Reading a novel about the rape of a young woman and how it changes her life irrevocably isn’t easy. Considering that nearly 1 in 5 women have been raped or have experienced attempted sexual assault — that this is a reality in the world we live in — makes reading a novel that explores the subject even harder. But stories like Stained are an important aspect of the ongoing conversations around sexual assault and rape culture. It’s clear that author Abda Khan cares deeply about this issue and wanted to explore it with the respect and nuance it deserves.
It’s been well-documented that many women, especially in the past but even today, do not report sexual assault. For a variety of reasons, victims of rape and sexual assault stay silent, especially if they live in conservative communities or if they don’t have their communities’ support. Rape culture is, unsurprisingly, monumentally oppressive and encourages women to stay silent or experience backlash. It’s even worse for women of color.
Stained by Abda Khan is a novel that examines the stifling presence of rape culture and the psychological trauma victims of sexual violence must face. The title immediately evokes negative connotations. My initial, personal, reaction to it wasn’t very positive either, as I saw it as reductive term for survivors of sexual assault. But after I saw how the novel explores cultural taboos and rape culture, the term makes sense, even as one that is self-imposed.
The story follows young Selina Hussain, a British-born Pakistani who is eager to attend university after she passes her graduating exams. Selina isn’t very interested in marriage or dating anyone for the time being. All she wants is to attend university, but she’s nervous about her upcoming Economics exam preventing her to get perfect marks in all her courses. It is then that a trusted family friend, Zubair Qureshi, offers to tutor Selina so she may pass her exam. Zubair is like an uncle to Selina. He is a trusted member of the community with much privilege, wealth, and is considered to be a moral and upstanding citizen. But underneath the glossy veneer lies a predator. Selina is unsuspecting and trusting, which Zubair exploits to sexually assault her.
From that point forth, Selina shifts into self-preservation mode. She wants to protect herself from further harm as well as her family’s reputation. I don’t want to give too much away, but it should be obvious to you now that Selina does not report the rape. At least not initially. For the rest of the novel, we see Selina go to extreme lengths to avoid ridicule and ignominy, none of which she deserves but which rape culture is more than happy to bestow upon victims of sexual assault.
There’s much to like about Stained. The writing is efficient and places us in Selina’s mind and helps us understand her actions and motivations. The depiction of how a conservative community, emotional blackmail, and rape culture all lead to an intelligent young woman to not report her sexual assault is realistic and therefore upsetting. But what I enjoyed most about this novel was how ultimately, the story was about Selina’s strength and growth as a survivor. The title and book cover may not indicate this, but Selina emerges a stronger person out of this ordeal. In the end, she refuses to allow her life to be defined by the men around her, whether they are positive or negative influences in it. She wants to carve out a life of her own and define its parameters herself. This feminist message strengthens the story and provides an important perspective.
Far too many women still do not report sexual assault, so it is crucial that narratives, both in television and literature, explore this difficult topic. Selina’s story deserves to be told so that other women who have faced sexual assault may find courage in Selina’s strength and perseverance to speak up. Eradicating rape culture will require a cultural shift, which won’t be easy. That is why stories such as these are crucial to making this cultural shift a reality.
Stained will be released in America on October 3rd, 2016; it is Abda Khan’s debut novel. She is a British Pakistani lawyer turned writer who wants to explore the issues affecting women in the British Pakistani/Asian community through her writing.
Visit her website: AbdaKhan.com
Follow on Twitter: Follow @abdakhan5
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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