The scale and severity of the child sex exploitation crimes in Rotherham warrants a constructive response which is more concerned with truth than evading blame, and with empathy rather than insularity, says Tehmina Kazi
The publication of a new report on child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, UK, makes for truly heartbreaking reading, and adds to a chilling tally of convictions across the country. Last year, the Independent featured the harrowing tale of one of the Oxford sex gang victims. Groomed by Mohammed Karrar from the age of eleven (his first gift to her was a bottle of pop), she was raped repeatedly by him and his contemporaries over a five-year period, forced to have a backstreet abortion after falling pregnant at 12, ended up being taken into care at 13, and suffered brutal violence at the hands of Karrar and his brother. She was also injected with heroin, which she started to take herself “because it was better than being alive, better than feeling.”
Listening to these grave details only makes the stream of hackneyed retorts – across the political spectrum – seem even triter by comparison:
“It happens in all communities.”
“But Islam is to blame.”
“Who are the sell-outs making Pakistanis look bad?”
“All Pakistanis in the UK should be viewed with suspicion!”
It goes without saying that the scale and severity of these crimes – and our respect for the victims – warrants a better class of response. The sort of response which is more concerned with truth rather than evading blame, with empathy rather than insularity, and with constructivism rather than the perpetuation of negativity.
Yorkshire woman Angela Sinfield, the mother of a child sexual exploitation (CSE) victim, exemplified this noble approach when she spoke at the launch of the Community Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation in May 2013. Not only had she used her experience to campaign for a successful change in the law – to make hearsay evidence admissible in grooming cases, she had a specific message for Asian communities. She warned them never to blame, or ostracise the wives of the perpetrators of child sexual exploitation offences. In this, she demonstrated a deep insight into the psyche of a certain subset within British Asian communities, where fingers are automatically pointed at women for the errant sexual behaviour of their husbands.
In a Guardian article from 2006, Ms Sinfield was critical of the BNP’s attempts to hijack the racial narrative of these cases for their own ends. This is very admirable; it makes one think how many others in the same position would call for restraint, and so publicly too. It illustrates the bind that many British Asians and / or Muslims find ourselves in when faced with these crimes. On the one hand, we want to prevent the far-right from using the racial and religious identities of the perpetrators for political capital, and on the other, we understand that it is crucial to take complete responsibility for the injustices that plague our communities. Anything less is a disservice to the victims of child sexual exploitation, and their families. Once we start taking ownership of these problems – as the Community Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation did, with Julie Siddiqi as its spokesperson – there will automatically be less fodder for far-right groups anyway.
The perception that there has been more of a focus on race, culture and religion with these perpetrators than with the likes of Stuart Hazell, Mark Bridger et al, has been roundly condemned by many commentators. We should indeed be careful of whipping up hysteria relating to identity politics (which works both ways), and painting all members of particular communities with a broad brush. However, this should not deter us from acknowledging and analysing cultural, racial or even religious specificities where they might exist, a position that Hilary Wilmer, Chair of Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation, has upheld. Also, it is simply not true to say that non-white individuals from non-Christian backgrounds are the only people who undergo excessive scrutiny for their racial or religious identities when they are implicated in sexual crimes. Media coverage of the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church focused on these aspects of the perpetrators’ identities repeatedly.
Some of the recent child sexual exploitation cases can be linked to negative cultural attitudes very clearly. One of the most shocking cases was that of Laura Wilson, a 17-year-old from Rotherham, who was groomed from the age of twelve. Her body was later found dumped in a canal. She had been seeing Ashtiaq Asghar and Ishaq Hussain towards the end of her life, and had a baby with the latter. The mother of one of her lovers apparently hit Laura with a shoe, saying her son would never have a baby with a white girl and called Laura a ‘dirty white b****’, who should ‘keep her legs closed’.
The over-representation of some racial groups in this particular type of crime – albeit based on rather limited data – is a bitter pill to swallow. The Child Protection and Exploitation Centre’s 2011 report, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” researched 2,379 potential offenders caught grooming girls since 2008. Of 940 suspects whose race could be identified, 26% were Asian (almost all of Pakistani origin), 38% were white and 32% were recorded as unknown (bear in mind that according to the Office of National Statistics, only 6% of the English population is classed as Asian). Dr Helen Brayley and Ella Cockbain, from UCL’s Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, also warned that their own six-month study – which found that “on-street grooming” perpetrators were predominantly, but not exclusively, from the British Pakistani community – was confined to just two police operations in the north of England and Midlands. Hilary Wilmer stated in a 2011 Guardian article that her group had supported 400 families over a nine-year period, where girls were the victims of grooming and sex abuse by mainly Pakistani men. “The vast majority are white families and the perpetrators are Pakistani Asians. We think this is the tip of the iceberg.” But she cautioned against treating the matter as a race crime. “It’s a criminal thing.”
There are people turning a blind eye on both sides of the divide. Speaking to a social worker from the north of England, on condition of anonymity, I was told about another case where Asian communities were pilloried in the local press. What was ignored, however, was that the mother of the first victim knew what was going on. In a chilling twist, she apparently received gifts for ignoring the abuse, while her daughter latched on to these men for giving her the attention she wasn’t receiving at home. She then supplied other girls – including her own younger sister – to the abusers.
Contrary to what some commentators have claimed, there is no evidence to suggest that any of the perpetrators in the recent high-profile CSE cases were even remotely religious. But how do we deal with perpetrators who misappropriate religion as a means of defending their criminal acts? Take the bizarre case of Adil Rashid, who groomed a 13-year-old girl and received a suspended sentence. He actively invoked his religion as a defense in court, saying that his madrassah education had left him with little understanding of women.
Thankfully, religious leaders are starting to tackle these problems – and some of the broader attitudes that underpin them – head-on. In oral evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee on Localised Child Grooming on 19th March 2013, Leicester-based imam Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra stated: “Although, clearly we need to be more forceful, I guess, as imams in our preaching to spell it out to them that, ‘This is what the Qu’ran calls on you to do and where you see a wrong it is your duty as a human being, as a Muslim, to make sure that that wrong stops and the victims are protected from further victimisation.’ ”
Bradford imam and youth worker Alyas Karmani, from the “STREET” organisation, talked about the “double life culture” which plagues some minority communities. This is something that I have been critical of for quite some time. At the more benign end of the scale, young people will have secret boyfriends and girlfriends, yet display a more pious image in front of their families. The sort of reprehensible conduct we have seen in towns like Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford is obviously an extreme example of this phenomenon. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine that some communities would be oblivious to the abusers in their midst. As Karmani says, “I think there is a wall of silence when it comes to sexual abuse intra-community in hard-to-reach socially conservative communities. Having said that, I have noticed, certainly in the last 10 years, that there is a real concerted effort to want to address these issues head on, in particular some of the root factors.”
The good news – if any good can come out of these chilling cases – is that mosques are starting to take a more active role in resolving these issues. Several Islamic institutions have run a programme called “No need for weed” on the links between substance abuse and sexual exploitation. As Karmani testified, the mosques told him, “Come back, we want you to do more sessions.”
The response from civil society and religious organisations is indeed starting to pick up. However, key institutional failures in Rotherham could have been prevented if front-line professionals had been adequately supported in speaking out, and Professor Alexis Jay’s report recognises this: it recommends locally and nationally agreed-upon protocols for information-sharing. Unfortunately, youth workers who raised specific concerns about the victims were not only criticised by full-time council staff, but ended up being demoted. Committed front-line professionals are sometimes the most effective enablers of social justice, and should be encouraged in their roles, rather than hampered and ostracised.