Help, I'm British and I've been raped: Sexual attacks on British women abroad are on the increase; isolation, language barriers and unsympathetic police make prosecutions rare. Barbara Rowlands reports on one woman's story

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MARIA HASSAN (not her real name), a 29-year-old architect from Leeds, flew to Jordan last April to visit her mother's grave. Her mother had died some weeks before, but Maria, 12 weeks' pregnant when she made the trip, had not until then felt strong enough to travel.

She booked into a flat in a small apartment block - which she later discovered was more or less empty - in a smart area of Amman, the capital. At 5am she was briefly woken by the call to prayer but fell asleep again. Half an hour later a noise jolted her awake.

'It was really dark so I got up and walked into the living room,' she recalls. 'Then I was grabbed from behind and this guy was holding a knife round my neck. I was terrified I would lose the baby. Then he raped me, ejaculated outside on my body and left. I didn't see his face, as it was so dark.

'The only thing I could think of was to run to the police. I had seen so many television programmes that told you not to wash, so I didn't. I just went outside and hailed a taxi. I had nothing on my feet.'

Although she is half Arab, she has lived in Britain for many years and her Arabic was rusty. But language wasn't the only problem. 'At the police station there were seven or eight policemen, but they didn't take down any details. They were just sitting, listening to my story, and when I had finished they had some tea and made me start again.

'They made me repeat the story over and over again. They were asking me if I enjoyed it, how was it for me, did I have an orgasm. They were making fun of me.'

At around 1pm, Maria was driven to a hospital, where she was examined by four male doctors; semen samples were collected from her skin and clothes. Then she was taken back to the police station and asked to repeat her story. The police refused to allow her to contact the British embassy on the grounds that officials would 'interfere' with any investigation.

'The ordeal lasted from 7am till 10pm, during which time they gave me one sandwich and one cup of tea. Eventually, after I had begged on my hands and knees, they gave me the embassy number and two people from the embassy came and took me back to their home.'

Within a few days, police charged the apartment caretaker. The public prosecutor decided to press charges and the embassy advised her to get a solicitor. But the police recommended that her assailant be acquitted. 'They said I was the one who seduced him, that I was a whore and that I was covering up for my pregnancy.'

The rape of British women abroad is on the increase. According to the Foreign Office, 46 British women reported being raped overseas in 1992, 76 in 1993 and 53 so far this year. The figures are for incidents reported to embassies and consulates and do not include malicious attacks or indecent assaults. The real figures are likely to be much higher.

At the same time, the figures may partly reflect an increase in reporting. 'Women in this country are much more aware of their rights and more willing to speak publicly about rape,' explains a spokeswoman for the Birmingham Rape Crisis Centre. 'It may be that this assertive attitude applies to women travelling abroad.'

None the less, it can take months for a woman to come forward and Anne Viney, assistant director of Victim Support, says that many women will wait a year before approaching her organisation.

The most publicised statistic is for the number of British women raped in Greece - 34 last year, according to the Foreign Office, double the figure for 1992. According to Douglas McKellar, the British consul in Athens, the typical victim is in her early twenties and on her way back to her hotel after an evening out. The rapist is likely to be a man from whom she accepted a lift.

But it would be wrong to assume that women are most often assaulted by local men. In Greece, only 16 of the 34 assailants were locals; four were identified as British. The Madrid embassy reports that of the 10 rapes reported to them last year, some were carried out by British men. Some are by local men on their British wives.

Whoever the attacker is, sexual assault can be far more traumatic if it happens abroad, since the woman - usually separated from family and friends - is dealing with an unfamiliar legal system in a foreign language. She may also be battling against a criminal justice system that does not take sexual assault seriously.

'There has been a remarkable change in this country over the last decade in our attitude towards rape,' says Victim Support's spokeswoman Helen Peggs. 'But there are still lots of countries that have not undergone that change. It's a lack of awareness of the impact of crime generally, combined with sexism.'

A spokesman for the consulate in Ankara, Turkey, said a woman was likely to be questioned by a male police officer and examined by a male doctor.

The Greek police were criticised last April by the Foreign Office Minister Mark Lennox-Boyd for not treating British women who made allegations or rape 'in a sympathetic way'. But when Victim Support first became aware of the problem of women being attacked overseas, it received complaints about the unsympathetic attitude of British embassy staff.

