Left Foot Forward
6th March 2015
Failure to engage with the cultural issues in the case review makes them ripe for exploitation by the far right
The serious case review into the Oxford sex gang cases (‘Operation Bullfinch’) has revealed ‘a worrying lack of curiosity’ about what was happening to the six girls in question, coupled with harsh attitudes towards their own testimonies. One girl recounted how she arrived at a police station in the early hours of the morning, ‘blood all over me, soaked through my trousers.’ She said: “They dismissed it as me being naughty, a nuisance. I was bruised and bloody.”
It is no wonder that the courage of the six victims – all aged between eleven and sixteen at the time of the abuse – has been praised by all involved in this case. They endured the ordeal of giving evidence to a packed courtroom, recounting details of horrendous abuse by men they had once trusted, and faced lengthy cross-examination as a result.
In May 2013, the Independent published an anonymised testimony from one of the victims. Groomed by Mohammed Karrar from the age of eleven (his first gift to her was a bottle of pop), she was raped repeatedly by him and his contemporaries over a five-year period, forced to have a backstreet abortion after falling pregnant at 12, ended up being taken into care at 13, and suffered brutal violence at the hands of Karrar and his brother. She was also injected with heroin, which she started to take herself ‘because it was better than being alive, better than feeling.’
Karrar and the other six perpetrators were given life sentences at the Old Bailey in June 2013. However, this was only Stage One of the girls’ battle for justice. The aim of the serious case review was to understand why the abuse went on for so long, and to ensure it can never happen again. This entails a wide-ranging investigation of all the factors involved, including those that are less palatable in some contexts i.e. the cultural, racial and religious specificities of these crimes (should any exist).
I firmly believe that anything less is a disservice to the bravery of these young survivors. We should prioritise empathy over tribalism, and inconvenient truths over mealy-mouthed apologia.
Contrary to popular belief, fear of offending cultural sensitivities did not play a part in the investigation of these particular cases. However, the review admits that investigators may have found it hard to work with ‘tight-knit groups of a different culture, and even language.’ Certain media outlets often serve up the banal platitude that child sexual exploitation (CSE) occurs within all communities.
While no-one is denying this, the serious case review clearly states that GROUP-BASED CSE (as opposed to other forms of CSE) is overwhelmingly associated with perpetrators of Pakistani heritage, and with ‘a mainly Muslim culture.’ (In the Oxford case, five out of seven of the perpetrators had Pakistani backgrounds, while two were of East African descent).
Various studies have backed this up, including the Child Protection and Exploitation Centre’s 2011 report, ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight’, which researched 2,379 potential offenders caught grooming girls since 2008. Of 940 suspects whose race could be identified, 26 per cent were Asian (almost all of Pakistani origin), 38 per cent were white and 32 per cent were recorded as unknown. This is all the more sobering when you consider that only six per cent of the English population is classed as Asian (ONS).
This is an issue that minority communities cannot afford to ignore. To this end, the serious case review pushes for stronger links between authorities and local faith groups, and increased opportunities for debate and understanding on a national level. Thankfully, there have been a number of excellent interventions on CSE from a faith and minority community perspective, not least the University of Bedfordshire’s research on faith-based interventions.
Of course, I am all too aware of the need to prevent the far-right from hijacking the racial or religious elements of these crimes for political capital. But I would say two things to people who raise this as a justification for not taking these crimes seriously enough.
First, have faith in the peacemakers of our communities, who may come from unexpected places. Witness the intervention of Angela Sinfield, the mother of a CSE victim in Yorkshire, who was very openly critical of the BNP’s attempts to misappropriate the racial narrative of these cases in 2006. This is very admirable; it makes one think how many others in the same position would call for restraint, and so publicly too.
Second, once we take full ownership of these problems and engage in constructive action – as the Community Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation did, with Julie Siddiqi as its spokesperson – there will automatically be less fodder for far-right groups anyway. The victims have put themselves on the line for others, despite losing large parts of their childhood to utter brutality. The least we can do is address these issues honestly and fearlessly, instead of having identity politics as our initial concern.
Tehmina Kazi has been director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy since May 2009, and has worked on a number of human rights and citizenship projects