When I was in my late teens I was lured away, locked in a flat and beaten up by someone I didn't know.
It wasn't until some 20 years later that I realised I had experienced what's known as an "honour beating".
I recently watched a powerful interview with Dr Ella Hill, a victim of the grooming gangs scandal, hosted and tweeted by TRIGGERnometry. There were so many things she said on which I felt complete empathy, such as that fear of speaking out in case you're branded a racist (the worst of all things), that fear of ever again being made to feel worthless through subjugation, that dread of the police not listening, that thing where it's the words that somehow scar you more than the physical injuries.
I replied to that tweet by revealing briefly what had happened to me, that I had once experienced an 'honour beating' (see my tweet below). Since writing that tweet I've felt a strange combination of nervousness, of feeling exposed, I've slightly regretted it, worrying that in those 280 characters I wasn't able to get across that my experience was nothing to do with the grooming gangs scandal (such as what happened in the UK, from late 1980s until the 2010s) and that I'm OK, now.
Mine was a completely separate incident, yet with some definite parallels. Something I've not put down in writing before now.
Here I'll describe what happened, as briefly as possible
When I was 18 I met a guy in my hometown who was French Moroccan, born in Syria. He had lived here in the UK for about 5 years and became part of our friendship group. For anonymity I’ll call him ‘Bahi’. He was about 10 years older than me, fun, gentle, respectful. He was very ‘Western’ in his dress and lifestyle, ‘French looking’ and spoke pretty good English. He was a nice guy.
Soon he moved into my house in a town in the east of England which I shared with a couple of other friends. We became close and he would accompany me everywhere. He effectively became part of my family. (Only in hindsight, years later, do I now realise he was enjoying the liberty afforded by our, how shall I put it, ‘dogma-free culture’.)
About a year passed and Bahi asked me to marry him. I didn’t feel strongly enough for him, I just wanted to be friends.
Soon after he went to see his family in London (I’d never met any of his family. He never spoke of them). A few days later he returned with his cousin who he called ‘Micky’. He was muscular with a paunch, flashy with his gold chains and his expensive Merc, Arab-looking, about 50, loud and arrogant and spoke very little English. I’d never met anyone like him before.
Bahi took me aside and told me to call myself the ‘more feminine’ name Alicina (not Ali) in Micky's company. I took umbrage but agreed out of politeness. Bahi also told me that I was to go, right now, with him and Micky for an overnight stay in London. I was reluctant. Then reassured me that we’d have a lovely time and Micky would take us to dine at expensive hotels and we’d drink champagne. He practically begged me. I wasn’t entirely convinced, nor keen. He was being very forceful and insistent, which was completely out of character. Then he hinted that if I didn’t then ‘bad things may happen’. I agreed to go through fear of the threats.
This was a situation I’d never found myself in before.
The 150 mile journey to London on the back seat of Micky's Merc was tense. They spoke to each other in Arabic for almost the entire time, over loud Arabic music. This would be interspersed with Micky boasting to me about how his “best friend was the Chief of Police”, how he could “get away with any crime” and that he had “diplomatic immunity”.
I thought he was probably just showing off, but nodded along as if I was impressed.
We spent the evening, as promised, in the West End in expensive marble floored hotels drinking champagne, with several other male members of Micky's family and friends, all of them speaking entirely in Arabic and getting increasingly more and more drunk and lairy. After several hours of this I felt out of place and anxious so asked Bahi if he’d take me home. He refused and became agitated. I knew something was wrong.
He tried to reassure me it was OK and so later me, Micky and Bahi got in the car and drove. I didn’t know where to, they both avoided talking to me, I just hoped it was back home.
Next we arrived at Micky's penthouse. We went in and he locked the door behind me, several locks, I’ll never forget.
The massive window in his apartment overlooked London’s nighttime skyline.
Bahi whispered to me “just agree to everything Micky says”.
They continued to speak heatedly to each other in Arabic. Micky getting more and more angry with Bahi. So I asked them to speak in English.
With that, Micky swung round and punched me in the head knocking me to the floor.
Utterly shocked, the first thing I did was look at Bahi as I knew he’d come to my defence.
He didn’t. He just stood there.
Micky grabbed my necklace and twisted it, strangling me.
I screamed to Bahi to help me.
