Archive for September, 2013

Should full-face veils be banned in some public places?

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Published on BBC website here

Women and girls should not be pressured to conform – it’s important they make autonomous choices about their lives and their bodies including what to wear and not wear. For this reason I oppose a complete ban of the face veil.

However, there are circumstances where the face should be seen – for example, pupils and teachers in schools, and in the courtroom when giving a testimony or being questioned. Communication without any barriers is paramount in these situations. Also it is important to show one’s face to verify identity for security reasons.

The vast majority of the 1.4 million Muslim women in Britain do not even wear the face veil, as it is not considered a religious obligation. The tiny minority that do are probably happy to remove the veil when required.

It is unfortunate that sometimes the odd Muslim woman is unreasonable and refuses to remove it. Such attitudes are contributing towards portraying their own faith negatively – Islam is not rigid and is flexible.

I wonder if their stance is really about religious freedom, or about making a political statement? The debate has now become so polarised that those people who didn’t care what Muslim women wore are now turning against the veil.

Paedophiles exist in every community

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Published on Open Democracy here on 16th September 2013

Racial stereotyping puts children at risk. The greatest threat to children of any culture, race or faith is familial child sex abuse.

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.

Muslim Women’s Dress: Let’s use common sense and proportion

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Published on MSN News website on 16th September 2o13

I welcome the judge’s decision today – the Muslim woman who refused to remove her face veil in court can stand trial in her veil but must remove it to give evidence.  He will allow her to be screened from public view but she has to be seen by judge, jury and lawyers.  I believe this is a very reasonable common sense approach.

Although I vociferously oppose a ban on the face veil, I believe there are particular circumstances in which it is necessary to show one’s face.  Giving evidence in a courtroom would be of those situations.  Studies show that much of communication is nonverbal. That means it’s not only what you say, it’s how you say it.  When being questioned in court the face therefore becomes an essential part of the communication process and should be seen to ensure justice is done.  This is not just about making an assessment on the truthfulness of an individual but also for their protection. For example, it would be important to know if the person being questioned is getting upset or being put under unfair duress.

Jeremy Browne MP has called for a national debate on face veils and wants them banned in schools and public places.  We do not need a national debate on such a minor phenomenon.  Let’s put things into perspective.  The Muslim population in Britain is 2.8 million and there are about 1.4 million Muslim women, the overwhelming majority of who do not wear the face veil.  No one has carried out any research on how many actually wear it and the figure could vary between a few hundred to perhaps a couple of thousand. So any kind of ban would be a disproportionate response to this issue.

Although I agree that girls in school should not be wearing the face veil because it would interfere with learning, I am concerned about the timing of Jeremy Browne’s comments and for wanting to see a ban in all public places.  Is this really about political point scoring? Muslim women’s dress is often used for that.  I question whether such rhetoric is really about the protection of Muslim girls and women as he claims. In fact, they are facing unprecedented levels of discrimination and hostility, which includes verbal abuse and physical assaults. I don’t hear politicians rushing to their defense when this happens.  It feels like that there are people who simply don’t like the look of the face veil, and finding excuses to ban it.  I am a Muslim woman and I don’t like the face veil either but that is not a good enough reason to ban it.