'Since then we've have talks with the Foreign Office and they seem to be much more sensitive to women and willing to help,' explains Helen Peggs. 'I recognise they are in a very difficult position if they are dealing with someone who is angry about the way the host country has dealt with them, but my impression is that the embassies are very good now.'

POLICE in places such as Crete and Corfu have been attending courses run by the British embassy. 'We are trying to encourage an awareness of the crime and the trauma to the victim,' explains Douglas McKellar.

International law enshrines the right of access to an embassy representative, and the Foreign Office takes a dim view of any denial of that basic right. The British Embassy in Amman was distressed that Maria was not allowed to contact it immediately. 'We made it clear to the Jordanian police that we weren't happy with their slow response,' said a spokesman.

In most EC countries, women who have been sexually assaulted are interviewed by a female police officer and examined in privacy. Most embassies try to ensure that a representative is with her at the police station. 'The rules in Spain say a woman who has been sexually assaulted must be seen by a female police officer who will be sympathetic towards her,' says Douglas McIntyre, the British consul in Madrid. 'Some women don't want to go to the police - they just want to fly home and we will arrange that.'

Victim Support has branches in all EC states - apart from Italy and Greece - plus Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and has recently circulated phone numbers and information about the organisation to embassies.

It was the embassy in Jordan that gave Maria Victim Support's London telephone number. She was taken in by a member of the diplomatic staff and his wife, who looked after her for five days, took her to a British doctor, booked her flight home and arranged for her to meet a solicitor.

When she returned to Britain, Maria immediately went to her local Victim Support group, whose staff arranged for her to see a gynaecologist; fortunately, her baby was fine.

Embassies can offer advice on how the legal system in that country works and provide an interpreter. 'It's about having someone on your side, especially if you feel the people you might be approaching might be antagonistic,' says Lily Greenan of Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre. 'You need someone there to speak for you or make sure you are being treated fairly. They are paid to represent the interest of Brits abroad, so use them.'

The Foreign Office now issues a leaflet called Get It Right Before You Go, outlining how British embassies and consulates can help the traveller. Its Do's and Don'ts pamphlets on various countries should be issued with airline tickets, but often aren't. They advise travellers to observe local customs, respect local laws, refrain from smuggling drugs and take enough money. The advice is well meaning, but short on specifics.

In Kenya, travellers are advised to take 'sensible precautions' if going out on foot after dark. Where topless or nude sunbathing is unacceptable, the leaflets point this out. But, strangely, there is no warning about dress code in the Do's and Don'ts for Turkey or Morocco, although the pamphlets for Egypt and Malaysia advise women travellers to dress 'modestly'.

While the Foreign Office rightly advises its female citizens to cover up in Islamic countries, there is still a hint of the hoary old myth that a woman, stripped down to shorts and skimpy T- shirt, gets what she deserves.

Douglas McKellar reports that rapes of British women in Greece had gone down this year - 22 so far - because British women were 'more aware, taking more care of themselves', while a Foreign Office spokesman says British women abroad should be discreet. 'If they wander around town scantily clad and drink all evening, they shouldn't be surprised if the man they've been talking to all night takes a lunge.'

WHILE it might be nave and downright rude to go out at night in a shorts and skimpy T-shirt in a country that frowns upon that sort of dress, it does not justify rape. 'The majority of men wouldn't rape a woman because she has broken their customs,' says Helen Peggs. 'Approaching a woman because she dresses in a way that might indicate that she is willing to have sex in one thing; attacking her quite another.'

Despite the efforts of embassies, few women who have been raped abroad bring a prosecution. Language is a major factor in not bringing cases to court. In addition, the expense of travelling to and from the country is too much for many women.

Of the 34 cases in Greece in 1993, not one has come to court. Eighteen women brought charges, but later dropped them; seven declined to make charges; and nine had no idea who attacked them.

Maria, whose baby is due next month, hopes to bring her assailant to justice. It is unlikely that she will be needed in court, but she knows the court will not be on her side. Rape victims are not viewed sympathetically in Islamic law. 'They would probably view it as the woman's fault,' said a spokesman at the British embassy in Amman. 'Her solicitor would have to prove she didn't instigate the whole thing.'

Maria's solicitor told her the best thing would have been to forget about the whole thing; the police are reluctant to prosecute and release any information and Maria fears the man will walk free.

'Women who have been raped abroad just don't go back,' she says. 'But if I wasn't pregnant I would go back and fight the case. I don't want to give up. Why should he go free?'

Victim Support, Cranmer House, 39 Brixton Road, London SW9 6DZ, telephone 071-735 9166.