by Ruzwana Bashir
It was with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes that I read about the horrific cases of abuse and neglect revealed in the Rotherham report. Much of the media coverage has focused on how men of mostly Asian descent preyed on vulnerable young white victims.
The details of this abuse are awful. But what has largely been ignored is the report’s finding that sexual abuse has been systemically under-reported among Asian girls due to deeply entrenched cultural taboos – obscuring the reality that there is a similarly rampant problem of minority girls being abused by members of their own community.
I have first-hand knowledge of this problem. I’m coming forward to publicly share my own story in the hope that I can encourage others to do the same and help tear down the wall of silence that perpetuates further abuse. I grew up in a small community of a few hundred British-Pakistanis in Skipton, less than 60 miles from Rotherham. When I was 10 a neighbour started sexually abusing me. Paralysed by shame, I said nothing.
At 18, I was fortunate enough to receive an offer to study at Oxford University. I was enthralled with the exciting new world around me and tried desperately to fit in. I replaced my traditional shalwar kameez with jeans. I bared my shoulders and cut my hair. I socialised more than I studied and became president of the Oxford Union. An internship at Goldman Sachs led to a job in private equity in London, and after a few years I moved to the US to get my MBA from Harvard Business School.
But all the while, I knew the girls I had grown up with didn’t have the same opportunities – and that my abuser was probably still preying on other children. It was only after a decade away from Skipton that I was finally able to garner the courage to return and testify against my abuser. When I first told my mother about the abuse I’d suffered, she was absolutely devastated. The root of her anger was clear: I was heaping unbound shame on to my family by trying to bring the perpetrator to justice. In trying to stop him from exploiting more children, I was ensuring my parents and my siblings would be ostracised.
She begged me not to go to the police station. If I’d still been living in Skipton, surrounded by a community who would either blame me for the abuse or label me a liar, I’m not sure I could have rejected her demands. Once the police began the investigation another victim came forward. Sohail described how he too had been abused almost 20 years before I was. Due to our combined testimony, the perpetrator was jailed for eight years. Within a few weeks another young woman in the community, emboldened by the conviction, told the police that a relative had raped her for several years. It had started before Sara was in her teens. We have supported her through the process of taking this to court. Although Sohail and I had removed a proven paedophile from the community and helped empower another woman to end her torture, we were not celebrated. On the contrary, we were shunned.
The Rotherham report cites a home affairs select committee finding that cases of Asian men grooming Asian girls did not come to light in Rotherham because victims “are often alienated and ostracised by their own families and by the whole community, if they go public with allegations of abuse”. This was our experience exactly – and the experience of everyone I’ve since spoken to. In each situation, victims and their families faced tremendous pressure to drop their cases. During our investigation it became clear that for three decades many other women had suffered at the hands of our abuser, but they had refused to testify against him because of the indelible stigma it would bring. I learned that the parents of at least one of the victims had known their child had been abused but had done nothing. We also discovered that the larger community had long been aware of rumours of abuse by my neighbour but had chosen to ignore them – even when Sohail had attempted to come forward several years earlier.
This refusal to condemn perpetrators persists even after their conviction. Soon after our case, another convicted sex offender was released back into our community and was accepted as if nothing had happened. It was clear that the same would happen with our abuser. Much has been made about the religious background of the offenders in the Rotherham report. But this problem isn’t about religion race: it’s about a culture where notions of shame result in the blaming of victims rather than perpetrators.
Although painful to read, the Rotherham report presents an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for leaders in the British-Pakistani community to stand up and speak out about the sexual and physical abuse in their midst. The Asian community isn’t unique in having evil-doers, and the overwhelming majority of its men and women are good people who care about protecting others. I am and always will be proud of my Pakistani heritage, but I firmly believe community leaders must take responsibility for the fact that the taboos that prevent others from identifying perpetrators and supporting victims enable further abuse. And those taboos must be challenged.
The report also presents an opportunity to overhaul the public institutions that have failed in their responsibility to protect the defenceless – which includes everyone from the police to schools to social services. On multiple occasions, beginning when she was 12, Sara went to her local GP and to walk-in clinics wearing her hijab to get the morning-after pill. She was never asked if she needed help. When she approached the police to share her story the CPS initially told her it would not pursue the case because there was too little evidence. It’s a testament to her resolve that she pushed back, demanding a chance to seek justice. The system failed her, just as it has thousands of other children of all backgrounds.
