Child Sex Abuse: The Erasure of Muslim Victims’ Experiences
Amal was 10 when she first told someone that her father was subjecting her to repeated sexual abuse. That someone was her mother, who told her “not to speak about this with anybody”. Mustafa was 12 when his Qu’ran teacher started to find reasons to be alone with him and began sexually abusing him. Amal and Mustafa are both victim survivors of child sexual abuse, and both are British Muslims, now young adults trying to come to terms with the abuse they suffered and the prolonged impact it has had on them.
Child sexual abuse is not often talked about within British Muslim communities due to the deep stigma associated with it, and instances of such abuse experienced by individuals from this background are highly under-reported and under-recognised by statutory professionals. Based on my own personal and professional experience of working with British Muslim communities, I estimate that the scale of child sex abuse within this group is significant and on par with the rest of the general population.
Until recently, it was widely believed in general society and within Asian/Muslim communities that child sex abuse was only a problem for ‘white’ people. Both professionals and lay people viewed Asian and Muslim families as domestically traditional in nature, and therefore somehow immune to the issue. This often meant that teachers and doctors would discount the possibility that Muslim children and young people could also be subjected to sexual abuse, despite the fact that such individuals under their care were displaying characteristic signs and symptoms. In fact, even now, professionals struggle to recognise and identify sexual abuse amongst Muslim children, who do not necessarily posses the tools or ability to report it in the same way that other children from white backgrounds have, and this is due to a variety of reasons, from lack of sex education to cultural taboos rooted in concepts of ‘honour’. These widely held misconceptions of child sex abuse and stereotypes of Muslim families also meant that there was (and indeed still is) very little awareness of the issue among Muslims in terms of what it is, how to spot it and what parents should do if they think their child is being sexually abused. Often, highly visible outreach campaigns dedicated to raising awareness of child sexual abuse, and getting children or adults to report it, are not targeted at ethnic minority communities, and even less so towards Muslims or Asians. Children and young people from this background, particularly young women, are not present in the thinking of professionals and researchers who work to tackle and address child sex abuse. Simply put, their experiences and suffering are erased.
Let us not forget the critical role that Muslim communities play in the denial of child sex abuse, as experienced by British Muslim children and young people. Amal’s mother was complicit in the abuse her daughter suffered at the hands of her father by attempting to silence her. Notions of ‘honour’ (or izzat) often result in such silencing and denial from friends and families of victim survivors. More often than not the fear of being blamed, ostracised and ‘tarnished’ stops those affected from reporting child sex abuse to the police. The stigma is so great that young girls face the prospect of never being able to get married within their communities and being seen as ‘damaged goods’ forever more. These attitudes need to be challenged.
It is misogyny and gender inequality that feed these negative perspectives and indeed the occurrence of child sexual abuse itself. Misogyny and patriarchy are the inherent causes of violence against women and girls, forming the root of sexual violence in all its guises, across all cultures and faiths. Child sexual abuse is therefore very much a gendered issue, as it overwhelmingly affects female children and young girls. The crucial thing to note, however, is that misogyny manifests itself in different ways across cultures, and is not exclusive to particular groups or communities. In some form or another, women and children throughout the world are viewed as second class citizens in comparison to men. We see this here in the UK, where two women a week are killed by men and where rape and domestic violence are serious issues.
Child Sexual Exploitation and the Pakistani Muslim Stereotype
Horrendous high profile cases of child sexual exploitation have highlighted the pervasive nature of sexual abuse within British society. The Jay report on the Rotherham scandal for example, found that at least 1400 children were subjected to appalling sexual abuse between 1997 and 2013, predominantly by men of Pakistani heritage. Following this case and others, (in Oxford and more recently in Keighley) there has understandably been a public debate on the causes of such heinous crimes against young children. It goes without saying that when the perpetrators are mostly from an Asian or Pakistani background, serious questions are raised about why these men in particular are over-represented in carrying out sexual abuse. However, the framing of child sexual exploitation as an issue that is only perpetrated by men from Asian or Pakistani backgrounds is inaccurate and dangerous, and it also does a disservice to the many victim survivors abused by men from other backgrounds. There is another, more recently touted misconception that sex abuse in all its forms is mostly perpetrated by Muslims against white girls. Within this prejudiced view, Muslim children and young people can never be victims of child sex abuse or child sexual exploitation. Yet again, we find that their experiences and suffering are erased.
FGM and forced marriage: the only types of abuse faced by Muslim children?
It is estimated that 60,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK. In 2014 the Forced Marriage Unit reported that it dealt with 1267 cases of early and forced marriage, 79% of which involved female victims. It is deeply worrying that these criminal practices have been allowed to continue with little or no consequences for perpetrators. In recent years, leading activists such as Leyla Hussein and Jasvinder Sanghera, among others, have pushed the government to make these issues a priority. However, it is deeply concerning that forced/early marriage and FGM are sometimes framed as the only type of abuses that British Muslim children and young people face. In a report by the Office for the Children’s Commissioner following its inquiry into child sexual abuse within the family environment (CSAFE Inquiry) for example, FGM and forced marriage were disappointingly listed as the only abuses experienced by British Muslim children. Due to a lack of formal evidence, the report did not highlight or discuss the prevalence of child sexual abuse within Asian and Muslim communities. This was despite their attempts to reach out to and document the experiences of victim survivors from this background.
In summary, child sexual abuse is experienced by British Muslim children and young people on a similar scale (if not the same scale) to the rest of the general population. Very often this abuse remains undetected and unrecognised by statutory professionals and services. Recent discussion about child sexual exploitation has created the misconception that sexual abuse more broadly is a ‘Muslim on non-Muslim/‘white’ problem’. This prejudiced stereotype means that significant numbers of children and young women from a non-white background are suffering in silence with no help or support. British Muslim communities have much work to do in tackling and addressing child sexual abuse, and its causes. With support from and partnership with mainstream organisations there needs to be targeted campaigns aimed at raising awareness of child sexual abuse and education of all sections of society on how to identify and address it. Underpinning this work is a global need to shift and change our attitudes to women and young girls in order to achieve true gender equality.