By Shazia Hobbs
Writer Shazia Hobbs was invited to Cleveland Police HQ, in Middlesborough, to speak at a conference titled ‘It’s Not OK’. The event was about breaking the silence on sexual violence and how to better protect victims. Shazia was representing the Halo Project Charity, an organisation that supports victims of honour-based violence, forced marriages and FGM Here’s what she had to say on the subject.
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I had known for a few months that I was going to be speaking at the ‘It’s Not OK’ event and sharing my experience of child sexual abuse and honour violence. I had written my speech over the Christmas and New Year holidays and was confident and looking forward to the event. I had read the speech out loud in front of a few close friends and family and my voice didn’t shake nor did I get emotional. What I was not prepared for was listening to the presentations from the other speakers and the emotions that it would bring up for me.
I wanted to raise awareness of how difficult it can be for someone from a Pakistani background to report child sex abuse; too many people think that the sexual abuse of children does not happen in the Pakistani community. Too many people are wrong and far too many children are sexually abused and raped on a daily basis, here in the UK. They have no specialist services to confide in.
If there were a helpline set up, a South Asian Child Line, then the phones would not stop ringing. Listening to the speakers at the event made me realise how difficult it is for those who have been sexually abused and raped to come forward and get help, how they are passed from one agency to another, having to re tell their experience all over again. How much more difficult would that be for the Pakistani child? Where would they send them? What help is available out there?
Many Pakistani children are not taught about appropriate and inappropriate touching; sex is still very much a taboo subject. Not much has changed from when I was a child — if anyone kissed on the TV, I was told to close my eyes. Education is key in helping these children at least know what is happening is wrong and they are not to blame.
Even though my story took place many years ago, some of the same mistakes are still being made today and women and men continue to suffer.
I was three years old when I was taken to Pakistan to live with my paternal grandparents. My parents were in a polygamous marriage and I have never really known why they chose to send me to Pakistan. I guess it is just something some Pakistani parents do. For some families it has become part of their tradition and culture, sending children to live in Pakistan — some do it for 6 weeks, some for three months and, in my case, years.
My mother visited twice in the years we were there but I have little memories of those visits. Nobody questioned why we were sent away. It was part of my father’s traditions, and I’m sure my parents would have stopped anyone from asking questions. This is how easy it had become to ‘send’ your daughter or son ‘back home’ to Pakistan.
Even though I was sexually abused in Pakistan, I still remember that part of my childhood as one of a happy time; my grandparents and my aunt loved me unconditionally.
I didn’t know that what my abuser was doing was wrong. I had nobody to tell me. I was a child born in the 70s and in Pakistan, sex was a taboo subject. Even if the abuse had taken place in Glasgow, sex was a taboo subject there, too. We are only in the last ten years or so beginning to teach children how to stay safe, making them aware of appropriate and inappropriate touching even though we have known for years that children are sexually abused.
Sex is still a taboo subject for many and talk of children being raped and abused is not a topic most people feel easy discussing. Who wants to hear about a child being sexually abused or raped? But if we don’t hear these horrific stories then who will listen and who will help?
The numbers of sexually abused children and adults who were abused as children is shockingly high, and that won’t include the figures for Pakistani children and adults. It is rarely reported, police are rarely told, statistics are not collected, the figures are not known. The abuse continues. And if you do find the courage to tell then sometimes the blame can be placed on you. The child. You are blamed for smiling too much, for laughing, for not having your hair covered, for encouraging him. You are the guilty one and the abuser is innocent.
My abuser was able to abuse me throughout the five years I lived in Pakistan. I can remember when the time came for me to leave Pakistan and return to Glasgow. He took me to the roof with him, where he could be alone with me, promising to buy me things when he visited Glasgow, dolls and prams and other fancy toys, if I did things to him. I did all the things he asked.
The biggest problem with child sexual abuse in the Pakistani community is that there are few families that will report the rape and abuse to the police. There are even fewer children who will tell their parents and the abuse continues.
Even if Pakistani children wanted to tell, whom would they tell? Pakistani families are so close-knit and sometimes it can feel like everyone really does know everyone and if you tell, everyone will know this ‘dirty’ secret that will bring shame on the family. Shame on the family name, for many Pakistani families, is more important than the rape of their children.
How can anyone possibly think it is a good idea to allow polygamous marriages for cultural reasons? One woman sharing one man can be tough enough to handle for most of us. Two women, and two women from completely backgrounds competing for the attention from the same man. Anger taken out on children because he is paying one wife too much attention, anger taken out on each other because he didn’t share your bed last night.
