(Published in: The Guardian, June 26, 2008)
Minority girls’ rights will be low priority while the terror agenda panders to male community leaders
’I can’t tell people what is happening at home", a new report by the NSPCC, draws long overdue attention to the plight of south Asian children, not just as victims of violence but as witnesses. It highlights the cultural context - isolation, fear of racism, language barriers, uncertain immigration status, cultural and religious pressures to keep the marriage going - which means that Asian women on average take 10 years to leave a violent relationship, thus exposing their children to substantial psychological and physical damage.
Once a woman makes that leap, what awaits her are underfunded, overcrowded Asian women’s refuges. What might stop her accessing even these services are nervous social workers, police officers and teachers who are hindered by "political correctness", says the NSPCC, from intervening in Asian "cultural practices". This is not new. It is not so much political correctness but the ideology of multiculturalism that has given rise to this situation.
Tolerance of "cultural practices" by state agencies has been going on since at least the 1980s. Black feminists have campaigned hard against this aspect of multiculturalism, which has given unelected community leaders autonomy in the domestic, cultural and religious affairs of the community. For a mainstream organisation like the NSPCC to lend its weight to the issue adds impetus to the critique.
As a result of campaigning, and the Victoria Climbié case, there have been substantial shifts in policy. Guidelines based on the underlying principle that "multicultural sensitivity is not an excuse for moral blindness" were drawn up by the government to enable schools and other agencies to deal sensitively with issues like forced marriage. The report rightly identifies this as a concern for Asian women and girls. As implementation has been patchy, the government has finally agreed to put these guidelines on a statutory basis in the autumn that will allow NGOs to hold state agencies accountable.
Although the uneven delivery of services is still an issue, the fact that the NSPCC has highlighted this as its big conclusion feels curiously outdated because the debate has changed. Multiculturalism came under attack in the Cantle report in 2001 into the race riots in Bradford and was further discredited in the wake of the 7/7 bombings.
In the government’s war against terror, "building cohesion" has become the new holy grail. Within this policy construct, single-group funding has fallen out of favour. Paradoxically, the funding of Muslim groups continues apace, while secular groups are being hit. Specialist organisations catering for those vulnerable groups at the centre of the NSPCC report are to have their funding cut. Southall Black Sisters’ struggle to replace the core funding under threat of withdrawal by Ealing council is one of the most widely publicised examples of this. The NSPCC makes a welcome case for the continuing need for a specialist sector but fails to make the links.
It is this failure that takes the NSPCC report into dangerous territory, when it calls for the engagement of faith and community leaders in the fight against domestic violence. It is precisely these leaders - who act as gatekeepers to the community and cry racist when the state intervenes - who account for the nervousness of state agencies. The NSPCC organised a conference aimed at the Muslim community which was attended by 50 imams. It found unsurprisingly that, "for some imams, the issue of domestic abuse is not on their radar". Perhaps the most telling statement of all was that "many mosques are the premises of men only". In the teeth of such entrenched patriarchal attitudes, calling for the training of imams feels like trying to empty a lake with a teacup. When the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain reported on the extent of child abuse in madrasas in 2006, little action was taken.
In this new political climate, minority girls’ rights are again being sold down the river. The political correctness the NSPCC highlights is about to get worse. Commander Steve Allen of the Metropolitan police, at a recent conference on domestic violence, said the government’s agenda on terror is hampering police work on issues such as forced marriage because the government is keen not to alienate those same leaders in the fight against extremism. Perhaps we need the kind of research that demonstrates how children exposed to violence develop a tendency to extremism as adults before the government will show greater commitment to minority women.
Rahila Gupta is a founder of Southall Black Sisters and author of Enslaved: The New British Slavery rahilia_gupta[at]yahoo[dot]co[dot]uk