Recently, we read the sickening story of Ashraf Khan, who has been jailed for four-and-a-half years for three counts of incest after admitting to fathering his daughter’s three children.
The children suffered in various physical ways as a result of the incestual sexual abuse, such as the inability to feel certain kinds of pain, as well as extensive psychological damage since Khan’s crimes came to light.
Khan’s history of depraved sexual crimes was only revealed when the victim, his daughter, confessed the abuse on her deathbed. She had been holding onto the secrets of her abuse and trauma for her whole life. It is devastating to think that justice came too late for her, as she passed away years before this verdict.
The sexual abuse of and violence against women and girls by their own families and communities is ubiquitous and occurs throughout all cultures and countries. In 2006, we heard the story of Banaz Mahmod, who was raped and tortured in an ‘honour’ killing; her body was later found in a suitcase. In 2008, we heard the now infamous and despicable story of Joseph Fritzel, who kept his daughter captive and raped her repeatedly for 24 years. More recently, a young woman waived her right to anonymity to raise awareness and urge others to come forward about familial sexual abuse after having been raped and abused by her father for years. There was also the story of a woman from Leeds, who was abused by her father and threatened that her body would be dissolved in acid. Around the world, we have read the stories of young girls being abused, such as the 11 year old girl who was gang raped by members of her own community and the 8 year old Indian girl who was hospitalised after being raped by her brother. These are only a handful of stories which barely scratch the surface.
The #MeToo movement has recently shed some light on just how common male violence against women and girls is and continues to provide a safe space for women to talk about their trauma and experiences. However, for many, intra-familial sexual violence remains too shameful and painful to speak about.
As we have mentioned, this type of sexual violence is ubiquitous throughout all cultures and communities, however for BAME women and girls, speaking out about this trauma comes with nuanced challenges. In a recent study, it was found that instances of sexual violence against South Asian women and girls are going unreported for many cultural and social reasons.
One of these reasons is the increased likelihood of having the internalised and deep-rooted cultural belief in preserving ‘honour’. This belief system holds that women and girls bear the responsibility for the honour of their families. If this honour isn’t perceived to be upheld, in some cases this ‘justifies’ disowning them or potentially abusing them, such as the case of Banaz Mahmod. Talking about sexual abuse, especially perpetrated by a close relative or someone who is respected within the community, is perceived of as deeply shameful and many women and girls blame themselves and remain silent. In addition to this, sexual violence damages a victim’s marriage prospects as she will no longer be seen as ‘virginal’ or ‘pure’.
BAME women and girls are also less likely to access services that may be able to help and support them. This can be for many reasons, including potential language barriers, lack of awareness of British systems, fear of not being believed or listened too as well as potentially being shunned by her community.
One woman, who was interviewed as a part of the same study stated:
“They think it’s not going to be just the family they have to deal with but the whole community, and they’ll feel repercussions from [that]. A lot of times . . . the male doesn’t take on any blame or any responsibility for their actions. It’s always the female who is blamed for whatever happens.”
It is absolutely vital to try and change this culture of shame and victim-blaming. BAME women should no longer be shamed into silence about the abuse they’ve faced. This culture of secrecy and ‘honour’ only serves to protect abusive men, and survivors of abuse are not responsible for their abusers’ actions.
Women and men from ethnic minority communities need to speak out against this issue and try and change these attitudes which are leading women, like the daughter of Ashraf Khan, to only speak out on her death bed or for some, never at all. When more people are able to talk openly within their communities without fear of rejection and given access to genuine support, more people will be encouraged to come forward and get the help and justice they need.
At JAN Trust, we have been offering advice, guidance and a support network to BAME women for nearly 30 years. We understand the issues they face and help them access the services they need.
Visit our website for more information about the work we do at www.jantrust.org