Why there’s so much silence around being sexually assaulted in the Asian community
By Faima Bakar
February 20, 2018
|Murdered By My Father|
I was ten years old when the priest who came to teach us how to read Arabic started touching me.
Twice a week he would push his hand down along my body and force me to touch him.
I never told anyone, keeping it silent until I spoke to other south Asian women to research this article.
Shamefully, this is the reality for a few of my Muslim peers. In one day I spoke to 13 of my friends who each had some variation of this experience, as though it’s some sort of disgusting rite of passage.
From casual brushes against our bodies to deliberate touching, to full on molesting, and even raping, south Asian women have kept quiet about their abuse and they continue to do so.
Needless to say these experiences are evident in all communities – sexual assault is not unique to Asian people. But why is there a culture of shame and silence particularly in Asian Muslim families when sexual abuse occurs?
Like a lot of other girls, I didn’t want to feel like a victim, especially because I was too young to even properly understand what had happened.
While no one race or religion propagates sexual abuse any more than the other, it seems within the Asian community especially, abusers are capitalising and counting on the fact that victims are less vocal about the issue.
Grooming gangs, for instance, are not Asian or Muslim – perpetrators just happen to be Muslim or Asian. The only people to blame are the abusers themselves and not the larger network they represent.
For a lot of British Muslim women, publicising their abuse at the hands of a fellow ethnic minority Muslim feels like airing their dirty laundry in public as it allows generalisations to be made about other men of faith.
It becomes especially problematic when the abusers are preachers or scholarly figures who are meant to be representing an already marginalised group.
Sex is rarely spoken about within south Asian communities and so, by extension, neither is what should be done if lines are crossed.
One woman tells Metro.co.uk she felt she couldn’t ‘snitch’ on the priest who assaulted her as he was such a respected figure in the community
‘I never said anything to anyone,’ she explains. ‘I know he knew was inappropriate but I was extremely embarrassed.
‘But I also thought this man has a daughter. Imagine being in her shoes when she finds out.
‘I know a lot of people experienced worse but I’m sad that it happened to me, and in my own home, when I was so young and innocent’.
Sakinah tells Metro.co.uk how she was also touched inappropriately by a distant family member before she’d even hit puberty.
‘No one ever said anything like “inform us if anything happens”,’ she says. ‘The reason I never said anything was because I was scared of the reaction.
‘After #MeToo came to light, I realised what I’d experienced wasn’t right and I lost sleep over it and often fought back tears.
‘However, now I’ve taken this as a reason to become stronger and make sure that my nieces and nephews, and future kids are not afraid to speak out if something bad happens behind closed doors.’
Ultimately though, Sakinah never told anyone else about her experiences.
Some men also spoke to me about inappropriate touching, from women grabbing their bodies, to being groped by other men.
Many of the people I spoke to feel the media already has a detrimental view of Muslim men due to how they’re often linked to violent extremism, as well as shows such as Three Girls, Murdered By My Father, My Brother The Terrorist. They feel that sharing their stories will feed into an overexposed stereotype of Muslim men as predators.
The problem with such stories on TV is not that they are told – these are genuine and interesting – the problem is when these are the ONLY stories that are told.
Muslim women don’t always join in movements like #MeToo nor vocalise their experiences on public mediums because of fear of fuelling the Islamophobes and fanning already raging flames of Islamophobia, something I learned from my Muslim peers and at an event at Oxford University.
But some women are pushing back. The National Association For People Abused in Childhood told Metro.co.uk: ‘We saw a big increase in Asian women callers to our support line when Saira Khan (Loose Women presenter) spoke about being abused as a child and also when the BBC’s Three Girls was broadcast’.
Mona Rahman, a support worker who deals with many Asian victims also told Metro.co.uk that almost 80% of the time abuse is carried out, it’s within the family, and it’s never just one abuser.
‘Abusers are psychopaths, they’re intelligent enough to figure out who’s vulnerable and can be abused, they can even communicate with each other.
‘The highest form of justice I’ve seen from parents is probably ousting the perpetrators from the family, but nothing legal, sadly.’
‘Asian parents rarely speak of sex, porn and abuse, so a lot of the time kids don’t understand it. One victim thought it was perfectly normal to have a close, sexual relationship with her uncle as she grew up with it.’
Sometimes it’s tied up in complicated family relationships. Mona recounts one case where the dad owned property with his daughter’s abuser so in order to not upset their business deal, he did not confront him.
Asians also have strong family units in which name and reputation count for a lot, says professor Aisha Gill from University of Roehampton.
‘Stifled by fear of social exposure and the internalised idealisation of women as silently self-sacrificing, south Asian women of all generations are unlikely to seek help when they are experiencing sexual violence,’ she explains.
‘Given the risks of speaking out, minimising or ignoring the existence of sexual violence or delaying its disclosure might be viewed as acceptable coping mechanisms.’
But it’s exhausting to be the protector of men who’ve done wrong simply because they’re Muslim. Muslim unity is important and we should always defend those deserving of it, but victims of sexual abuse have no duty to protect their abusers simply because of the wider network they represent.
We need to create an environment where victims, whether women, men, or children – Muslims or otherwise – can put themselves first and come forward without carrying the burden of the consequences.
And it goes without saying that the problem of abuse does not lie with Islam or Asians, but within the abusers themselves.