by Jean Calder

Over the past few weeks there has been widespread discussion about the grooming and sexual exploitation of white girls by Asian men in Rochdale. Most of the debate has focused upon whether or not there was a racial aspect to the abuse. Blinkered rightwing commentators, including those of the BNP, insisted that the abuse involved racist offending against white girls by Asian Muslim men. Equally blinkered ‘progressives’ rejected any focus on either race or gender, emphasising the vulnerability of the victims and the fact that the majority of men who abuse children are white.

Typical amongst the latter group was Keith Vaz M.P., Chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee,  who said: “I do not believe it is a race issue.” adding “What we need to do is to have a proper far-reaching, thorough investigation into these crimes and causes of these crimes. There are a lot of questions about the way in which organisations that have care of young girls have dealt with them and allowed them to be put into these positions”(my emphasis)… “I think we do need to look into this but I think it is quite wrong to stigmatise a whole community. ”

Both groups, obsessed with the issue of race and determined either to condemn or defend Pakistani Muslim men, have refused to address the attitudes of misogyny and contempt for women and girls which lie at the heart of these offences. Both groups have seemed indifferent to the safety of Asian women, happy to make the racist and sexist assumption that abusive Asian men protect ‘their own’ females.

In contrast, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – encouraged rather touchingly by her Pakistani father – has called for condemnation of what she calls “This small minority who see women as second class citizens, and white women probably as third class citizens”. Baroness Warsi said of the abusers:  “These were grown men, some of them religious teachers, or running businesses, with young families of their own. They knew this was wrong. Whether or not these girls were easy prey, they knew it was wrong.”

Nazir Afzal, also of Pakistani origin, was the courageous chief prosecutor for the CPS in the North West who reversed the original, flawed decision not to prosecute two members of the Rochdale gang. Other trials are in the pipeline. His was an early voice of both reason and outrage, acknowledging that poisonous attitudes to women in sections of the male Pakistani community gave rise to sexual exploitation.  He said of the Rochdale abusers “These men are not defined by their race; they are defined by their attitude to young girls. They almost feel they have a right to control these young girls because no one else will. But they do it for their own nefarious purposes.”

Mr Afzal has reminded an apparently indifferent liberal intelligentsia that young Asian girls may also be suffering abuse, but feel unable to report it. It is to be hoped that the dreadful case of 17 year old Shafilea Ahmed – allegedly murdered because she refused to conform to a traditional life of female obedience and compliance – and that of her sister, allegedly silenced by fear and loyalty, will cause them to reconsider.

Baroness Warsi called for openness in the Islamic community, saying “In mosque after mosque after mosque, this (sexual exploitation of girls) should be raised as an issue so that anybody who is remotely involved should start to feel that the community is turning on them. Communities have a responsibility to stand up and say: ‘This is wrong, this will not be tolerated’.”

In the same way, elsewhere in our community, people such as police, journalists, editors, social workers, lawyers, charity workers and teachers, should examine their own role in failing to address issues of abuse against women and girls.

We surely all have a responsibility to say “This is wrong, this will not be tolerated.”

23rd May 2012.

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