Bradford’s Sara Khan was 14 when she spoke of being groomed for sex; it took 25 years for anyone to listen. Ann Czernik talks to her
Sara Khan’s family emigrated from Pakistan to Bradford. As a child, Sara was sexually abused by an uncle. As she hit puberty, she was abused again by a different uncle. At the age of 14 Sara finally found the courage to tell. But her family did not pull her closer and protect her. Instead, they beat her, for bringing shame to the family.
Child sexual abuse within the UK’s Asian community is believed to be under-reported; a catalogue of suffering hidden beneath a veil of secrecy. At the heart of this secrecy is the concept of ‘izzat’, or honour, which protects a family from isolation. Within south Asian culture, community is everything. “We don’t want to bring a bad name,” says Sara. “We don’t want anyone, neighbours or anyone to bad mouth [us].”
Izzat is a difficult concept to understand. The women in a family carry izzat like an urn. When they marry, their izzat passes to the new family. Without izzat, a family’s standing in a community is destroyed preventing marriage of eligible offspring, even years later.
Sara’s husband Omar, who has supported Sara through her journey to release her troubled past, explains how a family who are seen as shamed would be blacklisted. “Nobody gives the time of day or will entertain them. If the siblings need to get married no one will give them their hand in marriage. They’re shunned. They can go to the mosque – no-one can stop them – but nobody speaks to them. It does happen and it can damage business relationships as well.”
Sara was brought up Hindu but converted to Islam when she married Omar. She has written a book, Peace is Found Within, a powerful collection of poems and narrative describing her experience, which will be published later this year, and is in the running for a prestigious award as one of Bradford’s most inspirational women.
Sara Khan has written a book about her experiences.Sara can’t believe the journey that started so badly has brought her so far. Over the years, Sara took several overdoses and no-one, not even medical staff, asked why. She explained the attempts as ‘accidental’. She drank bleach from a lemonade bottle, and ‘forgot’ how many pills she had swallowed. “He groomed me really badly,” Sara says of her uncle. “When I told everyone I was 14, and at that age you’re lost. He started being really nice to me then and just carried on abusing me”.
Sara remembers a family occasion when she realised that her family would maintain honour above any responsibility towards her. “At certain times of the year we tie a band around our brothers’ wrists. Its called Rakhi Day. My mum was tying a rakhi around my uncle who abused me and it was killing me … I was in the front room holding onto my husband’s hand tight. The feeling, it was awful. I asked her why did you do that? And she said she needed to keep the family honour. She did say to me once that she could never speak to me about it. She knew what I was going through but she couldn’t do anything.”
After her mother learned of the abuse, an arranged marriage was hastily organised for Sara, so she took an overdose and the marriage plans were cancelled. Sara blamed herself, left home and eventually met Omar, now her husband of nearly 20 years. Sara said that when her and Omar went to tell her family of their marriage, Omar was warned to keep silent about the family secret. “He was with me and I told him not to say anything. The whole family was there and I had to keep their honour. If it got out my sisters couldn’t get married, no-one would give them their hand, I was protecting them.”
Sara says: “I’m on this journey because of my husband. He said it wasn’t my fault. He didn’t know the full extent of my abuse and I thought if he did he would leave me. He’s amazing. He’s standing with me. Although izzat is very important, he is with me. I’m on this journey because of him. I could have been on it 20 years ago but I wasn’t strong enough.”
Her newfound strength has led her not only to write her book, but also to set up a Facebook page where hundreds of other women have been able to speak of their abuse anonymously. “God gives you the good and the bad. Girls have been coming to me for years. This girl’s come from Iraq, who does she talk to? She can’t talk to her mother. Hundreds have come to me because not many people are doing what I’m doing.”
The couple want more official support for claim that women who do speak out find it intimidating and even professionals keep abuse within the family. Omar said: “Unless someone acknowledges that this is something which goes on in this community – maybe for Parliament or an MP in the House of Commons to stand up and say this needs to be addressed – I don’t think people will take it seriously.”
Omar doesn’t understand why some traditions are held on to so fiercely while others slip away with remarkable ease. “Many years ago, when my father passed away there used to be 30 days of mourning, but now they only do three. Who decided that? It can change. I think it’s wrong, it should be 30 days but it can change when its convenient.”
For women like Sara, change cannot come a moment too soon.
• Sara Khan and Omar are not real names
Ann Czernik is a freelance journalist specialising in activism in the north of England