Book review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape | Sohaila Abdulali

Rarely does a book’s title so perfectly encapsulate its contents, as it does in the case of Sohaila Abdulali’s ‘What We Talk About When We talk About Rape,’ a modern treatise on rape and rape culture, and the global discourse that both describes and determines it.

Sohaila Abdulali was the first Indian rape survivor to speak out publicly about her experience. Gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai and indignant at the deafening silence on the issue of rape in India, she wrote an article for a women’s magazine questioning how we perceive rape and rape victims that disappeared (she thought) into the ether. Thirty years later, happy and successful, Abdulali saw her story go viral in the wake of the fatal 2012 Delhi rape of Jyoti Singh and the global outcry that followed.

While unsentimental in tone – even in the passages where she recollects her ordeal – the book and its wide-ranging look at the broad spectrum of global sexual violence nevertheless inspire a full gamut of (negative) emotions in the reader, ranging from the purest boiling rage to quiet despair. Meticulously researched and referenced, the book holds a mirror up to the frighteningly large numbers of sexual assault victims, and their ongoing victimisation by a society which at times seems set up to excuse perpetrators. However it also offers hope – particularly via the story of its author – that it is possible to achieve a happy life after surviving sexual assault. It is a book to be read over several sittings; one to pick up again once you’ve cooled down or perked up, but absolutely to be picked up again.

Abdulali’s offering demonstrates great insight but provides little in the way of solutions, although some solace for victims will almost certainly be found amongst its pages, even if just from the realisation that they are not alone. It is not unlike other treatments of this subject, in that sense.

‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape’ explores not just what we say when we talk about rape but also what we don’t say, and asks pertinent questions about consent and desire, redemption and revenge, and how we raise our sons. It’s not an easy read, but it’s an important one.

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