A Survivor on Speaking Out Against Shame, Silence, and Sexual Assault

I caused a stir in India when I spoke out against rape culture, shaming, and silence. Thirty years later, I found the strength to do it all over again—this time to an international audience.
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“Rape is no different from any other trauma—you can’t make it unhappen... Sometimes it’s upsetting; usually it’s just there. I have made my peace with it—mostly.”

Photo by Hans Vivek/Unsplash

When she was 17 years old, Sohaila Abdulali, who had recently immigrated to the United States, spent the summer visiting family in Mumbai. She was out with a male friend one evening when four men abducted them, raped her, and threatened to kill them both over the course of a long and traumatic night. A few years later, encouraged by India’s feminist movement, Abdulali published an article in the magazine Manushi, criticizing the shaming and silencing of survivors and causing a cultural stir. She went on to a career of research, advocacy, activism, and writing, and a personal life that “was good and full of love.” Thirty years later, Abdulali once again found herself in the media spotlight as a survivor. She describes those experiences in this edited expert from her new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, published by the New Press.


On December 16th, 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, I got an email from a friend in Delhi. “This is doing the rounds on Facebook.” 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. Indian TV stations called and asked for interviews. 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 just sat there, shocked, wondering when my 11-year-old was going to ask about all the phone calls.

I said no to everyone, but over the next few days of mayhem I became increasingly confused. 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? 

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. The editors let me say most of what I wanted, although, to my abiding regret, they changed “I reject the notion that men’s brains are in their balls” to “I reject the notion that men’s brains are in their genitals.” (“Balls” is just so much more evocative.)

Then all hell broke loose—again. 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.

To the journalists I said I was done; but I saved the emails, and replied to almost all of them. Very few were nasty, and some of the nasty comments were too funny to sting. People wrote from India, the US, Denmark, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the UK, 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 all very interesting. Some of it was terribly sad. Imagine the loneliness of someone who is being raped by someone close to her, and has to write to a total stranger because she has never had anyone else to share her burden or ease her pain.

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. I remember a male friend to whom I talked less than a year after it happened. “Do you think I’m thinking about it for too long?” I wanted to know. “I still feel scared and upset; do you think I’m making too big a deal out of it?” “Yes,” he said, “you are. You should be over it by now.” That shut me up for quite a while.

It took me a long time to see how clueless he was. You don’t “get over it” so easily. It doesn’t work like that. 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.

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So why on earth am I back, writing about it again? 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.

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.

Copyright © 2018 by Sohaila Abdulali. This edited excerpt is adapted from What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

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