Taken by Force

Almost four decades after she was raped, a survivor says it’s time to re-imagine how we think and talk about this crime.

Sohaila Abdulali ’84
Mike Lovett
Sohaila Abdulali ’84

Since being raped as a teenager, Sohaila Abdulali ’84 has thought a lot about why people rape and what survivors endure. She’ll be the first to tell you she doesn’t have any answers.

But in her critically acclaimed book “What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape,” Abdulali attempts, she says, “to at least illuminate some of the questions and assumptions we all carry around with us.” And she makes it hard to resist joining the conversation about rape, which is exactly her strategy. Anger, forgiveness, politics, survivor stories, rape culture — she discusses these painful topics with candor, compassion and humor, even a little snark.

Abdulali’s own rape occurred in India — she grew up in Mumbai — just weeks before arriving at Brandeis as a first-year student. When she moved into her dorm, she was still healing from her injuries.

Yet she was irrepressible. “In college, I threw myself into the feminist movement like a drunken sailor on shore leave — these were my people, this was my place!” she writes. Majoring in sociology and economics, she became a committed activist, writing her undergraduate thesis on rape. She took a job at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center after graduation.

In the decades that followed, Abdulali worked as an industrial spy, a journalist and an ice cream scooper; conducted sleep research in a psychiatric hospital; wrote award-winning children’s books and two best-selling novels, “The Madwoman of Jogare” and “Year of the Tiger.” Today, she lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with her family.

In the following abridged excerpt from “What We Talk About,” Abdulali sets up two of the book’s central questions: How do we heal from rape, and is a world without rape possible?

* * * * * *

“She died from effrontery.”

— Verlyn Klinkenborg, “The Rural Life,” about an annoying mosquito

IN 1980, I WAS 17, and had recently moved to the United States with my family. I had just graduated from high school, and was spending the summer before college in my family home in Bombay with my father and grandmother, while my mother and brother were in the U.S. One evening, I was out with a male friend. We were accosted by four armed men, who forced us up a mountain, raped me, wounded us both, threatened to castrate my friend, almost killed us, but changed their minds after we made various promises, and released us hours later.

That’s a pithy description of a long and gruesome night, but it really covers all the essentials. What happened later is far more interesting.

A few days after this, the local paper admiringly reported another story of abduction. A married couple was going home at night on their scooter. Some men stopped them on the road, and took the woman away. Her husband drove home without telling anyone. The next morning, she came home, went into the kitchen, poured kerosene on herself, lit a match, and went up in flames. According to the article, her husband didn’t intervene.

My father and I both read the article. I think that was the moment it hit me that we must be a very odd family, because we simply couldn’t understand it. Why didn’t the man report the abduction? Why did the woman kill herself? Why did her suicide make her the hero of this story? Were we living in the same society?

I must be missing the Shame Gene that other Indian women are born with, because, for all the guilt, horror, trauma and confusion that followed my rape, it never occurred to me that I had anything to be ashamed of. Luckily for me, it didn’t occur to my parents either.

Three years later, back in the States, I won a grant to do my undergraduate thesis on rape in India, and blithely showed up again, expecting rape victims around every corner to tell me all about it. It didn’t quite happen that way. I did find a group of women, including the fabulous Sonal Shukla and Flavia Agnes, two pioneers of the 1980s women’s movement in India, who swept me along to Delhi, to the first national avowedly feminist gathering of Indian women.

My new-found feminist friends stoked my indignation and encouraged me to write my story. I did. I went to the post office with the boy who was with me during the rape, and sent it off to a magazine in Delhi with a photograph.

There was no internet in those days, and so, rightly at the time, I thought that if Manushi, the women’s magazine I had picked — the only publication of its kind in India in those days — did print it, it would appear and disappear quickly. Little did I know.

It did appear, and created a minor stir in India. Nobody had ever come out and talked about being raped before. And then the next issue was released, life went on, and 30 years passed. I never fully left the subject, while I went on living my life, writing books, doing odd jobs, traveling, becoming a mother.

Then, on Dec. 16, 2012, Jyoti Singh, a young physiotherapy student in New Delhi, went out for an evening with a male friend. She was gang-raped on a bus, and left with grievous injuries. She died a few days later, and the country went into an uproar. The story electrified the country, and the world. It set off storms of protest in India, and exposed some truly horrendous aspects of our culture, and rape culture in general.

Suddenly rape was trending. It was all over the news, part of every conversation, the topic of the moment.

Through all of this, I said nothing. I was horrified at the tragic story of Jyoti Singh’s murder, heartened to see the crime getting so much attention, and relieved that I had nothing to do with any of it because I had done my bit three decades ago, and now other people were fighting the good fight.

