Given the tendency of British justice to hand out worryingly short sentences for perpetrators of sexual violence against women and girls, it should be a matter of some celebration that a convicted child sex abuser, Ul Nasir, lost his appeal against the length of his sentence. However, the reasons put forward by both the trial judge and the appeal judge are troubling to put it mildly.
Ul Nasir was sentenced to seven years for six offences against girls as young as 9 and 13. The appeal judge upheld the trial judge’s view that the sentence was justified because the impact of his crimes was greater as the family had been “socially isolated” by this episode which had “brought great shame on the whole family”. The judge quoted the father’s concerns “about the future marriage prospects for his daughters”. Another aggravating factor thrown into the mix was – that Ul Nasir, being Asian himself, “knew only too well the effect upon the children and their family”.
This judgement is breath-taking on a number of counts: it is the crudest form of cultural relativism in reverse; it is deeply patriarchal because it reinforces the notion of property and of girls belonging to the father to be disposed of in arranged marriages; it suggests that arranged marriages are an Asian girl’s destiny; and lastly, it implies that a white man carrying out these assaults on Asian girls would not be so culpable because he would be ignorant of the shame he was visiting upon these girls – a racist stance, surely.
This was the kind of attitude that black women’s groups encountered from social workers and police in the 1980s and 1990s when young Asian girls, facing arranged marriages, ran away from home. They argued that it would be racist to intervene in minority cultural practices; we argued that it would be racist not to. We argued that cultural relativism should not be used to deny protection to women from violence in minority communities. In this judgement, cultural relativism operates in reverse: Asian culture is being used as an aggravating factor in a sentencing decision. Asian girls need more protection than white girls so that they can be saved for marriage, “over” protected in ways that are far from liberating.
It is the mirror opposite of the attitudes that lay behind the institutional failure to pay attention to white girls alleging sexual abuse against Asian men in places like Rotherham for over ten years. Alan Billings, police and crime commissioner for Yorkshire, admitted as much, “I think we saw these girls not as victims but as troublesome young people out of control and willing participants. We saw it as child prostitution rather than child abuse…” The idea that a child cannot, by definition, give consent to sexual exploitation had yet to inform the way in which authorities approached the whole issue.
This stereotype of white girls as “loose” and “easy” is also firmly rooted in the minds of those Asian men involved in the recent grooming scandals. This is not to say that Asian girls are not sexually abused by these men. Ul Nasir is not a one-off. There was some disquiet in women’s groups that the way in which media coverage of the sexual abuse in Rotheram had racialized it, as one of Asian men and white girls, had completely eclipsed the fact that Asian girls are also victimised by them.
A pilot study into this issue, “Unheard Voices: The Sexual Exploitation of Asian Girls and Young Women”, published by the Muslim Women’s Network in 2013, found 35 cases of mostly 13-14-year-old Asian girls fairly quickly which led them to conclude that the abuse they had identified was just the tip of the iceberg. Interestingly, it found that many of the men considered Asian girls “a less risky option compared with girls from other backgrounds because they seemed less likely to report the abuse particularly because of shame and dishonour”. This partly explains why the abuse of Asian girls is not visible to the public. The report found that, “Perpetrators also encouraged girls to run away from home. This included manipulating girls to contact women’s groups and the police and to report that they were in danger of a forced marriage or honour based violence so they would be found accommodation, making them more accessible to the offenders.”
It is disgraceful that cultural arguments are being used by parents, perpetrators, the police and the judiciary to perpetuate stereotypes, expose young girls to abuse and reduce their access to justice. All our girls should be believed and protected. We should not be distracted by arguments that divide and rule on the basis that all women are equal, but some women are more equal than others.
If you would like to support Rahila Gupta and Beatrix Campbell’s joint book project, “Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die?”, click here.