Speak to those who lived through the experience. People always want to hear what is was like for the wives, or what benefits the man gets out of a polygamous marriage. Ask the children. As always it is the children who suffer.
When I was forced into my marriage a part of me secretly hoped life would be better. Anything had to be better than the polygamous home I lived in. In this home the Pakistani side was treated like the favourite son and the white side was always made to feel inferior.
I couldn’t have been more wrong about my marriage. It was hell from the wedding night until I finally left him. He was much older than me and let me know early on that he was only with me for the red passport and had no interest in me. This lack of interest didn’t stop him from having sex with me whenever he wanted. Even if I said no he still carried on and the only way to stop him the next night was to lie and say I was on my periods.
Most men are embarrassed when it comes to talk about periods and men from Pakistan are no different. I would return to my father’s home regularly and stay for days on end, until he phoned or arrived at the door to take me back home.
I hated him. I look back at the time in my life, which seems a lifetime away, and still can remember how miserable I was that taking my own life seemed the easy way out. There was no Halo Project, no help lines, no trained police officers or other safeguarding agencies that I could have rang for some friendly advice. I had tried to get help when I was 16 years old.
I had run away one night and gone to the police station, but I was turned away. I tried calling Child Line and telling them of my fears. My fears of being sent to Pakistan and being married to an older man, a stranger, and asked for help. I was willing to go into care than return to my parent’s home. They didn’t understand my fears. I ended up going back home that night.
That experience made me believe there was nobody in my life I could talk to and share my feelings with. When it seems like there is nobody to talk to then suicide has an appeal to it. When it seems like there is no end to the misery then being alive is hell. Death would have given me an ending from it all.
My life was devoid of happiness and I was suffering from depression. I had bruises on my face, bruises on my arms, my arms bruised when he held me down while raping me, my face when he slapped me for my defiance. I said I walked into doors, cupboards, sometimes I said nothing. I rarely washed or brushed my hair. I stupidly thought if I made myself as ugly as possible he would stop having sex with me. He didn’t care.
I left him three years later, a few months after I turned 21. If I had stayed I would not be standing here, I would have taken my own life. Even though it has been 25 years since I left my forced marriage, even though my father has been out of my life for longer than he was part of it, it still affects me to this day. Three years of being raped and then to be disowned for having the courage to say no. For leaving my marriage I was disowned from the entire community. No amount of counselling and pampering can fix the hurt you, just get better at dealing with it, owning it.
Is it any wonder that females of Muslim heritage have one of the highest rates of suicide? A life of misery from birth to marriage for so many women suffering, suffering at the hands of their parents, their husbands or both. And those who should be helping hindered by political correctness and the fear of being called racist.
I am not the only one who was forced into a marriage; I was not the only one being raped on a regular basis. There are thousands of women suffering, worse than I ever did and who knows how many more. There is much more help available than there was when I was forced into a marriage and yet we still hear of the women that were not saved, the women that took their own lives and I wonder what more can be done?
This is why the Halo Project is leading the way in dealing with the isolation that arises from making choices that go against what the family want. If I were being forced into a marriage today the Halo Project would have been a godsend for me. I visited the Halo safe house, met with the families staying there and I did imagine how my life might have turned out if that had been available to me all those years ago. Another family from the community, someone else who had chosen to stand up for her rights, someone to help me keep a hold of my identity, somewhere to belong. A new family.
Giving women a safe space to meet for coffee mornings, organising a running club, empowering them with knowledge through training seminars, courses and basic English classes. There is a support network there that is vital for the women leaving. We leave everything familiar behind when we are forced to leave our communities, it is easy to lose your identity, it is easy to spiral into drugs and alcohol, used to numb the pain of being alone, its easy to fall for people who do not have your best interests at heart. It’s easy to replace one hell with another kind of hell.
Fear of offending someone’s culture needs to be stamped out. There is little point in attending training seminars, listening to stories from women like me who have lived and experienced the horrors some families under the protection of their culture inflict on their children if, at the end of the day, you are going to allow the misery to continue, for fear of being called a racist. If you allow girls to suffer for cultural reasons then you are just as guilty as the families.
In 1986 when I voiced my fears no one took them seriously and to this day I suffer from the marriage I was forced into. Fast-forward to 2017 and many girls have been saved from the life I was forced into but we know there are many more still suffering at the hands of their abusers because of political correctness.
Shazia Hobbs is the author of The Gori’s Daughter, her debut novel, and is currently writing her next novel, The Gori. Shazia is a full-time mum and her days are spent doing the school run, after-school activities, cooking, cleaning and walking the dog. Somewhere in between all of these chores she finds the time to write.
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