Anglo-Saxon attitudes

Sexual double standards are not the preserve of conservatively-minded ethnic minorities.

I'm quite willing to believe that "cultural attitudes" underlay the apparent belief of members of the Asian criminal gang that young white girls, many of whom were or had been in care, were "easy meat" for their predatory sexual behaviour.

After all, such cultural attitudes are hardly confined to those with family connections in Pakistan.  They even seem to have been prevalent at the Crown Prosecution Service, which decided back in 2008 that a girl who had come forward to describe being raped would not make a credible witness.  If traditionally-minded Asians are indeed liable to believe that  children like her are of less account than their own overprotected daughters it must be asked how they came by such ideas.  Perhaps they have been reading the Daily Mail's frequent and lurid accounts of the Hogarthian decadence with which a high proportion of this nation's teenage girls supposedly conduct themselves.

A Guardian editorial yesterday helpfully explained that "the force that shaped it [the sexual abuse] was not the ethnicity of the abusers but the poor, chaotic family lives of the victims."  Thus was the blame seemlessly (and perhaps unconsciously) transferred from the perpetrators. Poor and chaotic family lives may have rendered the victims vulnerable to the blandishments of these criminal gangs but it does not explain why they were raped. The only force that shaped the abuse was the behaviour of the abusers.

And it didn't take long, last night, for the BBC's "flagship" Question Time to degenerate into a veritable orgy of slut-shaming. Peter Oborne, a Telegraph journalist who has written extensively against Islamophobia, was the worst offender.  "What does it tell us about what's happened to our society," he wondered, "that we have 12 year old girls, 13 year old girls, who are happy to give up their affection and their beauty to men in exchange for a packet of crisps or a bit of credit on their mobile phone?" He later elaborated that the girls had shown themselves "ready to surrender their innocence for a bag of crisps".  

The implication is clear: the problem is with young girls, well below the age of consent, who (allegedly willingly) "surrender their innocence", rather than with the men who take. "Society" is to blame for allowing this to happen. The perpetrators, presumably, just couldn't help themselves, like children in a sweetshop. And Oborne's language of "beauty" and "innocence", with its nauseating fetishisation of female purity, seemed to embody precisely those "cultural attitudes" towards women that are assumed to characterise conservative Muslim communities. 

A man in the audience who appeared to be a bishop then chipped in with the suggestion that 13 year-old girls "go out dressed as if they are looking for that sort of issue to take place".  He later withdrew the obvious imputation that they were "asking for it", but it's striking how naturally the thought had come to his mind. As it came to the mind of Caroline Spelman that the solution lay in giving girls (it's always girls, isn't it?) "the right values... to keep themselves safe."

It would be naive to suppose that many of the girls who found themselves at the mercy of these gangs didn't already have "issues".  A high proportion came from broken homes and had been in the care system.  It's undeniable that such children are more likely than average to become involved in crime or drugs, to become pregnant at an early age, to end up homeless or engaged in street prostitution.  But that only makes it more important not to make them complicit in their own degradation.

It's not so many years ago that it was standard practice for underage prostitutes to be regarded by the police and justice system as criminals rather than as victims.  It's only a couple of weeks ago that a rape victim was named on Twitter by fans of the footballer convicted of assaulting her.  The charge being levelled against her, effectively, was one of having "loose morals".  No-one invoked the alien "cultural norms" of football supporters to explain such attitudes, as did David Starkey in response to the Asian grooming gangs, or saw it as evidence that the education system had failed adequately to convey the "history of feminism" in these islands.  

The trial that ended this week in Liverpool was not the first, and won't be the last, to feature predominantly Pakistani-British gangs preying sexually upon mainly white girls from troubled backgrounds.  There are, no doubt, special features at work in these cases: two that spring to mind are the sexual frustration experienced by young men from strict, patriarchal families and the "biraderi" system of male mutual support which might easily be debased into one of passing around young girls for sex.  But the sexual double standards, the valuation of women based on their actual or presumed availability, the writing off of girls from difficult backgrounds as "white trash": such attitudes are far from being the preserve of those from conservatively-minded ethnic minorities.
 

BNP members protest outside Liverpool Crown Court, 9 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage