Racial and gender divides in contemporary Britain are cross-examined in this intelligent courtroom thriller by Kia Abdullah. The case under consideration concerns Jodie Wolfe, a 16-year old girl who is facially disfigured by neurofibromatosis. She claims she has been raped by a group of four classmates. The fact that she is white, and the accused are Muslim and of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, adds racial conflict to an already incendiary legal battle.
The protagonist of the story is the outreach worker who spearheads Jodie’s cause. Former barrister Zara Kaleel has hung up her wig for a more fulfilling, although less remunerative, role as an advisor at a sexual assault referral centre on London’s Whitechapel Road. When Jodie’s file lands on her desk, she is convinced the young girl is telling the truth and is determined to bring the culprits to justice—whatever it takes.
Unfortunately for Zara, the cost of doing so is high. Like the accused, Zara is also a Muslim from the East End of London. Her defence of Jodie is perceived to be a betrayal of the immigrant community and even of Islam itself. As the story unfolds in court, both journalists and social media fan the flames of outrage, leading to mass protests and physical attacks. Zara survives her assault but one of the accused does not.
At times a little too sensational to be wholly credible, the legal drama is enough to keep the pages turning. Used as a device to criticize modern prejudices, however, it becomes enthralling.
Through the character of Zara, Abullah explores the pressures placed on Asian women. Zara rejects the traditional, subservient role of dutiful homemaker and overcomes numerous obstacles to become a top barrister. Nevertheless, this doesn’t bring her the happiness she anticipated. To please her dying father, she accepts an arranged marriage. When it goes wrong, he threatens her life and the situation is never resolved as he dies shortly afterwards. Her legacy is an inability to form lasting relationships with men and a bitter feud with her family.
Abdullah pulls no punches when attributing blame for this situation. As Zara tells her mother:
Oppression doesn’t spread through men with guns, or bombs on trains. Oppression spreads when women like you tell their daughters to marry a certain man, or wear a certain dress, or work a certain job.
Jodie’s world, in comparison, is not much better. Living in poverty with an alcoholic mother, she is shunned by her peers for her disability. Her only friend, Nina, doesn’t believe her allegations and also deserts her.
Nor is Jodie’s complaint clear-cut. There is some question over whether Jodie was complicit in the rape as she eventually confesses to having feelings for one of her alleged attackers, Amir. This allows Abdullah to examine the argument around consent and highlight the problems with proving it (or the lack of it) in a court of law. Understandably, ground down by the counsel for the defense, Jodie’s desire to pursue the accusation wanes and she wishes she could “take it back”.
Abdullah’s treatment of the accused is equally nuanced. One of them, Mohammed, has defended Jodie from school bullies in the past, for example. While two of the boys are more arrogant than the others, In the main they are hardworking and devout or, as Abdullah writes, “shining examples of the immigrant dream.”
She also has some sympathy for their supporters outside the court. She writes:
These protestors were tired of justifying their faith, tired of appeasing nervous neighbours and tiptoeing around Western sensibilities.
Only a clever twist could resolve such an emotionally charged plot. This Abdullah provides (spoiler alert!) with a Pyrrhic victory and a somewhat open ending. She makes it clear, however, that all the characters receive a life sentence of a sort. Due to the all-seeing eye of social media, the stigma of having been involved in the case will never be erased.