Having worked in the domestic abuse and sexual violence prevention sector for almost a decade, seeking to end such abhorrent practices as forced marriage and female genital mutilation, I’ve witnessed firsthand how much harder it has recently become to speak about these issues within ethnic minority communities. Like many of my colleagues, I was drawn to this line of work because I had personally experienced harmful traditional practices and had therefore developed an understanding of how these abuses occur and what allows them to persist.
When recounting their ordeals, many survivors of harmful traditional practices emphasise that they were forcibly silenced and denied agency. I know how repressive such traditional communities can be: as a child, I was often scolded for showing my teeth or opening my mouth too wide when I smiled. Such experiences are far from uncommon. My struggle to obtain a voice was protracted and strewn with obstacles, but this has only made me realise the value of freedom of expression all the more.
On countless occasions, when perpetrators from minority backgrounds are legally processed, I have heard tangential issues raised concerning ethnicity, religion and race. This has the pernicious, albeit unwitting, effect of permitting offenders to present themselves as victims. A sense of the perpetrators’ culpability—and indeed agency—can be lost in interminable deliberations about the historical circumstances of whichever collective they are ascribed to. In a perverse role reversal, victims are portrayed as transgressors of cultural and religious tradition, while offenders are exonerated on the basis of past collective discrimination (actual or perceived). For this reason, it is imperative that our criminal justice system and social services maintain the principle of equality before the law, affording members of ethnic minorities the same individual rights and responsibilities as any other citizen, victim or perpetrator.
Professionals and activists who work on issues affecting women commonly talk about institutional racism and refer to the statistical overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities within the criminal justice system. However, it is rarely discussed whether this disproportionality is a direct result of institutional discrimination on racial grounds. Several studies do show that there are a disproportionate number of individuals from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds within the UK criminal justice system. For example, a government commissioned report, issued in 2020 following the Black Lives Matter protests, concludes that:
People from a Black, Asian, ‘Mixed’ or ‘Chinese and other’ background were over-represented as defendants in the criminal justice system in 2019 [because they] made up a disproportionate share of people arrested, and this carried through to the prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment stages.
However, as the report notes, this could be partly explained by more prosaic factors, such as the tendency of defendants from these ethno-racial groups to submit more not guilty pleas.
Another variant that could affect the overrepresentation of minority groups is the stage at which institutions are willing to intervene to prevent delinquency. In my experience, institutions seem to feel safer intervening at a much earlier stage when responding to abuse by ethnically white British individuals. With ethnic minority clients, intervention frequently takes place later, leaving more time for abuse to escalate, so that, by the time a prosecution is initiated, it is for a more serious infraction of the law. This hesitancy seems to arise from a fear that allegations of racism may be levelled at professionals if they opt for early intervention.
Over the course of my own life, growing numbers of separate educational, economic and religious institutions have facilitated the increasing segregation of ethnic minority communities from the rest of British society. This balkanising effect is resulting in the further isolation of victims of abuse, hindering their access to assistance. My experiences within this sector have made me realise the importance of adopting a robust integration policy.
All too frequently, the result of racialising and politicising criminality is that victims are further denied access to justice. One of the most poignant examples of this in recent times is the existence of grooming gangs. Harmful traditional practices are not an exclusively minority issue, nor should only members of ethnic minorities be permitted to broach the topic. It is in the interests of all British citizens that such abhorrent and archaic practices be irrevocably extinguished. The same laws must apply to every citizen and resident, irrespective of their ethnicity or beliefs.
The greatest challenges I encounter in my work come from ultra-traditional individuals with ethnic minority backgrounds, who do not wish to see abusive practices exposed. Cultural relativists, particularly those who wish to make political capital of race, ethnicity and minority status, often ignore, overlook or even attempt to justify ongoing abusive practices. Allegations that mainstream society is racist and islamophobic are ever more frequently advanced by academics, activists, reactionaries and fundamentalists, to justify their demands for segregated institutions and laws.
Nevertheless, much has changed for the better. Barely a few years ago, professionals would not have known what these harmful traditional practices were or how to deal with them. Today, we have detailed legislation to protect victims, which is a major accomplishment. However, professionals who have to deal with perpetrators from ethnic minority communities still fear being accused of bigotry. This is worsened by politically motivated false allegations and by the attitudes prevalent within certain activist circles, which view minority cultures as unchanging relics or anthropological museum pieces. Many of the professionals I have spoken to understand the issues and agree with my suggestions, yet understandably fear the consequences of raising their heads above the parapet. The progress that has been made to date has only been possible because people have utilised freedom of expression to challenge abusive sacerdotal community leaders, who have traditionally been able to abuse weaker members of their own communities with impunity.