We now have the chance to change that, and there are four immediate steps we should take to address this problem. First, we need better training of social workers and police to effectively identify victims. The Rotherham report cited that one of the reasons for the widespread under-reporting of abuse among minority communities was the authorities’ focus on communicating with male leaders, who ignored the problem.
Women and girls need to be included in these conversations, and government officials need to broaden the scope of their inquiries. Second, we need mandatory reporting by people of authority when they see signs of potential sexual abuse. One of the most damning parts of the Rotherham report was that schoolteachers were discouraged from reporting potential cases. For Sara, mandatory reporting by doctors serving young children could have saved her years of abuse. Third, we need improved support for victims when they come forward. Sara’s case has been drawn out for far longer than expected, during which time she has faced pressure to withdraw her testimony.
She has been passed from one counsellor to another, and struggled to get the help she needs to overcome her trauma. We need a judicial process that recognises the cost of delayed prosecutions for victims and better counselling services.
Fourth, we need a single person in each community who is accountable for ensuring these and other relevant policies are implemented. There are a lot of people with partial responsibility for this problem, but for this to be an effective, coordinated, comprehensive response, we need one individual who takes full responsibility for ensuring child sex exploitation is addressed and who can be held accountable for real change. Some of these policies are already being implemented. But they are not being implemented everywhere, and they are not being implemented quickly enough. The biggest risk of this terrible situation is that once the shock of this report dissipates, it will get swept under the rug, just like three previous reports in Rotherham. We cannot let that happen. We don’t need any further reports: we need system-wide change in the way we approach fighting sexual abuse against children of all backgrounds. This is not a problem in Rotherham or a problem in Oxford or a problem in Rochdale. This is a problem in the United Kingdom.
And we need to tackle it together. In the words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” Let’s not be those people. Some names have been changed to protect anonymity. Ruzwana Bashir is the co-founder and CEO of Peek.com, the one-stop shop to discover and book activities. She previously worked at Gilt Groupe, Blackstone and Goldman Sachs. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School where she was a Fulbright scholar, and a BA from Oxford where she was president of the Oxford Union.
Other Children Sexually Abused in Rotherham
It started on the bumper cars in the children’s arcade of the local shopping mall in Rotherham in England. Lucy was 12, and a group of teenage boys, handsome and flirtatious, treated her and her friends to free rides and ice cream after school.
Over time, older men were introduced to the girls, while the boys faded away. Soon they were getting rides in real cars, and were offered vodka and marijuana. One man in particular, a Pakistani twice her age and the leader of the group, flattered her and bought her drinks and even a mobile phone. Lucy liked him.
The rapes started gradually, once a week, then every day: by the war memorial in Clifton Park, in an alley near the bus station, in countless taxis and, once, in an apartment where she was locked naked in a room and had to service half a dozen men lined up outside. She obliged. How could she not? They knew where she lived. “If you don’t come back, we will rape your mother and make you watch,” they would say.
At night, she would come home and hide her soiled clothes at the back of her closet. When she finally found the courage to tell her mother, just shy of her 14th birthday, two police officers came to collect the clothes as evidence, half a dozen bags of them. But a few days later, they called to say the bags had been lost. “All of them?” she remembers asking.
A check was mailed, 140 pounds, or $232, for loss of property, and the family was discouraged from pressing charges. It was the girl’s word against that of the men. The case was closed. Lucy’s account of her experience is emblematic of what investigators say happened during a 16-year reign of terror and impunity in this poor northern English town of 257,000, where at least 1,400 children, some as young as 11, were groomed for sexual exploitation while the authorities looked the other way. One girl told investigators that gang rape was part of growing up in her neighborhood.
Between 1997 and 2013, despite numerous reports of sexual abuse, only one case, involving three teenage girls, was prosecuted, and five men were sent to jail, according to an official report into the sexual exploitation of children in Rotherham published last week. Even now, the official reaction has been dominated by partisan finger-pointing and politics. The leader of the Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council has resigned, and the police chief is under pressure to follow suit. But criminal investigations continue, and more than a dozen victims are suing the police and the Council for negligence. The scale and brutality of the abuse in Rotherham have shocked a country already shaken by a series of child abuse scandals involving celebrities, public officials, clerics and teachers at expensive private schools.
