News : British Muslim Women's Helpline Launched
UK Jan 15, 2015 -- When the Muslim Women’s Network (MWNUK) launched a report, last year, on sexual exploitation in the Asian community, it could only have dreamed that something like this would come to pass.
That report was called 'Unheard Voices - The Sexual Exploitation of Asian Girls and Young Women'. Its publication coincided with the revelations around child sexual exploitation by Asian gangs in Rotherham and challenged the view that the the issue was purely one of race and that somehow, Asian girls were left untouched by abusers because of loyalties to their own culture.
MWNUK found that a worrying number of women and girls were slipping through the net, as agencies - such as social services and the police - grappled with the difficulties reaching out to victims because of cultural sensitivities – those same points of faith, which are exploited by their abusers to ensure their victims’ silence.
It confirmed what many already knew - that many Muslim girls and women are trapped in a cycle of abuse and violence because of a lack of services. What's more, it recommended a helpline be set up as an outlet for them to confide their problems and seek advice.
And today, as a result of the charity’s awareness-raising activities, the first national helpline for Muslim women is being launched by Minster for Women and Equalities, Jo Swinson.
The helpline will initially be run part time by trained, bilingual staff and will be accompanied by a website containing information on the issues which they are most commonly asked about: sexual abuse, domestic violence and divorce.
It’s aim? To make sure the voices of Muslim girls and women never go unheard again.
Sadly, it's impossible to know just how many are suffering right now. Figures for violence against women in the Muslim community remain elusive.
Last year, the Home Office Forced Marriage Unit was informed of 1,302 cases. Of these, 15 per cent of victims were under 15, though figures peaked in the 16 to 17 age group, coinciding with the age that young women finish school. While the the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation found, under the Freedom of Information act, that more than 2,800 incidents of ‘honour’ based violence were reported to police across the UK in 2010.
Within four months of its report last year, MWNUK had received 35 case studies from different agencies - a surprising number from what is traditionally such a closed community and especially considering the intimidation victims often face from their abusers, in the name of 'family honour'. It suggests that the real number is much higher.
Among them was a young woman, raped by 30 men, including a father and his schoolboy son, during a horrific six-hour attack. The common factor in each case? That cultural and religious issues were perpetuating the abuse and preventing victims from accessing help.
The desperate need for a helpline was cemented by the growing number of calls MWNUK staff were receiving from desperate women.
"We are predominantly a campaigning organisation but found we were getting many helpline-type enquiries," said Shaista Gohir MBE, Chair of MWNUK.
"These calls confirmed that there's definitely a gap in services for Muslim women, which are faith and culturally sensitive, and non-judgemental. While there are services for specific issues such as domestic violence, there hasn’t been a general helpline."
The charity also found many women were struggling to reconcile their faith with their problems. They simply couldn’t find an alternative perspective to those patriarchal interpretations – which so often dominate religious discourse - that had been used against them.
"More women are asking about the religious implications of issues like abortion," explains Shaista, "Often they feel that Islam cannot be as harsh as they’ve been led to believe. We can understand that predicament.
"We don’t pretend to be religious scholars, or force our beliefs upon them. We give them a range of religious perspectives and show them that their faith does make allowances."
MWNUK began as an advisory group to the government on issues relating to Muslim women and public policy in 2003, before becoming an independent organisation four years later.
The Birmingham-based charity now consists of a network of nearly 700 individuals and organisations, and has become one of the leading campaigning voices for Muslim women in the UK.
The power of that collective voice led to 19-year-old Shabana* contacting the charity after the attempted rape of her sister, then 11, by their uncle.
"Our dad left when we were small and mum had health problems so her family helped a lot," she explains. "But as we got older, we grew aware of how controlling my uncle was and how my mum and her sisters were scared of him. They had to ask for permission every time they went somewhere.
"Once I went with my grandmother to stay with cousins, while their mum was in hospital. When my uncle found out, he told my mum to bring me home or he would kill her and burn the house down."
It was while her grandmother was in Pakistan, that their uncle began bombarding Shabana with calls, trying to lure her to her gran’s empty flat.
"He claimed he had pictures of me with boys and wanted to meet at the flat to discuss them, or he’d tell my mum.
"Every time he texted me to meet up I'd swear at him. But he'd always reply back that he loved me. I threatened to call the police, but he told me to go ahead because my mum wasn't going to believe me over him.
"I knew this was true, so I never told anyone."
A few weeks later, while Shabana was at a driving lesson, their uncle turned up at the family home and offered to take her 11-year-old sister shopping. Instead he took the terrified youngster to their grandmother’s flat and tried to rape her.
"When I got home, she started crying and said 'it's uncle, he kissed me touched me and make me do things'. I screamed the house down and phoned the police. Even then, my mum told me to stop so we could deal with it within the family. But I knew they just wanted to talk me out of it."
Shabana’s uncle was arrested, but as the trial date got nearer, the pressure on her to withdraw the case grew.
"Our whole family was against us. They went on about family honour, playing the religious card to make us feel guilty and accused my sister of leading him on".
It was at this point that Shabana came across an article on MWNUK and contacted them. They were able to support the girls and raise awareness about their case.
"MWNUK understand about our culture and how ,when things like this happen within Muslim families, the first reaction is to keep quiet and make sure nobody finds out. But the charity are completely against that. Knowing we weren’t alone gave us the strength to carry on."
Their uncle pleaded guilty to assault and oral rape and was sentenced to 64 months in prison in June.
"Shabana added; "A helpline is needed because many Muslim women don’t have anybody to turn to. It's not talked about in our communities."
One of the most recent cases the MWNUK dealt with that concerning a 17-year-old victim of forced marriage. Aisha* faced months of emotional and physical abuse by her parents before she was taken to Pakistan to wed her 30-year-old cousin, who she’d never even met.
"It started off with lectures about family honour, but then they started beating me with leather belts. They took away my phone, purse and Western clothes. I wasn't allowed see my friends or go to the shop unaccompanied," she explained.
When Aisha arrived in Pakistan, she was warned that if she didn’t play the role of the happy bride, she would die.
"With my dad, it wasn’t about family honour, but his honour. He threatened to kill me if I didn’t go through with it. I knew he meant it.
"On the wedding night, I told my husband that I didn't want to sleep with him, so he forced me. He raped me three or four times each night. Then, in the morning, I had to pretend I was happy.
"When I came back to England, my parents thought I was happy, so they let me have my phone back. When everyone was asleep, I looked up forced marriages and found MWNUK.
"I told them what had happened. They calmed me down and advised me. One night, I ran away with nothing. MWNUK helped me find accommodation, food and clothes. They also assisted me in getting a legal and Islamic divorce. It's changed my life."
With the launch of the first national helpline for Muslim women and girls helpline, voices of women such as Aisha and Shabana will no longer remain unheard. The charity hope that more will find the confidence to come forward and seek help.
Perhaps, finally, the veil of silence which has kept these problems hidden for so long, will finally be lifted.
*names and identifying details have been changed to protect the women’s identities.
The Muslim Women's Network Helpline can be contacted on 0800 999 5786
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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