Who will speak out for South Asian survivors of sexual violence against women?

In the wake of the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, public debate on sexual violence against women has boomed. Like hundreds of thousands of others, the media coverage sparked my own recollection of when I was a victim of sexual violence. In this post, I will share my own reflections on the tragic murder of Sarah Everard. I will also share my own stark experience of sexual violence. As someone from a South Asian background, I feel there are droves of women out there to whom even such expression is a distant luxury. So, for them, as well as all others, this goes out specifically to you.

33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard was doing something which every person should have a right to safely do. She was walking home from a friend’s house, along a fairly busy road, around 9.30pm. It was hardly the dead of the night. She was walking in sight of oncoming traffic, as demonstrated by numerous sightings. Doorbell camera footage on Poynders Road, the dashcam of a passing police car and CCTV on a bus all attest to this. She had been on the phone to her boyfriend, whom she had informed of her whereabouts and route. However, the natural precautions millions of women are forced to take, in Sarah’s case were not enough.

Although the saying goes that a person is innocent until proven guilty, all signs point to Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens being the perpetrator. The reasons, the motives and the details behind the attack remain sketchy. Another instance of sexual violence against women, or is it something more? Police investigations were quick to describe the incident as a “stranger attack,” after rapid forensic investigations on electronic devices. However, and more importantly, I found myself particularly moved by what seems like a national outpouring. A national outpouring of voices addressing the subject of violence against women.

Despite a heavy-handed police response to the Sarah Everard vigil originally organised by “Reclaim the Streets” in Clapham Common, the Government has been swift to act. A meeting of the Crime and Justice Task Force was arranged to address violence against women and girls. Consequently, Downing Street proclaimed it would be taking “immediate steps” to give women “further reassurance.” Some of the announced measures include the provision of £25 million for improved street lighting and CCTV

coverage. Additionally, as part of Project Vigilant, Safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins announced that undercover police officers would work in the night-time economy, relaying intelligence to uniformed officers about suspicious or predatory behaviour.

However, while welcoming the increased vocality in support of women’s safety, I was reminded of the time I was attacked. For me, thanks to my religio-cultural background, even being a victim would have robbed me of my life, had “anything actually” happened. It was a cold winter evening and I was at college. Either 16 or 17, at the time. As dictated by my Muslim South Asian parents, I was dressed appropriately, follow all instructions and advice. Wearing a long coat, with my collar pulled up high to avoid the cold, only part of my face and head were exposed. Like Sarah, I had taken the precautions I was told to. I wasn’t wearing anything provocative and I had been vigilant, as I left college and made my way to the quiet train station, to take the long ride home.

On the way to the train station there was a petrol station, with barely much else on the route from college. Suddenly, a man hurried towards me. Running, to catch up with me. He told me he had been watching me and started trying to talk to me. I became extremely unnerved and had no idea what to do. I rushed towards the petrol station. Not knowing what to say, what to do or how to get help, I spent some time inside. Once I felt the coast was clear, I went outside again. I gathered myself and sat on a wall outside the petrol station. After a few minutes, I thought the man had gone, so I dusted myself down and proceeded towards the train station.

This station was small, isolated and quiet. There were only two platforms, barely any other passengers and quite poorly lit. I was scared and nervous, but I just wanted to get home. I approached the gates and made my way inside, I found myself walking alone along the path to the platform. All of a sudden, a hand came over my mouth and I realised, he was back again. I was crying, wailing, shrieking, all to no avail and his firm grip muffled them all. By then, he was dragging me along the path. Somehow, I managed to scream out, “I’ll do anything, just let me go!” As soon as his grip loosened, I ran off, back to the safety of the petrol station.

I was a sobbing wreck. Hysterical. Barely making any sense. Luckily, the staff at the petrol station called the police. I was taken to the local police station and asked to give a statement. Soon after, they contacted my parents to inform them of what happened and asked if anyone could come to pick me up. However, with no one from home available to do so, they were forced to drop me back off home. Then, and this is where my whole recollection is leading to, my parents asked me: “Did *anything actually* happen?” In a clear allusion to sexual violence, they were visibly relieved when I replied in the negative. We never spoke about the incident again.

The point I’m trying to make is that: Sarah Everard’s tragic murder has caused shockwaves, reigniting public debate on violence against women. The eye of public scrutiny is on the lawmakers, the Government, and the upholders of the law the police. However, for decades these very institutions have been failing women from BAME. Countless studies and numerous pieces of research demonstrate this. Yet, very few people seem interested in addressing this. For me, institutional racism runs deep and we, as South Asian women, need to speak up.

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