The Guardian talks to Shaista Gohir, the chair of the Muslim Women’s Network UK, which launched a national helpline on January 15.
The charity – whose three part-time staff run a network of more than 700 organisations and members – offers specialised help and support to women on issues from mental health to abortion, taking into account their cultural and religious backgrounds. It also campaigns and provides training and workshops. The helpline, staffed by 10 trained volunteers, will allow it to reach more women than ever before, says Gohir, whose relentless energy fuels the small charity’s big ambitions. What motivates her? Dressed in smart businesswear, she replies calmly but bluntly: “Anger drives me.”
Brought up by a single mother who worked long hours in a clothing factory, Gohir says she understood from an early age the injustices women can face. “I had to come home from school and feed my brothers and cook and clean – an 11-year-old acting like an adult. Even in a single-parent family, I saw how women would take responsibility for men’s bad behaviour.”
After graduating with a science degree, she was pressured into marrying and ran away from home.
Several reasons a helpline is needed, right there in those two paragraphs.
But after marrying “the best husband in the world” and having three children, something changed. “I don’t know what happened,” she laughs. “It was around 2004, and I kept seeing the Muslim Council of Britain on TV. They were the only [Muslim] voices on TV, the only ones talking to the government. It didn’t seem right that they were all men.”
All men and all very conservative and theocratic.
Last year, the charity’s harrowing report into the sexual exploitation of Asian girls was cited in the Jay report into the Rotherham scandal. More than 1,400 victims, most of whom were white, were said to have been attacked in the town by men, the majority of whom were British Pakistani. But MWN’s report suggested Asian victims faced extra barriers to reporting abuse and had not been spotted by the services that worked with other abuse victims.
Gohir and her colleagues had collated case studies from charities across the country that detailed the experiences of girls and young women who had been repeatedly raped by multiple attackers, often beaten, and blackmailed into silence. The conclusion was that Asian victims were not only less likely to report abuse, thanks to cultural barriers, but they were also at risk of being “revictimised” if they did; forced into marriages, or disowned by their families for “shaming” them. Gohir says she was shocked by the scale and the brutality involved, but not by the fact there were more Asian victims. “After Rochdale [where nine men were jailed for abusing young girls], I was going to meetings and no one was taking me seriously, because [Asian victims] don’t show up in the statistics. I started looking for case studies – and they were there.”
Honor and shame are obstacles to reporting.
Gohir is outraged that offenders can go unpunished because of the cultural emphasis on “honour”, and women’s role in upholding it, that means someone reporting the abuse of a girl could be accused of bringing “shame” on her family. “I wish the words shame and honour could be deleted,” she tells me. “That is the root of our problems – from forced marriages to not reporting domestic violence.”
It’s being raped that brings “shame” on the family, not raping.
To contact the Muslim Women’s Network UK helpline, call 0800 999 5786 or visit mwnhelpline.co.uk