I read the Jay report into child exploitation in Rotherham from cover to cover. As I did, I remembered my own experience as a Channel 4 News reporter in Bradford after the 2001 Manningham riots. It may have been young men throwing bricks and petrol bombs, but I wanted a deeper understanding of what was going on in a town that seemed to simultaneously becoming more religiously and racially segregated, while manifesting the familiar and growing British urban malaise of drug addiction, gang culture and underage prostitution. It was there that a white social worker accused me of being racist for wanting to ask British Pakistani girls about abuse.
That attitude seems connected to the strange hierarchy of rights exposed by a key finding in the Rotherham report: that police and council officers were widely felt to be playing down strong evidence of sexual abuse, mostly against girls, for fear of upsetting community relations.
Back in 2001, the London charity Southall Black Sisters, which has been campaigning against domestic violence since the 1970s, put me in touch with a social worker who had recently been transferred to Bradford. She told me how she had found herself the only woman at a post-riot “community relations” meeting where, she claimed, community leaders asked the police to pass any complaints of domestic violence from Pakistani women straight to them. They would “sort it” themselves. The worker said she challenged this, but felt that if she hadn’t been there the police would have agreed.
It is this attitude – a “bullying and macho” deal-making culture involving the local authority and the male, self-appointed leadership of the Pakistani Muslim community – that the Rotherham report pinpointed. Did a fear of losing votes also influence council (in)action over the years in towns with large Muslim populations?
The victims weren’t only white girls, but the police and council focus on talking only to older male Muslims meant they weren’t aware of this. Women and girls living on their own were being targeted by Pakistani landlords and forced into sex with other men, afraid to report their abuse for fear of social stigma. The report found: “One of the local Pakistani women’s groups described how Pakistani-heritage girls were targeted by taxi drivers and on occasion by older men lying in wait outside school gates at dinner times and after school.”
Too many news reports approach these kind of complex stories as being about either race or gender; this compounds the problem. A rare exception is the BBC’s Asian Network. After the Oxford child sexual exploitation case, this was the only outlet I heard that bothered to talk to local British Pakistani women. They described a culture of sexual intimidation by some local men as they walked down the street.
“Every so often this sort of scary report does need to come out to show the world what is going on,” says Poonam Pattni of the Southall Black Sisters. “But as a society we are still disbelieving young girls, turning a blind eye, calling it racism, calling it all sorts of other things, but not dealing with the issue head on. The absolute tragedy is that at the same time this report is coming out, women-trafficking programmes are being cut, the independent sector of support services, the whole women’s movement is being damaged by funding cuts.”
It’s worth also pointing out that many of those expressing righteous fury at the cover-up now were once outraged at the very idea that such things were going on in Britain. In 1997, Peter Kosminsky made the award-winning ITV drama No Child of Mine, about so-called “conveyor-belt” sexual grooming. He told me in 2012: “When we were researching No Child of Mine, the victims – those that had the guts to speak up – were viewed with scepticism, ignored or accused of making false allegations to discredit individuals against whom they had a grudge. The woman behind No Child of Mine was publicly branded a liar.”
So yes, the Rotherham scandal, as in Oxford and Rochdale, is about race. But look deeper and it’s really about wider attitudes by some men to women and girls. Or “slags”, as I notice in the search terms that people use everyday to find articles about these cases. And that might be the most uncomfortable truth.
“We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to race over the Rotherham abuse scandal”