by Huma Munshi
In the film Monsoon Wedding an adult survivor of sexual abuse comes face-to-face with the perpetrator at the wedding of her best friend. As a result of the close familial ties and the need to uphold community “honour”, she is forced to take part in cultural ceremonies despite disclosing the abuse. At one stage, she kneels in front of him as pictures are taken. This modern day injustice is not fiction but a reality for many.
At a time when political reporting of sexual abuse has focused on Asian men targeting vulnerable white young girls, such as in the cases of Oxford or Rochdale, it is entirely timely and pertinent that Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWN) have published a report, entitled, Unheard Voices. Written by the feminist and activist, Shaista Gohir, this report documents the sexual abuse of Asian young girls.
This is courageous work given that far right groups are quick to pounce on any hint of a story of Asian men grooming young girls. But to remain silent is to let vulnerable young people down. It is vital to understand the prevalence of sexual abuse within Asian communities, what factors are making young Asian people vulnerable to paedophiles and the specific barriers they face in accessing support and speaking out. It is particularly important that voices from Asian and Muslim communities are part of this narrative.
What this report makes clear is that the notion that Asian men are more likely to target vulnerable young white girls is unfounded. A perpetrator will target any young person that is vulnerable and they can groom, because ultimately abuse is always about power and domination.
Indeed, the report highlights that these perpetrators may be more likely to target young girls from the same ethnic background because of their shared heritage, culture, faith and norms. These adults are seen as trusted individuals by the family as opposed to an older man outside the community.
Racialising sexual abuse is hugely damaging because it could potentially mean that young Asian and Muslim girls may not get the help from service providers they need. For all those frontline services such as the police, hospital staff and schools who think that Asian and Muslim young girls are “safer” because of their strict familial ties and codes of practice, take note: you are sorely mistaken. These young people are being let down because of your ignorance and blinkered view.
It is worth noting that the report highlights some of the unique barriers for Asian and Muslim young girls in accessing support. To understand this properly may ensure services meet their specific needs.
To an outsider the idea that the “honour” of the family i.e. the standing in the family within the community and how much izzat (respect) they have from others would be more important than the health, dignity and wellbeing of a child or a women seems shocking. But the report highlights that, occasionally, this is the case.
As a Muslim woman my experience has been that the system of patriarchy is compounded by the values of very conservative Asian / Muslim households. As part of this culture, women are required to be chaste and virginal whilst men enjoy relatively more freedoms and fewer constraints.
When you implicitly or explicitly teach young boys that they are more deserving than their sisters, when they are allowed more freedom or a woman is held up to the most exacting of moral standards which do not apply to men, you are creating a hegemony and culture where the needs of women and girls become subservient to the notion of family “honour”.
One of the case studies documents a young girl that was sexually abused. Her family later compelled her to have hymen repair surgery to force her into a marriage to conceal her abuse from the community and keep up a charade of so-called “honour”. It is this system that I abhor and it is why I say fuck “honour” whenever it is used to silence and oppress vulnerable people.
There are a number of factors which make a young child particularly vulnerable to abuse. This includes a dysfunctional violent upbringing, emotional neglect or particularly strict parents; mental health problems including incidences of self-harm; disability amongst others. One of the children had learning difficulties and felt that she was in a loving relationship with her abuser.
Reading the case studies at the end of this report is extremely difficult, but it should also be used as a call to arms. Indeed, it drove me start the #fuckhonour hashtag on Twitter on the day the report was launched and was the reason why I began the article with an expletive-ridden headline. Many will object to this; they would prefer polite discussion and no profanities but I disagree. Some truths drive you to roar like a lion. As an Asian Muslim woman who has experienced first-hand the impact of so-called “honour”, I will use the strongest possible terms to condemn these acts of abuse and violence.
The stories are horrific: vulnerable young people being let down by every area of society. Families and schools not willing to discuss sex and healthy relationships; the police who overlook Asian girls because they do not see them as “victims”; a culture of deafening silence in communities; a patriarchal system compounded by notions of “honour” and shame; and services that do not appreciate the specific barriers Asian young girls face when accessing support.
So change must come in every area if it is to meet the needs of young Asian girls. MWN makes some very useful recommendations including: raising awareness and increasing culturally sensitive training; understanding the sexual exploitation of Black and Asian Minority Ethnic Groups (BAME) victims and the different types of offender-victim models; support for third sector BAME organisations to set up specialist sexual violence projects and helplines; and more research and data to inform service delivery.
Most importantly if this report teaches us anything it suggests how important it is that voices within the community must not remain silent. If the price of silence is one child being abused, then that price is too high.
It is for this reason as a Muslim woman, I will shout as loud as I can:
‘fuck your honour and fuck your shame if it is put above a single life”.
Huma Munshi is a writer and poet. She is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing at HumaMunshi on feminism, forced marriage, mental illness, films and her trade union activism. She is a regular contributor at the F-Word and Black Dog Tribe amongst others, find her @Huma101 She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others.
- Sexual Exploitation, Islam and the Media (mediadiversityuk.com)
- Silence of Women in Muslim Society: Is about who we are and how we are given the assumption to be someone else. This is how we get lost and forget our true selves…
- Abuse of Asian girls missed because of focus on white victims, says report (theguardian.com)
- Imrana’s story: testimony of a victim of child sexual abuse
- UNHEARD VOICES – Sexual Exploitation of Asian Girls and Young Women
- Abuse of Asian girls missed because of focus on white victims, says report
- Blamed for ‘allowing the sex abuse to happen’: one British Asian girl’s story
- New Report Gives Voice to Asian Victims of Sexual Abuse