Public Media Arts Hub

After her own rape, author says victims of sexual violence are more than ‘broken beings’

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: And on our Bookshelf tonight, Jeffrey Brown talks to an author who raises awareness of rape.

Jeffrey Brown: December, 2012, 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, out to see a film with a male friend, is gang-raped and beaten on a bus in Delhi. The attack and her death days later brought international attention and condemnation.

Shortly after, an essay appeared in The New York Times that began: "Thirty-two years ago, when I was 17 and living in Bombay, I was gang-raped and nearly killed." The title, "I Was Wounded; My Honor Wasn't."

The writer was Sohaila Abdulali.

Sohaila Abdulali: We owe it to our kids to not have this be a taboo subject, and also to teach them respect for boys and girls.

Just I think it all boils down to a basic respect of, you don't feel like you can go around the world just marauding and hurting people. And this is one of the ways it happens. And this is a really damaging way, because we all get so weird about rape.

Jeffrey Brown: Now she's written a book, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, that explores the subject from many angles, not so much giving answers as raising questions.

What is it that we get wrong in our thinking about rape?

Sohaila Abdulali: We make it bigger than it should be, and at the same time, we make it smaller than it should be. It's such a loaded subject.

If you think of one person, say in a bedroom, being raped by one man, a woman and a man, it's a very personal act at that moment. But then you sort of pull back the camera, and you see the world and all that things that have led to this. It's much bigger.

So I think it is wrong any time we try to make it too much with one lens, in a way. I think we do disservice to both men and women the way we think about rape. We assume that men can't help themselves, and we also assume that women are completely broken and destroyed, which sometimes they are, but often they're not.

Jeffrey Brown: There's a tension you write about throughout your life that comes through in the book about having been raped, but not wanting it to define you.

Sohaila Abdulali: What defines me is not that I was raped, but that I took this on as a subject. I'm 55. I look back, and there are so many things, and all those things happen to you and they make you what you are.

It was a big thing. I'm not trying to say it's not a big thing. But it wasn't the big thing.

Jeffrey Brown: Abdulali grew up in Mumbai, then called Bombay. Two years after being attacked by armed men while out for a walk with a male friend, she boldly wrote about it in an Indian magazine, using her own name and photograph, becoming a rare public voice for a crime usually kept silent.

She's been back and forth between the U.S. and India since the 1970s. She worked in a rape crisis center as a journalist, became a writer, author of two novels, married and has raised a daughter, who's now herself 17.

In the new book, she has chapter titles such as "Who Am I to Talk?," "Totally Different, Exactly the Same," and "Teflon Man."

She offers personal stories of other rape victims about their experiences and how they coped, and explores key, often complex issues such as the meaning of consent.

Sohaila Abdulali: I believe firmly that consent is important and crucial, and that it's important to talk about things like affirmative consent.

But I also think that, no matter how many rules and guidelines we set down, until there's a basic thing of somebody caring how you feel, until you have two people together and each of them cares whether the other wants it or notices if the other's having a good time, no amount of words will help.

We need the words. We need to train guys that you should care whether the woman's into it, and we need to train ourselves that it matters what we want, because words are great, but I think there's more going on with consent.

Jeffrey Brown: So, you write about why women keep silent. Partly, it is about a sense of shame enculturated, but, partly, you say, because it often doesn't lead to anything.

Sohaila Abdulali: Even in this day of MeToo, there's really not much reward for speaking out.

Look at the whole Kavanaugh thing with Christine Blasey Ford testifying, and there were so many senators and people who said, well, why should we believe her? She should have reported it right away.

To me, having been through it, it's so completely clear why she didn't speak up. You just want to put your clothes on and be done with it. You know you won't be believed. You feel embarrassed that you were in the room with this boy. It makes perfect sense.

Jeffrey Brown: Early on in the book you say, "Now I realize that sometimes rape does have to do with sex."

Usually, rape is talked about as power.

Sohaila Abdulali: It is an act of power, there's no question, but what you're actually has to do with sex.

I'm never going to say rape is sex, because it's not, but it's a sexual weapon, almost, that you're using. For instance, when I was raped, it was this gang of men. They were armed. I think they were on drugs. I'm not sure. They thought that, as a girl, I shouldn't be out wandering with a boy.

So it's not that it was sex, but there was a sexual rage there. So that's what I'm talking about. It's like a perversion of sex.

Jeffrey Brown: What do victims of rape deserve from us, from people, from society?

Sohaila Abdulali: I think they deserve to be listened to and to be believed and to not have the default be, you're a liar or there's something wrong with you.

They deserve to be seen as people who are still the same people they were before they were raped and not broken beings. But they also deserve to be seen as people who have been through terrible trauma, and they deserve to be supported. And they deserve justice, a system that actually holds men accountable, rapists.

Jeffrey Brown: You started writing this before the MeToo movement really exploded. Do you think that movement changes things?

Sohaila Abdulali: I think MeToo has been amazing, and especially in India right now. It's really exploded and it's fantastic.

But what does that mean, change? I think it's changed the conversation. Whether, anywhere, one rape less happens because of it, I have no idea. I hope so, but how do we know?

Jeffrey Brown: You're looking back at this horrifying experience that you had when you were 17. And you have a 17-year-old daughter now yourself.

Sohaila Abdulali: I do.

She knows what happened to me. And we told her at a young enough age. She knows I'm OK. And, as a parent, I got asked this question before. It was like, do you worry about your daughter now that this happened to you?

But why wouldn't -- I mean, doesn't every parent do that? I hope nothing happens to her, but, if something does, I know that she can be OK. I know she can be grow up and be a happy person. I know she can have a good life, because I know this because it happened to me.

Jeffrey Brown: The book is "What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape."

Sohaila Abdulali, thank you very much.

Sohaila Abdulali: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: Powerful to think about.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
+
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.