The Rotherham report suggests that it continues unchecked among the most vulnerable in British society. It has highlighted another uncomfortable dimension of the issue, that of race relations in Britain. The victims identified in the report were all white, while the perpetrators were mostly of Pakistani heritage, many of them working in nighttime industries like taxi driving and takeout restaurants.
The same was true in recent prosecutions in Oxford, in southern England, and the northern towns of Oldham and Rochdale, where nine men of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghan origin were given long prison sentences in 2012 for abusing up to 47 girls. Investigators in Scotland have reportedly uncovered a similar pattern of abuse. Sexual abuse of children takes many forms, and the majority of convicted abusers in Britain are white. But as Nazir Afzal, the chief crown prosecutor in charge of sexual violence and himself of Pakistani heritage, put it, “There is no getting away from the fact that there are Pakistani gangs grooming vulnerable girls.”
The grooming tends to follow a similar pattern, according to Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work who was commissioned by the Rotherham Council to carry out an independent investigation following a series of reports in The Times of London: a period of courting with young men in public places like town centers, bus stations or shopping malls; the gradual introduction of cigarettes, alcohol and sometimes harder drugs; a sexual relationship with one man, who becomes the “boyfriend” and later demands that the girl prove her love by having sex with his friends; then the threats, blackmail and violence that have deterred so many girls from coming forward.
But the report also outlined how those victims and parents who did ask for help were mostly let down by the police and social services, despite a great deal of detail known to them for more than a decade, including, in some cases, the names of possible offenders and their license plate numbers. “Nobody can pretend they didn’t know,” Ms. Jay said in an interview. Unimpeded, the abuse mushroomed.
Over time, investigators found, it evolved from personal gratification to a business opportunity for the men. Increasingly, the girls were shared not just among groups of men locally, but sold, or bartered for drugs or guns. They were driven to cities like Sheffield, Manchester and London, where groups of men raped them, sometimes overnight. When parents reported their daughters missing, it could take 24 hours for the police to turn up, Ms. Jay said. Some parents, if they called in repeatedly, were fined for wasting police time. Some officers and local officials told the investigation that they did not act for fear of being accused of racism. But Ms. Jay said that for years there was an undeniable culture of institutional sexism.
Her investigation heard that police referred to victims as “tarts” and to the girls’ abuse as a “lifestyle choice.” In the minutes of a meeting about a girl who had been raped by five men, a police detective refused to put her into the sexual abuse category, saying he knew she had been “100 percent consensual.” She was 12. “These girls were often treated with utter contempt,” Ms. Jay said. Lucy, now 25 but too scared to give her last name because, she said, the men who brutalized her still live nearby, knows about contempt. During an interview at her home outside Rotherham, she recalled being questioned about her abuse by police officers who repeatedly referred to the main rapist as her “boyfriend.” The first time she was raped, there were nine men, she said, one on top of her, another to pin her down and force himself into her mouth. Two others restrained a friend of hers, holding open her eyelids to make her watch.
The rest of the men, all in their 20s, stood over her, cheering and jeering, and blinding her with the flash of their cameras. It was November 2002, and Lucy was 13. When she went to bed that night, she found a text message from the man who had groomed her for months: “Did you get home all right?” She hesitated, then texted back: “Yes, I’m fine.” At that moment, she said, rape became normality. “I thought, ‘This must be my fault, I must have given them a signal,’ ” she said. Unlike other victims, Lucy came from a stable family. Her parents owned a convenience store and post office. They lived in a middle-class neighborhood. “I had been brought up in a nice world,” she said. “I thought rapists were people hiding in bushes, and pedophiles were people who drive white vans and park outside schools.”
After that first rape, she said, she began to think she had overreacted, and told her friend that she had been upset because she had lost her virginity. After school, they went back to the town center. The leader of the group took her to McDonald’s and rolled her a marijuana cigarette, she said. For a week, it was as if nothing had happened. Then he raped her again, and soon the rules changed. The girls were to speak only when spoken to. They had to sit quietly in town and wait. Taxis would come by and pick them up. They were raped by different men in different places, mostly outdoors.
