BBC Documentary Discusses Sexual Abuse in the UK

A recent BBC article titled, “Is there a Sikh code of silence on sexual grooming?” discusses how six men were jailed in the UK for offences including child prostitution – the case receiving significant attention since it was the first high-profile case involving a Sikh victim of sexual abuse leading to convictions.  As a follow up to the article, BBC’s Inside Out London showcased a 30 minute report uncovering the “hidden scandal of sexual grooming of young Sikh girls by Muslim men.”  The show is receiving much attention – particularly within the Sikh community – with much discussion around the tense issue, race relations and what’s being done (or not) to address the problem.

The documentary (which you can view below) showcases real cases where girls courageously discuss their experiences being “groomed” and forced into prostitution.  Sexual abuse is a serious issue within many communities, the Punjabi community is no exception.  Unfortunately, a lack of openness to talk about the issue often leaves victims and their families living in isolation.   The report identifies the work of an organization within the UK called the Sikh Awareness Society that provides some assistance to these young girls and often bringing to light the criminal activity which local law enforcement agencies often neglect.  The organization has committed to traveling to all the Gurdwaras in the UK to provide information about the issue and to help parents understand what their children may be experiencing.  While it is unclear how large the issue really is or how long it has been occurring – it is nevertheless significant that this discussion is even taking place (especially in Gurdwaras!).

I found the report to be troubling for several more reasons.

While the report presents the issue with urgency, it’s a reminder that these issues are not new to the Punjabi community.  My family moved from the UK about 20 years ago and I remember hearing about specific cases of sexual abuse along with mental health issues and the subsequent isolation from the community that many young girls experienced.  While this BBC report focuses on “grooming” by Muslim men, abuse has existed within the Punjabi community more broadly too – an issue receiving little attention or intervention.

(I am not going to comment on the tense relations between the Sikh and Muslim community in this post and how the report contributes to the growing tension – the topic deserves it’s own post).

The second issue is with the perception that within Sikhi there is some sort of “code of silence” where girls cannot speak to their parents about what has happened to them because of fears around the family’s izzat (honor).  As stated in the report,

“Sikh communities are very honour based with deeply held traditional religious views that go back for centuries.  As part of the code of honor that Sikhs live by, virginity before marriage is held sacred… In order to make sure they can get married and maintain dignity in the community many parents feel they have to live be a code of secrecy.” [BBC Reporter]

While this is a real experience for many girls (not being able to talk to their parents) – there is no link between silence or honor and the Sikh faith.  These concepts are South Asian concepts (and probably in some ways global concepts) and are not limited to any one faith. As a community we don’t talk openly about these issues and in many families, they remain hidden.  However, the problem is that many individuals identifying as Sikh often practice cultural norms above religious norms and therefore,  these practices become linked to the larger faith community.  This is incredibly problematic – not only from a Sikh awareness standpoint – but also from an internal standpoint with the true essence of the faith being lost.

The documentary portrays Sikh women as being victimized – let’s take a moment to reiterate that cases of sexual abuse are real and many girls and women (and also boys) are victims and should receive the necessary support and resources that they need to navigate through such a traumatizing experience.

I take problem with the fact that in these types of stories, Sikh women are often depicted as being weak and needing protection from their fathers, brothers and the community.  These reports and stories make it seem that Sikh women are so easily persuaded (by other men) and it begs the question – why?  If grooming of Sikh girls is really an issue that is getting worse, then it seems like we as a community are missing a critical opportunity to raise women to be strong in their identity, empowered and able to participate in healthy relationships.

I hope that along with raising awareness about the issue, the Sikh Awareness Society along with other groups will begin addressing the lack of empowerment and a missing link to the Sikh identity that many Sikh girls and women seem to be experiencing.  None of this should be surprising – for generations now we have focused the Sikh identity on our boys and men and through that, we’ve lost the potential for half of our community to be as empowered and liberated as their Sikh brothers.

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14 Responses to “BBC Documentary Discusses Sexual Abuse in the UK”

  1. Meeta Kaur says:

    Great post, Sundari. Fathers and brothers are critical to a girl's empowerment not for protection, but for that special bond, that trust, that unconditional support and encouragement that unconditional love that is forged between a girl and the men in her family. The bonds with women in the family are critical as well. When those bonds are strong, then yes — it will be tough for any girl in any community to be persuaded to ignore her own instincts towards her safety and well-being. Her own internal radar will save her in these situations, while recognizing the ground work for a woman saving herself is necessary and critical foundation in a young girl's life.

