The global #MeToo movement means the realities of rape culture are now at the forefront of public conversations about women’s rights - but there is still some way to go until we get it right, says Sohaila Abdulali.
Content warning: depictions of sexual assault
As International Women’s Day is set to be marked on Friday and the #MeToo movement heads into its second year, we are talking about violence against women more than ever.
But with it comes debate about the language we use to discuss it - and whether what we are saying will even make a dent in the number of sexual assaults happening every day.
Author, sexual assault survivor and former rape crisis centre worker Sohaila Abdulali, who is speaking in Australia this week, is emphatic that the increase in conversations about rape is a good thing.
“At least it’s getting talked about when it never was talked about much before,” she told SBS News.
“I wish I could say that it means there is now less rape, but there’s no way of knowing that.”
In 2018, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released data showing the number of people reporting sexual assault had reached an eight-year high. In 2017, almost 25,000 people reported sexual assault to police in Australia - an eight per cent jump from the previous year.
But more than 30 years ago, when Abdulali was the first person to talk about her gang rape in India, the authorities weren’t ready to listen.
In July 1980, the then 17-year-old and her friend were hanging out on a mountainside in her hometown of Bombay (now Mumbai). The pair were attacked by four men wielding a sickle. Over two hours, they were beaten and psychologically abused - with each of them being told if they resisted the other one would be killed. Abdulali was raped repeatedly.
When she reported it to police, she says they refused to investigate it.
Three years later, Abdulali - then a university student in the US - returned to India with plans to interview rape survivors for her undergraduate thesis.
“I came back to India thinking I would find millions of people to interview,” she says.
“But I didn’t find a single person because no one would talk about it.”
Thinking she couldn’t be the only rape survivor in India, she decided she would speak out about her experience. Her first-person essay, titled ‘I fought for my life … and won’ was published and shortly forgotten - that is, until the 2012 gang rape, torture and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh on a New Dehli bus, propelled the essay back into the spotlight.
“Writing about it was my choice, but it wasn’t my choice that it came up so much later,” Abdulali, who now lives in New York, says.
“It had never been a secret it just wasn’t something I spoke about that much in public. So I wasn’t embarrassed, I was just taken aback."
The question of who gets to control the narrative when talking about rape goes to the heart of the #MeToo movement, which centred on women using the viral hashtag to label themselves a survivor of sexual assault.
Despite the momentum of the movement - and her own writings on the subject - Abdulali is clear that nobody is obliged to speak up after an assault. “It’s not survivor’s job to end rape,” she says.
When we do talk about it though, she says language is important.
“You might describe a rape that happened to me as a brutal rape … but to me, who lived through it, the idea of a partner rape sounds infinitely worse because all that stuff happened and you were betrayed,” she says.
“We know that rape is brutal, no matter what. There is no nice rape.”
Pointing to the alleged rape and murder of Aya Maasarwe in Melbourne earlier this year, she says when something like that happens in India the first response is for parents to bring their children home and stop them from going out at night - despite the most common instances of rape happening inside the home.
“What does that do? It means your freedom is taken away and you are kept in the place where you are actually far more likely to be abused,” she says, pointing to the fact that most sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.
In Australia, the inability to recognise domestic abuse as more dangerous than random acts of violence was highlighted after Victoria Police told women to “take responsibility for their own safety” after Eurydice Dixon was raped and killed walking home from a comedy gig in Melbourne’s CBD in June 2018.
But with a background working in a rape crisis centre, Abdulali isn’t only concerned with how we talk about rape in public.
In her book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, she lists 11 guidelines for how to respond when someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted. The rules, though seemingly basic - “just believe her”, “don’t be a dick”, “ask her what she wants” - are a practical reminder on how you can help.
“Be empathetic and sympathetic, but don’t be so upset that they have to comfort you. I can’t tell you how often that happens,” she says.
“You are there for this person, listen to her and follow her lead.”
But the most important thing, she says, is to remember the person is the same person they were before you knew they had been raped.
Overall Abdulali is optimistic about the changes taking place, pointing to how the #MeToo movement captured her home country in a way far beyond the impact it’s had in the US.
In September 2018, Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta accused fellow actor Nana Patekar of inappropriate behaviour when they were shooting a film together in 2008. Following this, Abdulali says the “the whole country went crazy”.
“I remember so clearly going back at age 20 and people saying ‘rape doesn’t happen in India’ - and now, that just seems impossible,” she says. “[Now] It’s like every single person is talking about it, even if you are not on social media.”
“What long term effect it will have, I don’t know, but it’s just amazing.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by rape or sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.