Philip Wood: "The idea of izzat means that women who stand outside the enforcement mechanism of the community, primarily white women, are implicitly without honour, and therefore without value."

Comment: Our worst grooming cases are rooted in the culture of rural Pakistan

Comment: Our worst grooming cases are rooted in the culture of rural Pakistan

By Dr Philip Wood

The enduring rural custom of 'izzat' which underpins many British Pakistani communities is responsible for forced marriage and honour killings. And it is to blame for our worst grooming cases, too.

The sexual abuse of vulnerable teenagers by British Pakistanis has been the subject of a series of high-profile police investigations. Over the past year a series of 'paedophile gangs' have been brought to court. In the most recent case, from Oxford, a number of gang members were given life sentences for the grooming and rape of children over the course of many years.

The reporting of this case by television and print media has focussed on the failures of the care home system and the failure of police and social workers to pick up the signs of distress when this abuse started. This is an important lesson to draw, but reports often avoided the issue of race and ethnicity in all of these abuse cases. Almost all of the abusers were all Muslim South Asians. And the girls they abused were all from a different ethnic and cultural background from their abusers.

Migration from South Asia to the UK over the past 60 years has not severed the deep ties between the migrants' villages-of-origin in rural Punjab and Mirpur. Some of the practices and attitudes of these communities, such as forced marriage, cannot merely be understood in a British setting. Many British Pakistanis are part of transnational communities, still heavily exposed to the expectations and economic priorities of elders 'back home'. To understand the friction between these Pakistani communities and their white neighbours, we have to look at the effects of these enduring ties.

But in some cases, the potential analysis of the latest grooming case on the basis of ethnicity or religion was deliberately avoided. One BBC article contended that these sorts of cases were not representative of abuse cases nationally, and that the majority of child abusers were white and operated alone. While this is true, it avoids mention of the two significant facts. Firstly, as the majority population, whites are still proportionally less likely to commit cases of this kind. And secondly, most abuse cases do not show the clear differences between the ethnicity and religions of the abusers and the abused that we see in the cases in Oxford, Rochdale, Telford, High Wycombe, and elsewhere.

We cannot see into the minds of those who committed these crimes to know how far the ethnicity of their victims was a motivating factor. It is sadly the case that some men find a false kind of power in the use of sexual control or sexual violence. It is possible that, for some of these men, their targets represented a symbol of 'white Britain', an establishment that could be blamed for their failure to acquire wealth or status. For them, the systematic abuse of these girls may have been, in essence, a twisted form of self-empowerment.

But I think it must be legitimate to pose more general questions: why did those who ran and participated in these abuse rings avoid abusing Muslim, Pakistani girls and focus on their white British counterparts? Why, in this instance, did abuse have a religion and a colour, when the usual pattern is for abusers to target children who are well-known to them?

The first answer may simply be that Muslim Pakistani girls tend to live a more cloistered existence. Research done in Manchester observed how Pakistani women from rural areas would 'cluster' their employment around the places where they lived and in businesses owned by other Pakistanis. This is, in part, a function of the continuation of South Asian business contacts through family networks. But it is also a means of making sure that their fathers and brothers can keep an eye on them. The clustering of female employment into an internal Pakistani economy was undertaken even when it meant much lower wages, but it is a price worth paying in a society where a family's status is determined by the honour (izzat) of its women.

The concept of izzat is central to understanding the greater level of social control applied to women in a Pakistani household in Britain.  For a girl to engage in pre-marital sexual relations is a source of shame to the head of the household in the eyes of the wider Pakistani community. And it is here that exposure to mainstream British culture can be seen as threatening: in the minds of some, pop music, alcohol and Western clothes are signs of a moral decay that will lead to sexual impropriety (or to accusations of it, which are just as shaming).

It is this concern for izzat that can lead heads of households to ship off an unruly daughter to Pakistan for a 'forced marriage' or even to practice 'honour killing' in cases where the girl resists. Furthermore, the fear of shame in the eyes of the community is also an important force that leads to the clustering of Pakistani populations in Britain, into districts where potentially wayward children can be monitored and conservative mores can be enforced.

Female purity is so important because marriage plays such a central role in affirming the bonds of the extended family and demonstrating loyalty to a group united by shared descent. Marriage is often used as a way to keep property within the family, and Pakistanis are heavily endogamous, with around 60% marrying their cousins. These trends are even stronger in the diaspora, where the possible of spousal migration has made marriage to a cousin with a British passport especially attractive. The net result is a very high rate of marriage within the population of British Pakistanis: only eight per cent were married to non-Pakistanis at the last census.

These high rates of in-marriage serve, in general, as a worrying indicator for the levels of social interaction between Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis in Britain, and for the role of family demands in dominating marriage choice. But it also has significant implications for understanding the patterns of the grooming cases. Male British Pakistanis are likely to grow up in communities where the sexual behaviour of their female peers is closely monitored. But this attitude to sexuality is also clearly at odds with the relatively permissive sexual attitudes of the country as a whole. Moreover, it appears that unlike their sisters they are able to engage in this sexual culture relatively freely: some 45% of female Pakistani teenagers reported engaging in sexual activity compared to 85% of males. A gendered difference in sexual behaviour of this size has only been observed for Muslim populations.

Therefore we can see a stark dissonance between the kinds of sexual mores that are defended within the community (which are expected of one's sisters or future bride) and those that are practiced by its male members when they leave its boundaries. Sexual propriety must be defended as part of a wider culture of honour and shame. This means that wider society is a threatening force, whose loose morals must be opposed. But, conversely, the idea of izzat also means that women who stand outside the enforcement mechanism of the community, primarily white women, are implicitly without honour, and therefore without value.

The orientation of rural Pakistani society around the interests of family honour have effects in terms of forced marriage and violence towards women that are well documented and which have been continued in the diaspora. But the same systems of control have also have an important effect on young men, since izzat has formed a lens through which they can classify and understand the world.

Men who commit sexual abuse will be a tiny minority in any population. But the pattern of abuse seen in these grooming cases must reflect wider values, inculcated in young men who have learnt to think about 'our' women and 'their women' in different ways.

Dr Philip Wood has a DPhil in Middle Eastern history and has taught at Cambridge University and SOAS. He currently teaches comparative religion in a university in London.

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