|'Former Miss World Linor Abargil of Israel at the Ficci event in New Delhi on Monday. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, March 10: When 18-year-old Linor Abargil called up her mother and told her she had been raped, the first instruction was “not to take a shower”. This, Abargil believes, changed her life forever.
“For a rape victim, it’s all about the first response. She didn’t ask me ‘Why did you go with him?’ or ‘Why were you wearing this?’ Most parents of rape victims do that and then that’s it, the girl is never going to speak again about anything,” said Abargil, who won the Miss World pageant in 1998, seven weeks after being raped at knife-point by her travel agent during an assignment in Italy.
“But keeping the hurt of rape inside is like taking a gun and shooting yourself in the head. When my mother said this, I knew she was speaking of the medical test that needs to be done. I knew then that she trusted me, believed me.”
In India to speak about her experience as a rape survivor at a Women’s Day event organised by Ficci, Abargil, now 33, said “talking of the hurt” was the only way to bring down the number of rapes in the world.
“I was at Anand Jon’s trial in the US. There were many women in the age group of 14-21 years who testified against him. My only thought at that time was that if the first victim had spoken out, the others would have been saved,” said Abargil, who was voted the 89th greatest Israeli of all time in a 2005 poll on the 200 greatest Israelis.
“I want all Indian rape survivors to speak up, talk about their cases, so that people like us can document cases and lobby with governments.”
Abargil was violated by a man who had raped twice before but not faced any investigation. She is, perhaps, the only celebrity rape survivor to speak openly about it. Believing that rape survivors need to talk not only to heal but to ensure rapists are prosecuted, Abargil says too many cases get dropped because of lack of evidence.
For rape survivors, says the former beauty queen, family support is what makes the difference between staying mum and registering a complaint. “All kids should know that they can talk to their parents about everything, however hard it might be,” said Abargil, who has a four-month-old daughter and has travelled across the world talking to rape survivors.
However, she concedes that it was winning the title of Miss World that gave her the opportunity to tell her story and inspire others to do the same.
“I felt like I was dying when the rape happened, and then they gave me the crown with diamonds and everyone was clapping. I went from hell to heaven. That’s when I realised that I had so much more to speak about rather than talk about world peace,” she said, laughing.
After winning the contest, Abargil — whose testimony against her rapist and DNA evidence found in his car sent him to prison for 16 years — told the judges about the rape. She said she would be unable to travel as part of her duties as Miss World because her case was still in the trial stages. She even suggested they may have picked the wrong girl as the winner.
“I really believe that the people who get power in the world should try to change the world. However funny and big that sounds, people should change the world — even if it is by changing one woman. Each of us can make a difference, don’t stop making a noise. If someone tells you to stop, make some more noise,” Abargil told rape and molestation victims.
The noise that she made changed the minimum sentence for rape in her country from three to five years. But she wants rapists to be jailed for life.
Abargil’s speak-up appeal enthused Poonam Bali, who was in the audience, to talk for the first time about her molestation. “It happened two decades ago, and I am still shaking,” said Bali, as she spoke of attempted rape by a business partner.
Asked if people opened up to her after listening to her story, Abargil smiled. “All the time,” she said.
In The Brave Miss World, a movie on Abargil’s experience by actor Gregory Peck’s daughter Cecilia, the model is seen talking to rape victims who share their stories with her for the first time. The film was released last December.
“The scene is worse in India and Africa. Here people don’t talk about rape. The change has to come from inside women. They need to know that a woman is everything and have the confidence to leave a man who doesn’t treat her well,” she said.