How deaf women are vulnerable to domestic abuse: the tragic story of Safiya

Deaf women are twice as likely as hearing women to experience domestic abuse. A disability, such as deafness, makes victims more vulnerable to abuse, and the same disability leaves them more vulnerable to not ever being able to escape it.

Safiya is in a cellar. She’s ten years old and is deaf and mute. It’s cold and damp and she can’t hear who’s coming.

It was back in Pakistan that her mother and father died and she’s been brought somewhere dark she doesn’t know.

An elderly man slaps her. She is raped.

The man and his wife make her serve them. She cooks the meals and cleans the house. She washes their car and is told to do the same for their friends.

He beats her.

She can’t read or write and is kept away from school.

The man teaches her some sign language. Enough for her to be able to confirm her name so the family can take her disability benefits but too little for her to tell anyone what is being done to her.

She sits in the cellar packing football shirts, clothes, and mobile phone covers.

She uses the small radiator for heat.

It’s ten years later and the only way she can speak is through facial gestures.

She’s ordered to sleep on a sheet on the concrete floor. The bones in her back are sore.  

He rapes her and in her head, where she has a voice, she calls him “the bad old man”.

Ilyas Ashar, 84, was found guilty of thirteen counts of rape last week. Along with his wife, Tallat, 68, he was also found guilty of human trafficking and benefit fraud. They had used their victim to steal £30,000 over the years.

When she was found, Safiya weighed 4 stone 8 pounds.

***

Safiya isn’t her real name, of course. It seems apt, a decade later, for her identity to still be hidden, even when the horrific details of her abuse are out. Not only for legal necessity but for the way, nameless, the victims of domestic abuse are hidden by the walls of their home.

This is even more the case for women and children who have disabilities, be it in number of victims or level of vulnerability.

“Perpetrators frequently use disabled women’s impairments to abuse them further,” says Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid. “Many disabled women rely on their partners for support, which can make them even more vulnerable to domestic violence.”  

Deaf women are twice as likely as hearing women to experience domestic abuse, according to DeafHope, the only support service for women and children facing domestic violence. When we know one in four women in this country are victims of abuse in the home, this figure seems particularly stark. It’s estimated that 22 deaf women are at risk of domestic violence every day.

“It can often be even more of a struggle for disabled women to escape domestic violence because of their impairments,” adds Neate. “For financial reasons [but also] because many domestic violence support services do not have the funding needed to provide specialist support to disabled women.”

There’s a cycle at work here: disability, such as deafness, makes victims more vulnerable to abuse, and the same disability leaves them more vulnerable to not ever being able to escape it.

“Deaf women are largely unaware of where they can go for support and sometimes that what they are experiencing is actually abuse,” Steve Powell, Chief Executive of Sign Health, the national charity for deaf people which runs DeafHope, tells me.

“Of course due to language barriers they are often unable to report violence,” he adds.

Safiya’s decade-long abuse only ended by chance, when trading standards officers searched the house. They found her in the cellar, sleeping in a cot. It was only when she was taught sign language by support staff that she was able to tell the police what had been done to her.

The Ashar case is an extreme instance: one of slavery, trafficking, and concrete basements. But it brings to light an issue that goes on behind more doors than we imagine. One of easy abuse, and easy cover-ups.

Be it husbands, partners, family, or carers, an abuser is more likely to be able to isolate a deaf victim. The contrast between a deaf and mute victim and a hearing and talking abuser adds a new level of power and control. She is literally unable to speak out.

DeafHope tell me about a victim who, from the age of ten, was sexually abused by her foster father. A social worker would visit her at home but when the girl tried to communicate using sign language, the social worker could not understand her. Her foster father would act as her interpreter. The victim’s voice was never heard and the abuse continued. Unable to hear, she couldn’t even use the phone to call for help.

She eventually got out, DeafHope tells me, and is having therapy to rebuild her life. I’m told of another deaf woman, one of many who was beaten and emotionally abused by her husband. In the early hours of the morning, she used DeafHope to escape with her baby and four-year-old daughter. They gave her emergency help in British Sign Language and later medical support and help with legal teams to get her case to court. Her local refuge was unable to give her the support her disability needed but DeafHope gave them the equipment that meant she was able to stay there with her young family.

She was lucky. In the strangest way, these victims were lucky.  

***  

“Can you tell the court about your life now?” Safiya is asked.

“Love going out for walk in the fresh air. Love going to the fair and enjoy lots of different things. Also enjoy going to the college by myself on the bus,” she signs.

“The third thing I love to do is going out, going around,” she adds. “But having nothing to do with men. Sexually having nothing to do with men.”

She has spent months learning sign language to give herself a voice for the trial.

Her abusers are due to be sentenced this week.

 

It’s estimated that 22 deaf women are at risk of domestic violence every day. Photo: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war