I really hope that helps women to come out.”

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