There seemed to be no way out. “They threatened to gang-rape my mother, to kill my brother and to firebomb my house,” Lucy said. Once, she said, when they thought she might go to the police, a man with gold teeth whom she had never seen before dragged her into his car, a dark-green Honda with left-side drive, and put a gun to her head: “On the count of three you’re dead,” she said he told her. He pulled the trigger on three, but nothing happened. “Keep your mouth shut,” he said. “Next time there will be a bullet inside.” Eventually, Lucy’s parents sold their business and moved to Spain for 18 months. “It became quite clear that leaving the country was the only way we could save Lucy,” said her mother, who participated in parts of the interview. Lucy experienced years of depression and anorexia, her mother said. She now works as a consultant on child sexual exploitation issues for police departments and charities. “They say it’s vulnerable girls these people are after,” her mother said. “Well, of course they’re vulnerable. They’re innocent. They’re children.”
Almost all the Rapists are Pakistanis
Shabir Ahmed, a delivery driver for two takeout places, did not have to go looking for young girls. Runaways and rebellious teenagers would show up at the restaurants, often hungry and cold. He slipped them free drinks and chicken tikka masala. “Call me Daddy,” he would say.
But soon, Mr. Ahmed, a father of four, would demand payback. In a room above one of the restaurants, according to testimony and evidence in later legal proceedings against him, he would play a pornographic DVD and pass around shots of vodka. Then, on a floor mattress with crumpled blue sheets and kitchen smells wafting from below, he raped them, and later forced them into sex with co-workers and friends, too.
The girls were too scared of him to talk. And when they did, no one believed them. Once, a 15-year-old got so drunk and upset that she smashed a glass counter. Mr. Ahmed and his colleagues did not hesitate to call the police. After she was released, she was coerced into sex four or five times a week, sometimes with half a dozen men at a time, in apartments and taxis around Rochdale, a town in northwest England near Manchester.
The police and other agencies were alerted more than 100 times over six years to the possibility that something very wrong was happening before Mr. Ahmed, now 61, was arrested and charged as the leader of a sexual exploitation ring that involved eight men of Pakistani descent and one Afghan. In May 2012, he was given a 19-year prison sentence for raping and abetting rape in a case involving at least 47 girls, all of them white.
Mr. Ahmed showed no remorse. He called the judge a “racist bastard,” the girls “prostitutes” and blamed white Britons for “training” their daughters in drinking and sexual activity at a young age.
The recent revelations that at least 1,400 teenage and preteenage girls had been sexually exploited over 16 years by so-called grooming gangs in another northern English city, Rotherham, stunned the nation because of the sheer scale of the abuse. And it put an uncomfortable spotlight on issues of race, religion and ethnicity in an increasingly multicultural nation: Nearly all of the rape suspects are Pakistani men, and nearly all of the victims are white.
But the problem and the slow law-enforcement response are not limited to Rotherham, where evidence files are said to have gone missing and no charges have been filed since the release two months ago of anindependent report documenting the widespread abuse. (Only one case in Rotherham, involving three teenage girls, had been prosecuted.) In nearby Sheffield, a local official has accused the police of ignoring data she passed along over the past decade, including addresses where she said abuse was taking place and names of those suspected of abuse.
The police and prosecutors say they are now pursuing cases more aggressively across the country, including in Manchester, where about 180 suspects are under investigation. Simon Bailey of the Association of Chief Police Officers spoke of “many more Rotherhams to come.”
Mr. Ahmed is a rare example in such a case of someone who has been charged, tried and convicted of rape. His case sheds light on how grooming gangs work and how they have contributed to a broader pattern of sexual abuse of children involving British celebrities, politicians, private schoolteachers and clergymen.
Mr. Ahmed’s case and a handful of others prosecuted since 2010, including in Rochdale and in Keighley in the north and in Oxford in the south, followed the same template: Mostly Asian men were found to have groomed mostly white British girls between the ages of 12 and 18, getting them to use alcohol or drugs and then forcing them to have sex, either for personal gratification or for trafficking and prostitution.
