Sohaila Abdulali, in conversation with Namita Bhandare
Bank of Baroda Baithak
Rape is not sex. Sohaila Abdulali – rape survivor, and author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape – is very clear about this. It is a function of power and violence,and even if it is a sexual act, it has nothing to do with the “joyous, consensual act of sex.”As the discussion began in a hall packed to the rafters, Abdulali spoke eloquently about this everyday violence of rape that takes place in private and public all around us.
A dominant aspect of the discussion was the illusion of choice that women are faced with. Abdulalirecounted her own experience: while home for the summer holidays in 1980, she went on a walk with a male friend; armed men showed up and surrounded them. In popular discourse, a man never chooses to rape, but a woman chooses to be raped because of her dress, her state of intoxication, the time and the place that she was in at the time of the crime:“Rape is framed as a choice made by a woman, and not one made by a man.” In so many ways, a ‘yes’ does not mean ‘yes’, she emphasised: “I could have said no and died. Then did I consent?”
At the same time, an awful silence dominates the discourse about rape. Abdulali pointed out the complexity of the politics surrounding the convention of not naming rape victims: “It should be up to the individual survivor to decide whether or not she wants to be named,” she emphasized. Of course, the woman has no choice in the matter if she happens to not survive the assault. “The only time when a raped woman is believed without hesitation is when she is dead,” said moderator Namita Bhandare. This remains the case most particularly when rape is motivated by discrimination, due to caste, race and gender status As Abdulali put it, dying is the “mythologically correct thing to do”.
Due process failed Abdulali. She was told that she would be jailed if she complained: “I see people worrying that women will lie and say that they have been raped, but I lied and said that I hadn’t been raped to avoid being locked up.”Bhandare referred to the list of men who have been accused, or rumoured to have assaulted women, created by academic Raya Sarkar for what women could do when the due process was broken in this way.
How do we deal with rape when it happens at home, in marriages which are supposed to be sacrosanct, to young children who don’t know how to speak up? Abdulali talked about rape culture, the “connection of attitudes and actions that create an atmosphere in which rape and sexual abuse is encouraged and allowed”. It starts from childhood, like the little boy who kept pulling Abdulali’s daughter’s hair in class because “he had a crush on her”. “Sex education and rape education go together,” said Abdulali.
“It’s not my job to end rape,” said Abdulali. Her advice is simple: believe the survivors. It’s our responsibility to create a culture in which perpetrators can be called out, not tolerated, by us.
Perhaps Abdulaliput it best when she praised a young man in the audience. He asked her how men can learn more about rape culture when the word ‘rape’, especially with relation to surviving such an experience, is not taught to them. “Well, you’ve just uttered the word four times, which means we’ve already begun!” she said, to cheers and applause from the enraptured crowd.