Why We Need More Women Of Colour Speaking About Sexual Violence

One in four women accessing rape support comes from a minority background. A new festival, Shameless!, gives them a voice.
Sangeeta Pillai/Tashmia Owen

Sexual violence is never an easy thing to talk about and when you add cultural stigmas into the mix, it can make things even more complicated.

“I went through childhood sexual abuse. I was completely shut down from speaking about about it, nobody wanted to know, it was shameful,” says Tashmia Owen, who writes and campaigns about sexual violence.

“There was this underlying feeling I must have done something to encourage it.”

Owen is one of the speakers at Shameless! Festival, a first-of-its-kind event at London’s Battersea Arts Centre on Saturday 27 November, which aims to encourage conversations about sexual abuse – and come up with solutions.

Owen mentions the “shame” that was attached to her own experiences, coming from a religious background where sex wasn’t spoken about openly.

Tashmia Owen is campaigning for changes to the way language is used around consent.
Tashmia Owen
Tashmia Owen is campaigning for changes to the way language is used around consent.

“If you don’t have sex before marriage anything else outside of that is already a shame and a taboo,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“When you’re assaulted, even though it may not be your choice, it’s still under that category. It’s something you don’t talk about because to some people you’ve now been spoiled.”

Sangeeta Pillai, host of the Masala Podcast, is another speaker at Shameless!

Pillai says South Asian women are taught to hold the responsibility of “family honour” which can make it “10 times harder” to speak out about assault.

“To be South Asian is to celebrate these festivals and wear these clothes but also to keep these conversations inside of us. We don’t talk about sex,” she says.

“If you grow up never discussing sex, how are you ever going to say this was inappropriate. When we normalise that this kind of sexual behaviour is unacceptable, we allow people the freedom to stand up and say when something happens to them.”

Sex educator Sangeeta Pillai hosts the Masala Podcast.
Sangeeta Pillai
Sex educator Sangeeta Pillai hosts the Masala Podcast.

Pillai says there are loads of organisations doing great work to support people who have experienced sexual violence, but there need to be more spaces that understand the cultural sensitivities.

“If you go to somebody and they get why you might have kept quiet for five years and now you’re coming out to talk about it. I think it really helps.”

It’s one of the reasons she founded her podcast and uses her Instagram platform, Soul Sutras, to encourage South Asian women to be comfortable talking about topics like sex, periods, and mental health.

But not everyone is receptive to the conversation.

Owen received backlash within her community for speaking about the issue and says other South Asian campaigners have been left to the “fringes” of communities for doing the same.

It’s led Owen to try and reframe attitudes towards consent for the next generation, starting with her own children.

“With my youngest child, she doesn’t like being tickled and if somebody tries to tickle her she gets very upset. I will say, if she says no, she says no,” she says.

“I remember as a child if I ever said no to an adult who walked into the house to tickle me I would have been the one in trouble.”

Why do we need a sexual violence ‘festival’?

It might not seem natural to put the words ‘sexual violence’ and ‘festival’ together. But Shameless! hopes to change attitudes around sexual violence and abuse. The one-day event features a wide-ranging lineup of campaigners, academics and survivors, including the model and actor Emily Ratajkowski.

Subtitled a “festival of activism against sexual violence”, it has been co-organised by the team behind the long-running Women of the World programme, and the researchers of SHaME, a University of London project that explores the role of medicine and psychiatry in sexual violence.

Professor Joanna Bourke, the principle investigator on the SHaME project, says that she truly wants the festival to be a “celebration”.

“It’s an attempt to celebrate the achievements of people from different communities and what they have done. It’s an attempt to share information, share techniques, and share ideas about what we can do to prevent sexual violence. It’s an attempt to give a voice to survivors and to celebrate them.”

That matters even more, Prof. Bourke says, because the situation in the UK is “getting worse” in terms of sexual violence.

“In the 1970s for every case of rape that was reported to the police, one in three ended in a conviction. Today, it’s more like one in 20,” she says.

The pandemic has actually made this situation worse – since Covid, the number of rape cases going through trials in court has depleted significantly.

A report by the National Audit Office found the number of sexual assault cases awaiting trial for more than a year rose from 246 to 1,316 – a 435% rise between March 2020 and June 2021. With this backlog, it could take 18 years for the government to reach its target goal for solving rape crimes, estimates suggest.

And women of colour are disproportionately affected, says Prof. Bourke, because BAME communities suffer “some of the highest levels of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment”.

A quarter of all women accessing rape support systems identify as BAME, according to research by the University of Warwick and Imkaan, a UK-based organisation dedicated to addressing violence against Black and minoritised women and girls.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics also show that people from Black or mixed ethnic groups are more likely to experience sexual assault.

It can be very risky for minoritised or racialised women for whom these court justice systems are inherently an enemy or potential threat,” says Prof. Bourke.

“If you’re looking at BAME women who are also refugees or displaced, who have learning difficulties, are LBGTQ, these things all mount up further and further making it even more difficult to get their voices heard but also listened to and responded to.”

Prof. Bourke hopes the festival is one place where people from a variety of communities will feel comfortable talking about sexual violence – and Pillai agrees it is that these conversations are made inclusive.

We must try and include as many diverse points of view as we can,” she says. “Each culture has its own complications and nuances and if we don’t allow for those nuances to come in then you’re not talking to a lot of women.”

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