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Abolition and Justice: What about the rapists?

Ever since I first got involved with prison and police abolition, the first question I’ve always been asked is “what about the rapists?”. Rape is considered one of the most horrific crimes, one which is based on pure selfishness and discount of another’s humanity. Where there can only be one motivation - power over someone.

One in four women have experienced sexual abuse, with one in 14 experiencing rape or attempted rape. Given how common the abuse is, it is no wonder it is at the forefront of our fears. It is a parent’s worst nightmare and every woman knows the terror that bubbles up when you notice someone walking behind you in the dark. We teach our girls how to dress, we warn them not to stay out late, and beg them to travel in groups - and preferably with a mahram (male guardian).

And yet, we live in a reality where nine-tenths of abusers are well known to victims. Many of us know of or have heard of the mosque teacher who liked to touch little girls and boys, the creepy uncle who liked to feel your bra, the cousin who put his hand down your pants. Unfortunately the outside boogey man who will come for our daughters is invited in with smiles and warmth. And none of us are prepared to deal with this fact.

Despite how common abuse is, the response to the abuser varies from doing nothing at all for fear of ruining the girl’s reputation (who will marry her now?), to disbelieving the victim and blaming her (she must have encouraged him or why else would he go for her?). Worst still, some continue to invite the abuser to family functions, and even apologise to the abuser for ruining his family reputations. The authorities are rarely involved and the whole thing is dealt with as a family or community.

However this “dealing privately as a family” is steeped in deep shame. The priority is not placed on the victim, seeking justice or even healing trauma, but instead of protecting izaat (honour). It centres the elders in the family and their reputations - be it from the victim or the abusers’ side. Arguments about “boys being boys” are brought up and I’ve even heard cases of the “couple” being engaged. This form of community resolution often allows the cycle of violence to continue. And yet buried in it are tools that can begin to answer the age old question “what about the rapists?”.

Relying on the police

Despite responding in this way when it comes to “internal family issues” the belief still remains that when it comes to sexual abuse, it will come from an outside threat and therefore the police will step in and help. This belief is rooted in the idea that they will find the person that caused the harm and lock them away, stopping them from doing more harm, and the punishment will bring some kind of closure to the victim, some form of justice. There is even the belief that the threat of punishment alone is in some ways enough to reduce the potential of the harm, and therefore that people who are considering committing these acts will be scared away from doing so.

The latter is clearly not true given the very high statistics around abuse - which has only increased over the years. What’s more, in the year to March 2020, just 1.4% of rape cases recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged (or receiving a summons). In the same year, 57% of victims withdrew their support for the case - which itself has been linked to the high level of intrusiveness and the trauma associated with reliving the abuse, and the victim-blaming questions asked.

It appears most women are already aware of how difficult the process is and don’t even start it. The Office for National Statistics reports fewer than one in six victims report assaults to the police. There are many reasons women choose not to go to the police in the first place. Victims may be in disbelief, have feelings of shame or even block out the whole thing. What’s more, the body’s response to the trauma of rape can impair their ability to give a clear and coherent account of the event. Some survivors may keep up contact with their abuser, to reduce the risk of being raped again, or because they want to block out the abuse in order to return to a sense of normality.

And yet, when a survivor steps forward to reveal an abuser, the overwhelming response from the community is the demand they go to the police. In a recent public example, when FACE, a community based organisation, produced a report into the abuse conducted by Fatih Seferagic, a well-known religious leader, many asked about the lack of police investigation. Even Babar Ahmad, who himself is a victim of torture in the hands of the state and claims the state forged fortified evidence against him, asked the same.

"Serious allegations of sexual abuse made against a man by accusers who never went to the authorities but were happy to go public. [Thinking face]” - Babar Ahmad

If a report is made, survivors have to relive the trauma. Many described the whole process making them feel re-victimised. A recent report into experiences noted “certain lines of questioning were unnecessary, inappropriate and made them feel uncomfortable – an issue often exacerbated by the attitude of the officer(s) conducting the interview, who were described by some as judgemental, dismissive and cold”. The process is a long one and can take years. Victims need to give up their phones and have their lives dissected. If the case even makes it to court, they are questioned, made to feel like they are to blame. And with conviction rates being as low as 3%, many may decide it is not worth it.

And of course, in an article discussing reliance on the police, I would be remiss to mention the abuse conducted by the police themselves. For many, reporting is not even an option.

Sex and how we do it

With all this in mind, it is shameful that the only advice and solutions we offer to young girls and women is: make sure you’re not in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing. And if you are, and something does go wrong, there’s always the police. This is not the justice we deserve or need. So I in turn ask, what about the rapists?

