She was gangraped when she was 17. Three years later, outraged at the silence and misconceptions around rape, she wrote a fiery essay under her own name describing her experience. Then she was busy living her life. After more than 30 years she revisited her own experience. Her words touched my heart. She said, ‘we have spent generations constructing elaborate systems of patriarchy, caste and social and sexual inequality that allow abuse to flourish.’ It is so true! Here is her story, very painful and very moving.
It’s not exactly pleasant to be a symbol of rape. 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.
When I fought to live that night, I hardly knew what I was fighting for. A male friend and I had gone for a walk up a mountain near my home. Four armed men caught us and made us climb to a secluded spot, where they raped me for several hours, and beat both of us. They argued among themselves about whether or not to kill us, and finally let us go.
At 17, I was just a child. Life rewarded me richly for surviving. I stumbled home, wounded and traumatized, to a fabulous family. With them on my side, so much came my way. I found true love. I wrote books. I saw a kangaroo in the wild. I caught buses and missed trains. I had a shining child. The century changed. My first gray hair appeared.
Too many others will never experience that. They will not see that it gets better, that the day comes when one incident is no longer the central focus of your life. One day you find you are no longer looking behind you, expecting every group of men to attack. One day you wind a scarf around your throat without having a flashback to being choked. One day you are not frightened anymore.
Rape is horrible. But it is not horrible for all the reasons that have been drilled into the heads of Indian women. It is horrible because you are violated, you are scared, someone else takes control of your body and hurts you in the most intimate way. It is not horrible because you lose your “virtue.” It is not horrible because your father and your brother are dishonored. I reject the notion that my virtue is located in my vagina, just as I reject the notion that men’s brains are in their genitals.
If we take honor out of the equation, rape will still be horrible, but it will be a personal, and not a societal, horror. We will be able to give women who have been assaulted what they truly need: not a load of rubbish about how they should feel guilty or ashamed, but empathy for going through a terrible trauma.
The week after I was attacked, I heard the story of a woman who was raped in a nearby suburb. She came home, went into the kitchen, set herself on fire and died. The person who told me the story was full of admiration for her selflessness in preserving her husband’s honor. Thanks to my parents, I never did understand this.
The law has to provide real penalties for rapists and protection for victims, but only families and communities can provide this empathy and support. How will a teenager participate in the prosecution of her rapist if her family isn’t behind her? How will a wife charge her assailant if her husband thinks the attack was more of an affront to him than a violation of her?
At 17, I thought the scariest thing that could happen in my life was being hurt and humiliated in such a painful way. At 49, I know I was wrong: the scariest thing is imagining my 11-year-old child being hurt and humiliated. Not because of my family’s honor, but because she trusts the world and it is infinitely painful to think of her losing that trust. When I look back, it is not the 17-year-old me I want to comfort, but my parents. They had the job of picking up the pieces.
This is where our work lies, with those of us who are raising the next generation. It lies in teaching our sons and daughters to become liberated, respectful adults who know that men who hurt women are making a choice, and will be punished.
When I was 17, I could not have imagined thousands of people marching against rape in India, as we have seen these past few weeks. And yet there is still work to be done. We have spent generations constructing elaborate systems of patriarchy, caste and social and sexual inequality that allow abuse to flourish. But rape is not inevitable, like the weather. We need to shelve all the gibberish about honor and virtue and did-she-lead-him-on and could-he-help-himself. We need to put responsibility where it lies: on men who violate women, and on all of us who let them get away with it while we point accusing fingers at their victims.
The World Health Organization recently came out with the first global survey of sexual violence. It’s a grim picture: many millions of women have been raped, by strangers as well as the men closest to them. At the same time, suddenly, after a few millennia of studied silence, rape in India is a hot topic. The protests after last December’s rape and murder have led to an amazing moment of awakening for my country, which awaits the impending verdict for one of the accused men. For me, it’s been a surreal six months.
On New Year’s Eve, I got an innocuous-looking email from a friend in Delhi, with “This making the rounds on Facebook” in the subject line. I scrolled down, and saw my own teenage face on the screen next to a screaming headline.
After I was gang-raped in India, I wrote about it in a women’s magazine. That was more than 30 years ago. Time went on, life went on. Then came the internet, the December rape, and suddenly the old article was everywhere. I was all over Facebook, and I don’t even have a Facebook page.
I was suddenly not a writer, not a mother, not an ordinary, muddled, rather happy soul, but apparently, The World’s Most Famous Living Rape Victim. I didn’t want my 17-year-old’s cry of rage in the women’s magazine to be my final word on the subject, so I wrote an op-ed on the recovery process, and the stupidity of equating rape with dishonour, for the New York Times. Then, all hell really broke loose.
In the first month alone, my website got more than 2m hits. I got several thousand emails from women and men all over the world. I have been so very touched by the global outpouring of support.
Hats off to you, madam, they said. You are so brave. You are one helluva tough cookie. You are a saint. You are a hero. Please help me. Please be my friend. My husband beats me, my cousin rapes me, I never told anyone. Hats off. Heads off to you, said one particularly eager soul. University students debated my piece. The Indian government quoted me. Media called, institutions called. Everyone wanted to hear more. But I was done telling my story, so, Bartleby-like, I wrote back, “I prefer not to.”
I chose to speak out the first time. The second time, it really didn’t feel like a choice. It was surreal how big it got, and how quickly. Almost all my relationships have been given a good, bone-rattling shaking. Everyone seemed to have read the piece, and everyone had a reaction. My immediate family shone like stars. My extended family buried their heads in the sand.
Some people cheered, and some looked away in embarrassment. Some people said truly nasty things. (Rape is like any other life-shattering event – no matter how hard you try, you remember how every person reacted to it, and you either love them forever or you spend the rest of your life not quite succeeding in forgiving them.) My 11-year-old daughter, whom we hastily told before she heard about it at school, nodded casually. She saw her normal goofy mother and wisely decided everything was all right. And it was, and it is.
So why do I feel like bolting for the street when I walk into a sandwich place and the guy behind the counter, a total stranger, says, “I saw you on Facebook!”?
It’s not shame or guilt, it’s not embarrassment – truly, it’s slightly befuddling. The rape was catastrophic, and it took many years to feel safe (a necessary delusion). But I’m at the other end of that now, and I don’t quite know what to do when a friend who didn’t know this about me starts weeping. It’s good to be loved, but I’m done weeping. At this moment, my daughter’s maths progress feels more important than revisiting three-decades-old emotions.
So, here is my main point: I feel incredibly lucky that my rape story feels old. Millions – yes, millions – of women don’t have that luxury. A new study found that victims of conflict-related rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo benefited significantly from group therapy, and talking about their experiences. Imagine that. No matter how awful it was, it helps to talk about it. Feminists, therapists, journalists, this-ists and that-ists, all agree that we need to talk about it.
But we don’t. I recently spoke to a group of 250 Indian women. Afterwards, one woman said, “If my daughter got raped, I would never broadcast it to the world!”
I wish I could treat it like any other piece of writing. I wish I had felt comfortable boasting about my op-ed to the woman on the plane who asked what I do. But it’s about rape, and no matter how that should be like any other trauma, it’s not – for no earthly reason other than that we have made it so. I didn’t want to deal with her reaction, so I didn’t tell her. When the sandwich guy says he saw me on Facebook, or someone I barely know hugs me on the street, I feel a bit like I’m in one of those dreams where you show up to an important interview, your teeth fall out, and everyone stares.
I’m glad I spoke up. I understand and respect those who cannot. I’ve moved on. I want to be known for my work, for my charm or lack thereof, for my perfect cup of tea, for more than simply living to tell the tale.