    • ninachanpreet says:

      This couldn't be further from the truth: it will be tough for any girl in any community to be persuaded to ignore her own instincts towards her safety and well-being. Her own internal radar will save her in these situations, while recognizing the ground work for a woman saving herself is necessary and critical foundation in a young girl's life.

  2. Excellent article and identification of the BBC's gross error to suggest that Sikhs have a code of honour. Thank you for publishing!

  3. SRK says:

    This is such a multi-layered issue that warrants a more sophisticated treatment than the Beeb is able to afford. As a second generation British Sikh and survivor of sexual abuse, I can say that there's another reason people don't speak which is the fear of feeding collective stereotypes about the community – the kind of stereotypes perpetuated by this purported documentary…Not to suggest that in essence a lot of what is being referred to and exposed doesn't have a foundation in fact but I cant even recount anymore the number of times when I was spoken to or approached or treated by authorities, lay people, hospital staff- you name it- as if I was no more than a "symbol" of the "other," – as a nameless and faceless member of my "community", instead of as the person that I am…Assumptions were made before I even opened my mouth…I can laugh at them now but then, they served to keep me silent…
    To be sure, there's a fair amount of prejudice and lack of concrete, first-hand awareness and experience at the heart of broad portrayals of entire groups of people…Hence the ease with which the concept of "izzat" is conflated with Sikhi and generalizations are made about Sikh women and men. The more though that women – be we Sikh or whoever – can claim space to speak for and by ourselves, the more that we can ourselves counter both prevailing stereotypes about pervasive "silence in our communities" and realize that women (and indeed men, as was the case for one of my abusers) of all stripes, faiths and cultures are subject to sexual abuse…This does not plague only the "othered," (read: darker) peoples…

  4. ninachanpreet says:

    Sundari as always I enjoy reading your writing and agree with your main points – except the last one, which I couldn't disagree with more! You ask a good question, except I read it a bit differently. You have not addressed the issue of male domination and networks of male power that exist in every community – to agree with the media's portrayal that Sikh women are being easily deceived or swayed or as one ignorant commentator above ignoring "internal radar" is just a form of internalized oppression. Here's why: I don't discount that Sikh women need to be empowered and we focus a lot on the Sikh male identity in that regard but you cannot solve a problem that is caused my male perpetration by focusing on females. Zerlina Maxwell talks a lot about how we continue victim shaming and blaming in this way instead of pointing the finger at the men, we try and solve the problem with men by looking at problems with women. This couldn't be further harmful to survivors, myself one of them who experienced sexual abuse within our own Sikh community. This is akin to facing racism by saying "let's empower all non white people or all blacks and brown skinned people". We know that wouldn't solve racism. So why would we think that it would solve sexual abuse or male domination? The issue is far beyond women being empowered to "trust" their intuition – there is force, domination,VIOLENCE and all sorts of complex and nuanced cultural social psychologicla physical issues going on when it comes to physical and sexual abuse. So to answer your question of why are Sikh women being portrayed as easily swayed into this – let's question the media's portrayal of Asian women in general as weak….and yes you are right we do not empower women but this is really not what leads to women being sexually abused and not speaking up. It's male domination centuries old power structures, that if we don't address that we can empower our women all we want I guarantee you there will be little change if that's all we focus on.

  5. Narinder Kaur says:

    As a Sikh whether is a male or female we must open our hearts to the vulnerable ( one of the basic teaching of Sikhism). Let us not divert our attention and waste our energy on the issue of male domination, majority of our homes are dominated by mothers and major decisions are taken by them. If we stop being judgemental, talk to our children and assure them of our full support(parental and communal) we can reduce the risk of them being the potential targets. Let us respect the victims by following Guru Nanak's philosophy – ghat ghat mien us waheguru ka niwas hai means Waheguru resides in everyone. Ones who support vulnerables are always blessed by Waheguru.

    • ninachanpreet says:

      "divert our attention and waste our energy on the issue of male domination" – how can you divert your attention away from the actual cause of the problem? so the onus is on the victim to have "good" parents who talk to them nicely and assure them? Yes as Sikhs we are to open our hearts to the vulnerable but also our eyes to the truth. Guru Gobind Singh also asked us to fearlessly fight oppressors. If you keep focusing on the victim you'll never solve the problem how's that for wasted energy.