Then, a couple of weeks later, on New Year’s Day, I was on a train from Boston to New York with my family when I got an email from a friend in Delhi. “This is doing the rounds on Facebook.” I clicked on the link and was transfixed to see my teenage face on my phone screen. Not being on social media, I had had no clue that somebody had dug out the old Manushi article, photo and all, and posted it. It instantly went viral. I was still the Only Living Rape Victim of India.

And then all hell broke loose. Rape is a lot about loss of control, and this was a very familiar feeling. I had spent 30 years getting past this, and it was back with no warning. My story was all over Facebook and Twitter and all the other platforms I didn’t even know how to use.

Sohaila Abdulali speaking
Mike Lovett
Sohaila Abdulali speaking

The Western media, eager to capitalize on the buzzy news story of the world’s new Rape Hot Spot, but with no actual victims to talk to, asked me for interviews. I said no to everyone, but over the next few days of mayhem I became increasingly confused. Should I respond? Should I let it die down? Was it my duty to speak? Who cared what I had to say, anyway? I didn’t want to upset my mother by prolonging the attention. I didn’t want the rape to define my life. But I didn’t want my slightly overwrought manifesto of so long ago to be my last word on the subject, either. Should I say something?

My spouse sensibly said, “First decide if you have something to say.” It sounds obvious, but I had been so busy spinning my wheels that I hadn’t actually considered that. I thought back to what I had written in Manushi — the defiant cry of a young girl who refused to be ashamed. Then I thought of who I was now — a mother, a survivor, a writer. I remembered being on that mountain being raped, and bearing it all by dissociating and writing a news story in my head. Well, here was my chance to actually do it.

The piece I wrote was a distillation of many of the ideas in this book — the idea that rape doesn’t have to define you, that it doesn’t have to reflect on your family, that it is terrible but survivable, that you can go on to have a joyous life, and that four men on a mountainside don’t have to own you forever. The New York Times ran it, and I went live on their web channel to talk about it.

Then all hell broke loose — again. I had put myself out there, this time, and so I had no right to whine, but I was still blindsided by the comprehensive panic that engulfed me when I woke up that morning and realized the paper was on my doorstep and on my computer, along with millions of other doorsteps and computers. Friends, colleagues and total strangers flooded me with emails and calls. My website got 3 million hits in one month.

To the journalists, I said I was done; but I saved the emails, and replied to almost all of them. People wrote from India, the U.S., Denmark, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the U.K., Canada. Women wrote saying they had been raped and never told anyone; men wrote expressing horror and helplessness; a neighbor from India wrote to tell me I was “one helluva tough cookie indeed”; friends wrote to say they were weeping.

It was odd, “outing” myself this way, because I was suddenly getting all this sympathy and support, which was lovely, except that I didn’t need any of it. I was three decades past needing it. People who read it were shocked and upset that I had been through this, but I had finished being shocked and upset long ago. The story wasn’t news to me. So I was in the strange position of comforting the people who wanted to offer me comfort.

If you’re a survivor yourself and reading this, you know that when I write “I had finished being shocked and upset long ago” I don’t mean it’s done and dusted and put away and now I’m finished with the rape. Rape is no different from any other trauma in that way — you can’t make it unhappen. No matter how much you heal, you can never be unraped, any more than you can be undead. I mean that it is one of the patchwork of events that have made me the person I am. Sometimes it’s upsetting; usually it’s just there. I have made my peace with it — mostly.

I also felt a bit sheepish about getting so much attention. My novels never created a stir like this — now that would be a dream come true. Was I just cashing in on a sensational story to make waves? Of course, The New York Times piece only finished what the reborn Manushi piece had already started — put me front and center as the Rape Victim.

So why on earth am I back, writing about it again? The fact is, even if it doesn’t define me, it fascinates me. Now, more than ever before, people are writing and talking about rape. In the past couple of years quite a few brave people all over the world have spoken out about their own experiences of being raped. Sexual abuse is all over the Western media. I’m an odd sort of skeptical observer to it all: a brown bisexual middle-aged atheist Muslim survivor immigrant writer without a Shame Gene. Those are my qualifications.

Unlike Verlyn Klinkenborg’s mosquito, who didn’t know when to quit, I didn’t die. I told the men who raped me that I would keep their secret. I made up a whole scenario about meeting them again if they let me go. I told them I had a disease. I told them that they were better than this. I told them about my grandmother. I tried every crazy argument I could think of to change their minds about committing murder. I talked nonstop. I talked my way out of oblivion. And I’m still talking.

From “What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape,” by Sohaila Abdulali (The New Press, 2018), adapted and reprinted by permission.