Flickr/Tahir Hashmi. Some rights reserved.
I am the Chair of Muslim Women’s Network UK, which is the only national Muslim women’s organisation in Britain. We have a membership of 500 with a collective reach of tens of thousands of women across the UK. Through our network, we gather and share information relevant to the lives of Muslim women and girls. While media and public attention focused on White British female victims of sexual abuse, our members raised concerns that Asian and Muslim girls were also being sexually abused — within the family and by other men unconnected to the family including groups of men. They felt no one was talking about them because there was an assumption that Muslim girls are safe from sexual abuse because they are confined to the home with little or no interaction with men. We decided to investigate the matter and managed to collect 35 case studies over 5 months. Most were collected from either Black Ethnic Minority third sector organisations or from friends and relatives of victims.
Last week Muslim Women’s Network UK launched Unheard Voices: Sexual Exploitation of Asian Girls and Young Women. Our report challenges the stereotype that Asian offenders target White girls only. The majority of the victims in our study were of Pakistani Muslim background. They were tortured, raped and trafficked by men from their own communities. I wonder what the EDL, BNP and the Sikh Awareness Society will say now? They have all been very confidently claiming that Pakistani Muslim men are deliberately targeting White girls and Sikh girls because they are of a different ethnicity and faith.
Our research reinforces the evidence that girls and women are most at risk of being sexually exploited by men from their own backgrounds. We already know that the majority of victims and offenders are White. In the study, the vast majority of perpetrators were men of the same ethnicity and faith as the victims. Two thirds of the victims were of Pakistani background and in most of these cases the offenders were also Pakistani. When victims were Bangladeshi, the offenders tended to also be Bangladeshi. Other offenders included Afghani, Indian (Sikh and Hindu) and White men (including mixed heritage). In the few exceptions where the sub ethnic group varied, there was a shared heritage between victim and offender such as being ‘Asian’ or having the same faith. Paedophiles are therefore not only targeting the most vulnerable but also the most accessible girls.
If an investigation were conducted of the sexual exploitation of girls from different backgrounds e.g. Black Afro Caribbean, Chinese, Eastern European etc., most perpetrators are therefore likely to be from their own backgrounds. However, there is a tendency to talk about one type of offender / victim model, that of Pakistani men grooming White girls. Those who portray sexual exploitation as a ‘Pakistani only’ problem can only be interested in furthering their own agendas. They don’t really care about the sexual abuse of girls. If they did, then they would criticize all offenders with equal vigor regardless of background. If they really cared they would speak out against all forms of sexual abuse whether carried out by individuals, online, within families, in religious institutions or by groups – not just focus on sexual exploitation by gangs and groups by one ethnic group.
Claiming the moral high ground is not only unhelpful but also dangerous: it is resulting in both victims and offenders being missed. Some sections of the media, some politicians and right wing groups such as the EDL and BNP portray sexual exploitation as an ‘Asian or Muslim only’ problem. Meanwhile the Indian Sikh and Hindu communities challenge the Asian label and claim it’s a Muslim problem.
There are divisions within the Muslim communities too. Some Bangladeshis will tell you, it's not all Muslims – it’s the Pakistani Muslims. For example, Bangladeshi imam, Ajmal Masroor wrote an article about Pakistani grooming gangs, Sex Grooming - Who Is Responsible for It? It was clear from his piece that he did not think Bangladeshi men were involved in group exploitation and at worst held only negative views about girls.
The Unheard Voices report highlights case studies involving Bangladeshi victims who were sexually abused and passed around by Bangladeshi men. The report also highlights the story of an 11-year-old White girl passed around and raped by Bangladeshi men (which is not included in the 35 case studies but mentioned in the body of the report). During the research, we were told about many other cases involving Bangladeshi victims and male offenders — we did not have the capacity to collect all the stories.
Many in Sikh communities believe that Pakistanis pose the biggest threat to the safety of Sikh girls. According to them ‘grooming Sikh gangs do not exist because no such cases have been highlighted.’ I am not doubting their claim that some Pakistanis are targeting Sikh girls, I know they are. But to claim that Sikhs do not sexually abuse girls is absurd. I wonder if anyone is bothering to look for them? Probably not — it would undermine the popularized stereotype that Sikh girls are only being sexually exploited by Muslim men. Since the launch of the report one Indian girl said: "I remember Sikh men passing girls around 20 years ago but no one wants to talk about them."
It is all very well trying to protect Sikh girls from Pakistani men but who is protecting them from men in their own communities? There is an obsession with group sexual exploitation and a blindness to other forms of sexual abuse. It is a well-known fact that most sexual assaults are by offenders known to the victim. The greatest threat to children (girls and boys) of any culture, race or faith is familial child sex abuse. It is therefore very worrying that some people are only concerned about paedophiles from outside of their backgrounds. This sends the message that sexual abuse by one of your ‘own’ is considered a lesser crime and viewed as more acceptable. Such attitudes will allow men to continue operating with impunity further fueling sexual violence against girls and women.
The reason often given for focusing on Pakistani men has been that they are over-represented in the group exploitation networks in cases that have come to light. This may well be true judging from the many arrests over recent months and those already prosecuted. However, is this because of a unique factor related to their background? Or because police are now looking out for them due to the media attention they have received? Either way, this should not absolve any community from the responsibility of addressing the involvement of their own. We all have a responsibility to address sexual exploitation. That is why as a British Pakistani, I have not been afraid to ‘wash our dirty laundry’ in public. I carried out the research knowing that our greater reach into Pakistani communities would mean uncovering more case studies involving Pakistani victims and offenders putting them back in the spotlight. It is time everyone prioritised the safeguarding of children over the so-called reputation or honour of one’s community and carried out similar investigations.