      • ninachanpreet says:

        Another note: suggesting we ignore male domination in incidents of sexual abuse is like saying "let's ignore white privilege when it comes to racism" it just doesn't make sense.

      • Meeta Kaur says:

        I believe what Narinder Kaur is saying is you cannot change or impact a person who has made a decision to be violent or violate another human being's dignity and basic human rights. What we can do is focus our attention on changing the dynamics within ourselves and/or our families and future families, so children do not become targets. When a child's sense of dignity and respect is consistently and constantly reinforced through unconditional love, support, and compassion, they have the strength, bonds, and a support network that ensures they will not become targets. If a person is going to kill, they will kill. If a person is going to violate another human being, they will do so. There is no force that can change this. The question becomes are you going to use your life energy focusing on what you cannot change or focus your life energy on what you can change through cultivating the characteristics/character that is needed to create more respect for others in the world. Chances are if a person can violate a woman, he can also violate another man, child, living creature simply because he/she can do so. What is the antithesis to this behavior?

  6. Monica Kaur says:

    I agree with ninachanpreet. . . . how can the main issue be ignored? And Meeta Kaur's comment about "Her own internal radar will save her in these situations" makes absolutely no sense to me. [Edited - no need for personal attacks] I am surprised that someone who has such interest in women's issues has such blind sighted views like this. Young teenage girls and children do not have "internal radar." Young teenage girls have hormones and no experience of the real world. These factors plus male force, manipulation, power, fear of destroying family honor and reputation makes it easy to manipulate and take advantage of them. It's not a matter of intuition. The problems are so much deeper and I believe that two things need to be fixed. #1. This damn network of sexual abusers needs to be stopped. #2. Yes, Punjabi Sikh families need to open up and have honest communication without fear of reputations. They need to be aware of these issues and take responsibility of real parenting. . . After all, nirbhau nirvair. . . no fear no hate

  7. Meeta Kaur says:

    Something led me back to this post and I'd like to address the way these comments are handled. Nina Chanpreet Kaur — I am speaking from what I know to be my experience and the experience of other women I know. So to call it ignorant because it does not align with your world view is to not give space to other experiences beyond your own. Monica Kaur. I have witnessed pre-school and grade school girls handling situations with both genders based on their "internal radar" and their instincts, and they do not shy away from speaking up and calling out what they see. I respect that both of you may not see the world from the lens I see it from and that your set of experiences are vastly different. At the same time, I believe there is space in the world for all views to exist and it is a matter of where each person is at. Yes, there is violence and violation in the world, and there is also a tremendous amount of love and support in the world and both can exist and do exist in all of us as these discussions give evidence to. I don't claim to be a saint or know more than my peers, but I question another person's ability to discount and dismiss another point of view because it is not their own or stemming from their own experience. Let's start here and maybe the discussions can progress to a place that is productive.

  8. Harmeet Kaur says:

    I appreciate the conversation thread and the original post. I do think that question the author raises as to why are SIkh girls susceptible needs to be answered with some data. Perhaps by the young sikh who is working with these girls. I feel at some level all girls and boys are susceptible when they hit the teen years, to the desire for peer acceptance, newly felt sexual urges and growing up in an environment where the subliminal messages are that if you do not have a boy or girl friend maybe you are inadequate in some way. The pressure in India used to be far less. Very few girls and boys were dating and you did not feel the odd one out if you were not. So the issue may be larger than simply confined within the community.

  9. Harmeet Kaur says:

    Also the issue of open communication is something that is hard for parents that have grown up in a more hierarchical system. This concept of engaging your children and respecting them as individuals is a more western concept, In Asia you are more a member of group whether that be family or caste or religion and you follow the dictates of the senior members of the group. This model of interaction is one of societal stability and order. The individualistic model is more creative, with the possibility to fulfil individual dreams but also very disruptive. I do not know if one is better than the other. But as Asians who have immigrated to the new world we have to negotiate these diverse world views on a daily basis. Maybe not understanding this is part of the problem

  10. documentary says:

    The documentary portrays Sikh women as being victimized – let’s take a moment to reiterate that cases of sexual abuse are real and many girls and women (and also boys) are victims and should receive the necessary support and resources that they need to navigate through such a traumatizing experience.

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