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Bol: South Asian survivors of sexual abuse speak up

When South Asian communities discuss sexual violence it is more often than not discussed behind closed doors in hushed voices. I have often taken part in these conversations, as the overwhelming fear of someone hearing you is enough to make you feel like you have committed a major sin. The sin in this instance is discussing something as taboo as rape or sexual assault.

Laila is a Pakistani Muslim, just like her abusers, who forced into a life of rape and emotional abuse. As an adolescent within the care system she was vulnerable and became an easy target.

It was during one of these conversations that my campaign Bol was born. Bol is a Punjabi/Urdu term meaning speak. My friend and co-founder Laila (name has been changed) became my motivation to speak out against sexual violence within the community.

At age fourteen Laila was targeted by a grooming gang. Laila is a Pakistani Muslim, just like her abusers, who forced into a life of rape and emotional abuse. As an adolescent within the care system she was vulnerable and became an easy target. The men around her used her and threatened her until she became a shell of a person of who she once was. Throughout many of our conversations Laila has always stressed that she wishes she was able to speak but the fear being further ostracised by her community, and the chances of her being the only young girl to have experienced this type of sexual exploitation stopped her from speaking out.

When the Rochdale grooming cases came to light there was nation wide condemnation and rightly so, however the stories and experiences of Laila and many other South Asian girls like her, remain hidden. The number of South Asian victims, remains unknown, because the victims have not come forward for fear of losing their families izzat – honour – a culture which is embedded into our communities. 

It is a widely accepted fact that perpetrators of sexual violence can have close links to the families of their victims, they can also be someone that has the respect of the community around them. They can be a family member, a family friend or even a religious priest. Perpetrators know that the person they abuse will be silenced; not only out of fear of being ostracised for saying such “dirty” things but because at a young age in South Asian communities we are taught that that we hold a family’s “Izzat” in our hands.

Imagine having that pressure on you after going through such a physical heartbreaking trauma. As a survivor you have to make sure your Izzat remains intact otherwise the repercussions can be damaging and your family life will be destroyed. The community will gossip and one way or another word will get out, which will ultimately mean years on from now it can affect your chances of marrying a suitable spouse. Perpetrators feed off of these fears and further encourages them to continue with impunity, silencing their victims.

Sexual violence hangs over our communities like a dark cloud. However this is where our campaign Bol comes in. We aim to educate the wider community on sexual violence, on how to spot the signs of children and young people that are being exploited, and we aim to educate young teens on how grooming gangs work and what to do if you feel you are being targeted. Reporting a crime committed against them is always up to the survivor however being available to offer support is something that is important to us so this is also what we are working to do. 

We want to rain down on this cloud that hangs over us and show perpetrators that their time really is up! For too long survivors of sexual violence have been forced into silence for fear of losing their Izzat. Now we say it is time for perpetrators to be afraid to commit these atrocities because now it is their beloved Izzat and community standing at risk. 

By Hafsa Malik

Hafsa Malik is the founder of Bol. She is passionate about helping survivors of sexual violence speak out against the injustices they have seen. She is also a mental health advocate and aspiring social worker. Follow the Bol Instagram page.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

Images credit: Marco Verch, European Parliament


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A note from the Editor on Child Sexual Abuse

Following the publication of Tameena Hussain’s post on her experience of child sexual abuse, we have decided to write a short note on the issue of sexual violence within Muslim and South Asian communities, in the UK.

Our heartfelt thanks to Tameena for writing this post on her experiences of childhood sexual abuse, and raising much needed awareness of a very difficult issue. Talking about sex is still very much taboo within most parts of the South Asian Muslim communities, and very little is done to raise awareness of sexual abuse and violence. Child sexual abuse has affected many of the women, we have had the privilege of working with at SSWH. These women are more than victim survivors, they are amazingly resilient and strong women who have had their lives forever impacted by sexual violence, some of them often dealing with lifelong consequences on their health and relationships.

Unfortunately for various complex reasons such as stigma, shame, and lack of education, despite this prevalence,  we rarely hear the words “sexual violence” or “sexual abuse”, within community settings and spaces. More often than not victim survivors are victim blamed by family, friends or community members. To compound this victim blaming, with recent high profile child sexual exploitation cases, the discourse on sexual violence has become so toxic that many Muslim women feel scared to reveal or speak up about their experiences, for fear that their experiences and stories will be hijacked.  And used as a tool to further demonise Muslims.

This fear arises from mainstream public discourse within media which portrays sexual violence as a phenomenon that is conducted mostly by Muslim men of South Asian or Pakistani heritage, against young white women and children. The experiences of young South Asian and/or Muslim girls and children is completely erased. As are the violent sexual crimes of perpetrators who are white or European. This perception also exists within political circles and Westminster, as one former government official relayed to us.

So not only are Muslim women being silenced by specific harmful cultural practices within their own communities, they are also being systematically silenced by pervasive public discourse which dehumanises Muslims, and paints them as perpetrators only. This discourse leaks into the psyche of teachers, social workers and mental health practitioners, albeit mostly unconsciously, creating  a bias  that impacts in the way they detect, and respond to victim survivors who are from a Muslim and/or South Asian background. Meaning Muslim girls and young women victims,  remain largely undetected.  And Muslim women who experience PTSD as a result of sexual violence, are often misdiagnosed, with a psychotic disorder or personality disorder.

We all need to do more to break down the taboo around talking  about sex and relationships, and raise awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse violence within minority and faith communities. Despite the #MeToo and #TimesUP campaigns, media organisations and politicians still have a greater responsibility to discuss this specific type of sexual violence, responsibly, without demonising entire faith/minority groups. Practitioners need to be mindful of stereotypes whilst dealing with South Asian and Muslim communities. A first step to doing this is to step back and listen meaningfully to the stories and experiences of young women like Tameena. Muslim women’s voices should be put at heart and forefront of discussions and debates on sexual violence within Muslim communities.

If you or anyone you know, has experienced or been impacted by any of the issues identified in this blog post please get help by contacting any of the organisations below.

Childline: 0800 1111
Women’s Aid: 0808 2000 247