Sohaila Abdulali’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape’ Takes A Global View Of The #MeToo Movement
“A brown bisexual middle-aged atheist Muslim survivor immigrant writer without a Shame Gene” is how Sohaila Abdulali describes herself to readers of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape. What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is part memoir, part research, part reportage, in which Abdulali shares her experience of being gang raped as a teen living in India and asks important questions about the ways we navigate — or don’t — rape: personally, socially, culturally, politically.
But it’s not the first time Abdulali has told her story.
“It’s not exactly pleasant to be a symbol of rape,” the writer admitted, in a 2013 op-ed for the New York Times. “I’m not an expert, nor do I represent all victims of rape. All I can offer is that — unlike the young woman who died in December two weeks after being brutally gang raped, and so many others — my story didn’t end, and I can continue to tell it.” The woman Abdulali refers to is Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who was killed in 2012 after being gang raped on a bus in India. Following Singh’s death, an article Abdulali wrote nearly 30 years earlier, for Indian women’s magazine Manushi — about her own experience of gang rape — went viral. Nearly four years after that, the #MeToo movement, first started in 2006 by social activist and community organizer Tarana Burke, was revived as a Twitter hashtag and went viral as well, first in the United States and then around the world.
It's that international conversation: the global analysis of rape, the globalization of the #MeToo movement, that makes Abdulali’s book especially timely, and somewhat unique. In it, she tells her story alongside the stories of women all over the world — the United States and India, South Africa and Egypt, Mexico, others. She notes that #MeToo wasn’t the only movement of it’s kind to go viral.
One such example is Primavera Violeta (Violet Spring), another Twitter-based movement combatting sexual violence that Abdulali references in What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape — Mexico’s “#MeToo”, that went viral in 2016. There are plenty of others. “From #BalanceTonPorc [“rat out your pig”] in France to the #MeToo movement in China, it’s really a global phenomenon,” says Abdulali, in a recent interview with Bustle. She refers me to #MeToo Rising — a Google Trends map that tracks how frequently, and from where, online users are searching #MeToo related topics on Google. As of this writing, the top searching city is Choorakkuzhi — a village in India’s Kerala state so small it’s practically unsearchable online, immediately followed by the larger Arakalagud, India; Macomer, Italy; Franklin Park, Illinois; and Zikhron Ya’akov, Israel.
Contrary to claims that the #MeToo movement hasn’t — and won’t — go global, Abdulali says the movement already is. “I’m not qualified to talk about whether it has the capacity to revolutionize society, since I’m a complete social media misfit,” the writer tells Bustle. “But of course it should! Anything, in any medium, that connects women and helps amplify their voices on this issue, is fantastic, as far as I’m concerned. If one lone woman spoke out for the first time about sexual abuse, that’s already a success.”
"Anything, in any medium, that connects women and helps amplify their voices on this issue, is fantastic, as far as I’m concerned."
But she also notes the ways the movement can trigger survivors as well. “It’s also important to remember that suddenly bringing sexual harassment and abuse into the spotlight isn’t easy for everyone. If you’re someone who has coped by burying a trauma, it could be very difficult to suddenly have reminders everywhere. I’m not at all saying this means we shouldn’t talk about it — just that we need to be sensitive about people for whom it may be tough.”
When Abdulali herself was raped, social media was little more than the stuff of science fiction novels. Instead of the anonymity of the internet, she had the quality of — as she writes — simply not being ashamed to speak her truth. With this in mind, I ask her who might be left out of the #MeToo movement and other social media-based conversations about sexual violence, and whether or not there’s a better way to bring those individuals and communities into the conversation. “I do think every community has its own communication network,” Abdulali says. “Some of us read books and papers, some sit under a tree and talk.”
I ask her if — and how — American women involved in the #MeToo movement can better address the global crisis of rape. “As far as American women addressing the global crisis of rape, I think American women would be well served to listen to other women, and come to the table with an attitude of wanting to learn rather than knowing the answers,” she says. “The world is a huge place and there’s so much we don’t know. This is not a bad moment for all of us to look and learn before leaping in with answers.”
In What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Abdulali writes about the trans community and gender fluidity as well — narratives that are essential to conversations about sexual violence and to the subverting of gender roles, stereotypes, and barriers.
“The world is a huge place and there’s so much we don’t know. This is not a bad moment for all of us to look and learn before leaping in with answers.”
“I think that gender fluidity is very much more present in many societies than we assume it is. It just might not be as open, or take different forms,” she says, offering an example. “For instance, many Indian men are married to women, and content to be family men, but are quite open to having sex with other men if the opportunity arises. They don’t necessarily consider themselves gay. When I say that trans and gender fluidity issues are essential to the conversation, I mean that people who don’t conform to the rigid norms of what it means to be male or female have many gifts to offer — they turn all our silly little expectations upside down.”
It’s a prospect she’s excited by. “How does the old trope 'Boys will be boys' apply to, say, a macho football player who likes to wear tutus to relax at home?” Abdulali says. “If we can’t stick to our ossified expectations of how we are supposed to behave, then we have to rethink everything we know about male privilege, who gets to say yes and no and stop, and both consent and pleasure. It’s very exciting! It implies being able to rethink and redefine how we conduct ourselves in the world.”
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.