In a country already fiercely debating issues of immigration and national identity, the cases have prompted anti-Muslim demonstrations by far-right groups and some soul-searching generally. Why do British-Pakistani men figure so prominently? Were they deliberately targeting white girls and staying away from their own community? Did police and local officials turn a blind eye for fear of being accused of racism, losing votes among immigrant groups or stoking the kinds of tensions that have unleashed periodic rioting in other British towns?
Nazir Afzal, a Pakistani-Briton who is the chief crown prosecutor in charge of sexual crime, said the recent cases were not primarily about race. “It’s not the ethnicity or religion of the abusers that defines them; it’s their attitude toward women,” Mr. Afzal said in a recent interview. “These men will abuse the girls and women who are the most accessible to them, regardless of their religion or the color of their skin.”
Mr. Ahmed, he pointed out, was separately convicted of 30 counts of child rape of a Pakistani girl, a case that resulted in a 22-year prison sentence later in 2012 but that received much less media attention. Mr. Ahmed plans to appeal at the European Court of Justice, his lawyer, Naila Akhter, said.
Over the last two years alone, Mr. Afzal’s office has dealt with sex offenders from 25 countries and victims from 64. Nearly nine of every 10 convicted sexual abusers in Britain are white men, he said, and by far the most common pattern of child sexual abuse takes place not just within the same community but within the same home.
In online grooming, the fastest-growing form of abuse, with victims first contacted online, there appears to be no clear racial pattern, either.
But Mr. Afzal, who was the prosecutor in the Rochdale case after overturning a decision by his predecessor not to take the case to court, said that in the type of child sexual exploitation known as localized or on-street grooming, men of Pakistani heritage feature prominently.
White men are still the largest group at 49 percent of known offenders in this category, according to a 2012 study by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, which identified 2,409 victims over a 14-month period across England even before the Rotherham report was published. But at 33 percent, “Asian men” — most commonly referring to Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and Afghans — were disproportionately represented, given that they represent just over 7 percent of the population.
One reason, officials, scholars and community workers suggest, is practical rather than cultural: Nighttime industries like taxi-driving and takeout restaurants have been at the heart of many grooming networks, offering points of contact with vulnerable girls far away from parental supervision.
Pakistanis work in disproportionate numbers in both. In the Rochdale case, eight of the nine perpetrators drove taxis or worked at two takeout restaurants. (One taxi company in Rochdale said it now provides white drivers on request.)
The victims are often desperate for warmth, transport, food and sometimes drugs and alcohol. They gravitate toward these men who then take advantage of them.
There are anecdotes of the girls being racially stereotyped as white sluts or white trash, but it’s hard to say how much of that is racism and sectarianism and how much is classic sexual offender behavior belittling the victims.
Others suspect a cultural misogyny rooted in a very patriarchal Muslim society in which men exert high levels of control over women. “This could give rise to a culture in which it is more acceptable to treat women and girls with contempt,” said Sue Berelowitz, Britain’s deputy children’s commissioner.
Mr. Afzal recalls listening to Mr. Shabir in Rochdale during the trial. “He would ask: ‘What am I doing here? I have done nothing wrong,’ ” Mr. Afzal said. “He said he was doing what everyone else was doing.”
With the police looking the other way and more and more men getting involved in the abuse, there was a culture of permissibility, Mr. Afzal said.
A powerful culture of shame and honor surrounding premarital sex, including rape, among some Asian Muslims, may also have skewed the victim statistics. Honor and shame certainly proved an effective tool when Mr. Shabir blackmailed his Asian victim into silence during a decade of regular abuse. “You are damaged goods,” he would tell her, threatening to force her into marriage if she spoke up, Mr. Afzal recalled. Asian victims of sexual abuse are three times less likely to come forward than white victims, he said, citing Home Office data.
“They fear not just their rapists,” said Shaista Gohir, chairwoman of theMuslim Women’s Network U.K. “They fear their own community and their own family: They fear honor crime, forced marriage and being shunned and ostracized for bringing shame to their family.”
Taking the cultural dimension of grooming seriously without overstating it is difficult, said the deputy children’s commissioner.
We shouldn’t ignore patterns that could alert us to victims and perpetrators that might otherwise be hidden and that might be linked to faith and ethnicity. But if we think the stereotype of the Asian abuser and the white victim is all that’s going on, it’s very dangerous.