He just folded his arms, sat down and said “you deserve it” as Micky continued twisting the necklace tighter and beating me.
I had absolutely no idea why I ‘deserved it’ or why my dear friend Bahi had had a complete change of character and wouldn’t help me. Bahi was a black belt, he could have stopped Micky. All I could think was that perhaps he was afraid of Micky and the rest of his family.
Sweaty, greasy, drunk Micky then pinned me down with his foot and held me by my hair. He told me to say “I am dirty, white English”. I tried but the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. So he’d punch me in the face and demand I say it, again and again and again (one of the most traumatic things of this whole experience).
He then threw me on the floor and continued punching and stamping on me. I was convinced he was going to throw me through the window or that, one way or another, here I was going to die.
Bahi still sat there, folded arms and expressionless.
Then Micky said something in Arabic to Bahi. Bahi went into the bedroom. I was convinced then that they were going to rape me.
Instead Bahi returned with a huge wad of cash. He handed it to Micky who peeled off a £50 note, gave it to me and told me to leave.
So that’s what happened that night. I never saw Bahi again. I never told the police.
So much happened after. Things which trebled the trauma. Back home Bahi’s family spied on me for months, followed me, was told I couldn’t speak of it because my family would be at threat and Micky had diplomatic immunity, they broke into my house… there’s so much to this that maybe I’ll write another day.
I eventually found out the reason I’d been given an ‘honour beating’. It was because in a tiff with Bahi, a few months before the beating, I’d teased him by calling him ‘gay’. I had no idea at the time the gravity of this insult within his religion. I knew absolutely nothing about Islam. I also wonder if I was being punished for my refusal to marry him. Basically it had been decided between Bahi’s family members that I must be lured to London and beaten, to teach me lesson, for “honour”.
I probably needn't use up words explaining what this experience did to me.
A few weeks following the event I suffered seizures and other continuous health problems leading to many months spent in hospital over the years. Epileptic fits were probably as a result of being punched around the head and the shock and aftermath. They affected me almost every day for several years, uncontrolled by medication, leading to permanent problems such as memory lapses, anxiety and, after suffering dozens of severe near-death asthma attacks, I had a mild stroke in my mid 30s. Another indirect consequence is that very regrettably I haven't been able to have children. However, I've tried to be the best aunty and God mother I can be and, despite all of this, it most definitely isn't all doom and gloom by any means. Throughout my illnesses I have still enjoyed life to the full as much as possible such as going to Uni, becoming a semi pro musician performing several times a week for about 15 years, and setting up a successful business. Thankfully I've been free of seizures for many years now, am in pretty good health considering, and haven't allowed myself to become bitter at how that event in my teens shaped my life.
Like Dr Ella Hill and many others who've had a similar experience at the hands of another culture/idiology, I don't feel a hatred for any group based on their faith or race. The last thing I/we want is for our horrible experiences to cause more division, leading to more hatred, more abuse, more fear, more violence, more darkness.
I personally felt hurt and anger at the individuals - the actual perpetrators, and I fear the culture that thinks it OK. Also at the society that doesn't support the girls and women; the media who defend the culture; the 'twitter mob' and activists who hurl abuse and slander and try to silence the victims; the feminists who don't come to their defence; the politicians and authorities who turned a blind eye.
My personal feelings of anger and of wanting justice and revenge have, of course, greatly faded for me over time. I'd mostly put it behind me. However, as we become more aware of a culture that enables this violence, in the UK, it has inevitably awakened memories. I now feel obliged to try to do something about it.
The main reason I've written this is because I wanted to put on record what happened to me. I think this is important, not for myself necessarily (I'm pretty anonymous), but for all those girls and young women who suffered and are suffering infinitely more than me at the hands of grooming gangs, and for those women and girls, and boys too, trapped within families and societies where this is the norm. Also, in my small way I want to help contribute to an understanding of the nature of this problem, and to show how far and wide it reaches, even to me - someone with no great experience of that culture (before or since), to hopefully one day help prevent this happening to anyone ever again in our country or, if it does, for those victims to be supported and for justice to be served.
I honestly believe that the only way we will ever see change is if we focus purely on compassion and justice.
20 July 2020
With love and thanks to the remarkable Dr Ella Hill x