Our communities tiptoe around the realities of it all. Children are not taught about consent, but are taught that sexual relationships are haraam (forbidden). Even pregnancy and periods are hidden - a secret to only be whispered about, and certainly not discussed with the menfolk in your family. Womanhood itself is erased and shameful. Our imams talk about the responsibilities daughters and wives have, rarely touching upon the horrific views many men hold on women. So with a mix of guilt, fear of not being believed, fear of being blamed, it is not uncommon for survivors to say nothing.

We cannot keep pretending that abuse does not take place, and we certainly cannot afford to keep believing that it will only happen to the careless. Unlike the police who can only attempt to deal with things after they happen, we have the power to make lasting changes that prevent abuse taking place at all.

Breaking down the shame of it all

It goes without saying that discussion about consent is vital. This includes discussions about what love means, what masculinity means, what disappointment looks and feels like, and how to respond to that. This needs to come from our families, from our mosques and from our media.

Even so, it is naive to believe abuse will not occur. And when it does, we must be ready to deal with it in a way that centres the survivor. It is clear that as a community we already have the mechanisms to hold discussions internally, without reliance on the police. We involve our elders and community leaders, we try to come up with amicable solutions that consider more than just the situation but look at the bigger picture. In many situations involving family disputes this can work very well. But other times we fall short and it is worth considering how we can build on these structures.

This includes believing the victim and discussing what their immediate needs are. We must recognise and internalise that survivors are not tainted - it is the abuser that is. It should be the abuser’s reputation that is brought to question, their souls filled with shame.

Community accountability

Justice does not begin or end with a prison sentence. This ignores the situation that allowed the harm to take place in the first place, and does nothing to change that. It ignores the trauma the survivor is now living with and does nothing to heal that. One framework for building towards true justice is transformative justice. This is a framework that seeks to respond to the violent harm that has been done without creating more violence and attempting to change the root causes themselves.

What this looks like needs to be adapted to suit the situation - considering the community and structures available and individuals involved. I recently came across a horrific Twitter thread that outlined the abuse a sister had faced most immediately from her (now ex-) husband, but also the failings of her family and community at large. The sister outlined several examples of rape and emotional abuse. We can see she did try and reach out to the community - both his uncle and Shaykh. Instead of supporting her, they instead defended his behaviour, normalising it and suggesting it is a burden she has to carry. In the end, although she describes him as his ex, this man is left to repeat his behaviour. She has been left with this traumatic experience. The harm has been left to fester and is unresolved.

Transformative justice would involve looking at the root cause of these behaviours. In this case it appears to be the belief that “women are a fitna (trial) for men”. It appears this belief is, to some extent, shared by the role models in this abuser’s life. There is learning and unlearning to be done here - conversations to be had with the local mosque and imams, and with the wider family unit. Perhaps a series of classes can be organised alongside private one-to-one sessions. Therapy can be offered to tackle the porn addiction (it sounds like both the ex-husband and the Shaykh could benefit from this).

This is not an easy solution. Implementation will be messy, it will take time, and we will not always get it right. Change feels overwhelming and sometimes impossible. But the sooner we accept that it must happen, regardless of how painfully slow it is, the sooner we can start to truly protect ourselves. Over time, it is community accountability that will lead to a real reduction in abuse, and real justice for survivors. Our communities need and deserve this.

Resources for those impacted

For anyone impacted by anything discussed above, here are some organisations you may wish to look into for support:

  • The Survivor’s Trust is the largest umbrella agency for specialist rape and sexual abuse services in the UK. Their website holds information for survivors and you can also search for local support using their “find specialist support” map

  • Muslim Counsellor and Psychotherapist Network is a network of muslim counsellors and psychotherapists

  • Muslim Women’s helpline can help you get immediate support including finding your nearest sexual assault referral centre

  • Nafsiyat is an intercultural therapy centre, committed to providing effective and accessible psychotherapy and counselling services to people from diverse religious, cultural and ethnic communities in London

  • Survivor’s Network has a host of resources, links to counselling referrals and group workshops.

Writer’s note

This article focuses on women because women overwhelmingly face the brunt of abuse within society. However, I would like to note and acknowledge that everyone can face abuse, regardless of gender or age. And I hope the theory behind the article can be applied to society more widely.


Hajera Begum is part of تحریر // Tehreer, a 6-month writing group housed within The Rights Collective which supports writers who identify as South Asian to develop their own voices in writing about social justice. She works to increase access to Higher Education for refugees. She is part of Nijjor Manush, an independent campaigning organisation that aims to educate, empower and organise Bengalis and Bangladeshis in the UK. She also organises with Abolitionist Futures, a collaboration of community organisers and activists in the UK and Ireland who are working together to build a future without prisons, police and punishment. Twitter: @haj_eraa

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