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Finding the words for it

Suchismita Chattopadhyay | Updated on February 22, 2019 Published on February 22, 2019

Trash the taboo: Through 29 short chapters, writer-journalist Sohaila Abdulali dissects rape — starting with her own story of being gang-raped at 17 in 1980   -  V SUDERSHAN

What makes rape so difficult a subject to talk about — and why talking about it is necessary

Sohaila Abdulali’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is a difficult read. There is no dearth of cold statistics and reportage of rape in the media. But how do we pause, process and then eventually talk about rape? The truth is, none of us know how to grasp rape beyond feelings of denial, disgust, outrage, condemnation, and resignation. It is precisely for these reasons and more that Abdulali’s book must be read by all, especially men, irrespective of how progressive they think their politics are.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape Sohaila Abdulali Non-fiction Penguin ₹499

 

Abdulali’s book starts where the newspapers finish their coverage of rape. She asks some very pertinent questions: Is rape a fundamentally life-defining event? Is it only about power or can it also be about sex? We talk about the stigmas attached to rape but never about its after-effects, in the form of phobias and triggers. Where is the space that we accord to rebuilding trust and boundaries for rape survivors? In a nutshell, Abdulali takes the discussion on sexual assault and rape from being merely a violent event to examining the very nature of violence and how it is perpetrated. This is a book not just about rape survivors, their family and friends, but very much also about rape culture and rapists.

A US-based journalist, writer and activist, Abdulali spends a considerable amount of time discussing rape culture, which is a totality of big and small things that we do, say and believe, leading to the notion that it is okay to rape. She tells us that making fun of women drivers or indulging your son more than your daughter does not mean you condone rape. But what this does is to chip away women’s and girls’ self-respect, giving the boys a free pass to demand and “maraud through the world and take without thinking”. It is this brazen sense of male self-entitlement which makes men unable to take a ‘no’ or a ‘maybe’; or understand that a ‘yes’ once uttered is not an eternally binding contract.

This is also one of the reasons why the #MeToo movement made all men uncomfortable, for their sense of self-entitlement may have explicitly or implicitly perpetrated rape culture.

This is a book that cannot be read continuously. It demands a certain kind of pause-absorb-reflect-read mode from its readers. Through 29 short chapters, Abdulali dissects rape. Starting with her own story of being gang-raped at 17 in 1980 and later writing about it in the feminist magazine Manushi, she talks about coping strategies, the importance of an unconditionally supportive family, and a very insightful list of guidelines to saving a rape survivor’s life. As survivors recount their stories, Abdulali articulates every possible audience reaction ranging from denial, horror, discomfort, trauma and, appallingly, even awe. She shares how the act of telling is a huge commitment of time, energy and emotion because you can never predict the response. Most unfairly, survivors often have to protect their audience by narrating a sanitised version of the events. This is done either to make the incident more palatable or to avoid being labelled ‘hysterical’ or ‘dramatic’.

Survivors do not owe it to the audience to be their educator. When it comes to how to behave with a person who has been raped, Abdulali states that it is a straightforward formula of listening, giving unstinting control, acceptance and support. She further elaborates this as a set of guidelines that include: Be horrified but not so much that the survivor has to take care of you; do not try to understand and analyse but just be there. This effectively speaks to well-intentioned mansplainers and other well-wishers who hasten to theorise and explain. The focus must always be the survivor and what they want.

This is a book that moves beyond rape and urges us to relook how we understand sex. The bar of consent cannot be as low as a transactional affair of merely saying yes or no. On the contrary, sex should be seen as an alluring adventure of mutual pleasure and joy. Abdulali also addresses the more tricky conversation around bad sex that has divided many people. Bad sex is awful but is it necessarily rape? It is a complicated but all-too-familiar conversation around so-called good-natured entitled men not caring for their partners’ choices. Thus, bad sex is a part of rape culture.

Just like the aftermath of any sexual assault, the book doesn’t follow a linear narrative. The chapters encapsulate grim incidents of assault, the apathy of the state, moments of lucidity, rage and heartbreaking confusion coupled with coping strategies and the choice that entitled men make to assault and rape. What makes this book eminently a compelling read is its rawness. It is almost like Abdulali is talking to us without mincing words or resorting to theoretical terms that at once sterilise realities and alienate people. The chapterisation is cleverly done, enabling the reader to start with whichever title that intrigues them the most.

More than women, it is the men who need this book; they are not the problem but their entitlement is.

Suchismita Chattopadhyay is pursuing her PhD in anthropology

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Published on February 22, 2019
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