How do we understand the Asian paedophile rings without falling back on lazy, racist stereotypes of Pakistani Muslim men? This was the question I asked myself as news of the Oxford child sex – paedophile, really – ring came to light, exactly a year after police busted the Rochdale ring. The circumstances were the same: groups of men with either Pakistani or Muslim backgrounds were caught grooming young, vulnerable white girls and treating them like sexual slaves while authorities looked the other way.
Journalist Allison Pearson wrote a blistering blog post in the Telegraph condemning the police, social services, and legal system’s fear of being seen as racist, which meant hundreds of girls were betrayed by the very mechanisms that were meant to protect them. She called Pakistani Muslim culture a “Victorian” society where men are taught that women have no value and can be used as sex objects, especially white girls, who, because of their greater freedom as compared to Pakistani Muslim girls, are freely available to be used and abused by these Asian men.
As a Pakistani Muslim woman, I’m very glad these men were caught and brought to justice, and I’m sorry that it didn’t happen sooner. I applaud the UK justice system for coming down hard on them; they deserve it. In Pakistan, we need to enforce our own laws against sexual crimes, and we need to change societal attitudes about the value and status of women. Still, awareness of women's rights is growing in Pakistan – and will continue to grow. We now have laws against sexual harassment and honour killings, acid attacks and domestic violence, and the Hudood Ordinances, those medieval, bizarre distortions of Islamic law that General Zia wielded to terrorize Pakistani women, have been scrapped.
But society’s hangover from other, less enlightened times still remains: it’s the taboo of secrecy and shame that makes Pakistani parents guard their daughters so strictly – in our country there has simply never been legal recourse or support for victims of sex crimes. And the men in Oxford and Rochdale, some of whom hail from the poorest, least educated, and most closed-off parts of Pakistan, still carry those attitudes with them. But as I wrote in a blog post about the Rochdale pedophile sex ring last year, that is no excuse for their actions.
It’s fairly obvious from the discussions on this issue that while Islam is not a race, “Islam” is being used as a euphemism or shorthand for Asian men from Muslim countries. Why not admit that there is an element of misogyny in all religions and cultures that emphasise sexual purity in women and divide girls into “good” and “bad” categories? For example, American Mormon kidnap survivor Elizabeth Smart recently told the press that abstinence classes – a hallmark of American Christian culture which is popular in some British circles – taught her that being raped made her no more worthwhile than a “chewed up piece of gum”.
Yes, there are patriarchal, misogynist attitudes towards all women amongst certain subsets of the British Muslim population – and Pakistani men. Yes, these certain men have been taught by their culture that white girls have no value, but "their" culture is not representative of all Pakistani Muslim culture. Theirs is a culture of racism, misogyny, tribalism, and sexual vulgarity which most Pakistani Muslims shudder at, at home and abroad.
You couldn't possibly call what these men practiced, or were taught in their mosques "Islam" – it is a distortion of cartoonishly evil proportions, created and perpetuated for their own convenience. In fact, anyone with even the most basic knowledge of Islam will know that the Quran exhorts people to treat women and orphans with care and consideration – orphans especially. These vulnerable girls, out on the streets, with no family life to speak of and parents who were either absent or uncaring, should have been seen by these men as symbolic orphans, rather than prey – if only sexual predators were able to make such fine distinctions.
Perhaps the only thing that distinguishes these particular criminals from non-Muslim, non-Asian paedophiles is their modus operandi of working in gangs to systematically groom girls on the street. Other pedophiles have different setups: chatting from the safety and anonymity of their homes, for example, exchanging child pornography through hidden servers on the Internet, or worming their way into the hearts of their mothers and grandmothers before attacking them in their homes.
I have two relatives in the UK, both Pakistani Muslim men, who are practicing doctors, one a GP in East London and the other a cardiologist in Newcastle. Both of them have told me about seeing disturbed, vulnerable girls as a regular part of their practice. My cardiologist relative recounts how every week he treats young pregnant teenagers who have developed heart arrhythmias due to the stress of their situations as single mothers-to-be with little to no family or community support. He rightly points out that the system has failed them, as have their families, but there isn’t a whiff of a Victorian attitude in how he treats these girls or the level of care he provides them.
These are just two out of many Pakistani Muslim men who are trained to offer health and psychological care without judgment, and they perform their jobs with excellence and compassion all across the UK. So the rabble-rousing demand that all Muslims in the UK should “integrate” while at the same time demonising them as "other", using the Oxford sex ring criminals – who would be regarded as scum in Pakistan - as representative of all Pakistani Muslim men is an object lesson in false equivalence. Instead, we should be paying attention to the victims, who were abused by criminals and ignored by the authorities because they were lollipops dropped on the floor that nobody cared about once the gum had been chewed.