Zehra Zaidi is a solicitor, policy specialist and social activist. She is a former Conservative PPC and MEP Candidate.
On Wednesday, Sarah Champion resigned as Shadow Women and Equalities Minister over an article she wrote the week before in The Sun, following the conviction of a grooming gang in Newcastle.
The incendiary sentence in the piece was the following: “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls”. There may have been an editorial license. Champion could have used more nuanced language. However, the article was factual about a certain type of sexual grooming linked to patriarchy, toxic masculinity and misogyny, underscored by some backward cultural and religious practices.
So why did it take a full week for her to step down? Simply put, Champion found herself a scapegoat for an article written by another. Her article was used as a reference point in a subsequent in on the same paper by Trevor Kavanagh in which he spoke of “the Muslim Problem”. His article was not specific to sexual grooming alone, but also referred to managing post-Brexit immigration and an inference of limitations based on religion. He drew widespread condemnation, including a letter signed by more than 100 MPs and a joint response by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Faith Matters. Kavanagh subsequently issued a response which contained clarifications and nuances that were missing from his first article.
Returning to Champion herself, what is the point of being a Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities if you cannot raise the issue of grooming and child sexual exploitation (CSE)? Are we surprised that the MP for Rotherham felt that she should broach this topic? Between 1995 and 2013, 1,400 children in the Rotherham area were the victims of sexual abuse by gangs of mainly Muslim men from of Pakistani and Indian origin.
It is not wrong to acknowledge that there is an issue with some Pakistani men and CSE, whilst at the same time qualifying that the problem is not one limited to Pakistanis. 90 per cent of those convicted of wider child abuse and on the sex offenders register are indeed white men. However, Pakistani men are disproportionately involved in grooming gangs. A 2011 report by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has analysed data on grooming offences showing that whilst the ethnicity of 38 per cent of the individuals was unknown, 30 per cent were white, 28 per cent Asian, three per cent black and 0.16 per cent Chinese.
Jeremy Corbyn has said that: “Child exploitation is wrong”, but added that “you cannot blame an entire community, an entire nation or an entire ethnic community. You have to deal with it for the crime of what it is”. This approach does not bode well for the tackling of other culturally sensitive topics by Labour. Champion’s resignation risks adding to the culture of silence, which is not a good look for a party that promotes itself as an advocate of social justice.
Moreover, no-one is assigning carte blanche blame. Criminality begins and ends with the criminal, but Muslim communities – like many communities – need to tackle criminal elements. We need to have an open debate to understand some of the potential motivations and contributory factors and how to better tackle CSE. There are clearly some intersectional issues at play of class, race and gender. Practically, the perpetrators of on-street grooming work in the night-time economy (so CSE is clearly not practiced by all Pakistani men).
When female Muslim activists such as myself, Amina Lone, Henna Rai and Aisha Ali-Khan have raised these issues in the media or online, a procession of self-appointed male Muslim “leaders” have attempted to shut down debate. Champion has been the focus of much of their online wrath, for what they see as racism and a blanket approach vis-à-vis all Pakistanis. However, what the ensuing debate seems to have lost is an equal amount of anger directed at the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. The voices of vulnerable victims seem to have become secondary. Is it any surprise that there is a culture of silence, and that some victims are too afraid to step forward?
Politicians and the media should, first, spend time researching the evidence from experts who work daily on CSE issues and, second, include and support more Muslim women in both the debate and the creation and provision of solutions.
There is of course a fear that by speaking up on a sensitive topic in Muslim communities, you give oxygen to racists. I disagree – you cut off their supply. Speaking up on this difficult issue shows that Muslims, or rather the collective of very diverse Muslim communities and individuals, are prepared to tackle CSE. It should serve as riposte to those launching blanket attacks on all Muslims or all Pakistanis. If you do not debate the issue, you vacate the space. One cannot then complain if it is occupied by others.
Muslim communities are central in unlocking this chain of ignorance and silence. We need to establish a counter-narrative that isolates criminal elements who are not reflective of the entire community. The fear over religious and sexual taboos must stop, as none of these criminal acts are indicative of any religious piety whatsoever. We would not want these men anywhere near our girls, white or Muslim. They do not deserve the protection afforded by silence.
There is power in our voices. Power to drive grooming gangs out of existence. We can help shift the focus to where it should be – on victim support and allowing more vulnerable girls and young women to come forward, including Asian victims.