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Hate Crime

Do the UK's Hate Crime Laws Actually Work?

As the government debates classifying misogyny as a hate crime, it's worth asking if existing laws are doing their job well enough.

by Jake Hall
27 September 2018, 2:10pm

Photo: Meibion / Alamy Stock Photo

Earlier this year, a bill was passed to make "upskirting" – the act of taking a photograph up somebody's skirt without permission – a criminal offence in England and Wales, as it has been in Scotland since 2010. Initially the proposal was single-handedly blocked by Tory "dinosaur" Christopher Chope MP, but the government soon went over his head and passed the law anyway. New legislation is set to be implemented by the end of 2018, making the offence punishable by up to two years in prison.

Labour MP Stella Creasy has since proposed an amendment which would allow judges to increase sentences if the crime was "motivated by misogyny". Essentially, she was calling for misogyny to be treated as hate crime – not an uncontroversial proposal, but one that gender equality campaigners have long been pushing for. This might all sound positive, but it's worth asking a crucial question: are current hate crime laws even doing their job well enough?

When it comes to hate crime, your pain is your evidence. The upskirting campaign only gained national traction when women like 26-year-old Gina Martin stepped forward, recounting their own traumatic experiences of harassment and torment. Essentially, your job as a victim is to convince police that your suffering stemmed partly from your identity.

Racism, homophobia and ableism are all included in an existing list of protected categories which can spike a crime from a regular offence to a hate crime, but none of these are easy to prove, unless your attacker hurls a few slurs your way, but even then a lack of witnesses could weaken your case.

This is where hate crime agencies like Tell MAMA, which supports victims of anti-Muslim violence and liaises with police to educate them on Islamophobia, come into their own. "The most important thing that we do is log and document," explains founder Fiyaz Mughal over the phone. "Sometimes we act as an advocate or provide emotional support, but ultimately we interview victims to get all the evidence down."

Mughal knows from personal experience that the onus to provide this evidence often falls on victims, saying that while hate crime laws are ultimately helpful, convictions can be difficult to secure. When he was harassed for four years because of his Muslim identity, it took a private investigator and dossiers of self-collected evidence before his attacker was convicted.

"On his first trial, he was found not guilty," says Mughal, his voice fraught with disbelief. It took another two years until they got him back into court – because he carried on [offending] – and then he was found guilty."

Mughal recalls his frustration at the frequent setbacks he experienced, but ultimately argues that extending the definition of hate crime is helpful. Why? Because incorporating misogyny sends a clear message that society needs to step up and protect women. Mughal also sounds hopeful that it could work in the favour of women who belong to other minority groups. "Islamophobic violence is heavily gendered," he explains, describing interviews with Muslim women whose veils have been ripped from their heads, or whose lives are frequently littered with sexual harassment. He outlines that, by allowing them to secure a conviction based on misogyny and Islamophobia, the proposal could be helpful.

Of course, that's only if the police take it seriously. The proposal to treat misogyny as a hate crime was trialled by Nottinghamshire Police over the course of two years, and the results weren't exactly heartening. In a written-through summary, police officers described it as a "ticky-box exercise" doomed to fail. They also called it a "vanity project" and said "so what?" to wolf whistles. "If someone came up to me in a gym and said, 'You look good in your lycra,' I'd take it – 'thanks!'" were the remarks of one officer.

Figures have also hinted at institutional discrimination within police forces themselves. When headlines announced that officers are four times more likely to use force on black men than white men, plenty of people weren’t exactly surprised. Non-binary writer, activist and FRUITCAKE magazine editor Jamie Windust explains that queer people are similarly skeptical: why go through the pain of explaining our traumatic experiences to officers who might not take us seriously?

Earlier this year, Windust was subjected to an invasive hate crime. "Transmisogyny is not something that is uncommon in my daily life," they later wrote on Gay Times. "Three drunk men approached me in the afternoon in a crowded area and one proceeded to 'investigate' what I 'was', putting their hands and head underneath my dress whilst shouting aggressive slurs."

Explaining further to VICE, Windust recalls feeling shaken and also at a loss of how best to deal with the situation once they were finally back in safety. An online search prompted them to dial 111 and undergo a follow-up police interview, conducted by "very receptive" officers. But there was one crucial detail missing: "They listened and never asked my gender, which was both a blessing and a curse, although when I mentioned I was wearing a dress they did seem slightly confused."

This lack of attention to detail ties into findings outlined in an HMIC report, which revealed slow police response times, inadequate victim support and a failure (in 24 percent of cases) to gather crucial victim information, such as ethnicity or gender identity. There are no clear reasons given for this failure, but the addition of misogyny as a protected category would create a clear emphasis on gender which could also help trans and non-binary victims bring their abusers to justice.

But none of this can be achieved without police training. It might sound obvious (don’t @ me), but police officers are ultimately people, and every person can hold either unconscious or conscious bias against minorities.

Recent research on anti-trans violence by Sussex University underscored this need for education, calling for more engagement with trans communities and even arguing that "policy documents do not detail the multiple ways in which contact between the police and trans people may result in discrimination, misgendering, insensitivity in language or inappropriate procedures". In other words, trans people explaining their experiences of harassment to police officers who might not be aware of, or sensitive to, the nuances of their identity could actually be opening themselves up to yet more harm.

The hate crime review will undeniably be a positive step forward: it will send the message that misogyny won’t be tolerated, and it will add another category of evidence which could theoretically make it easier for justice to prevail. But what seems obvious is that increased police training is needed. Victims are expected to bare their souls, spill their trauma and re-live their pain in the name of evidence; officers must be sensitive to this, because not being taken seriously as a victim adds yet another layer of frustration.

The best-case scenario is that the review opens up hate crime laws and makes them more useful to women who also belong to minority groups: trans women, women of colour, non-binary femmes. But, for that to happen, we need to accept that current hate crime laws aren’t always doing their job and that a huge amount of progress still needs to be made.

"We might pat ourselves on the back and say that we’re a liberal society, but our hatred of women is more widespread than we think," concludes Mughal. "There's a gap in the [existing] framework, and this proposal sends a message that it needs to be closed."

@jake2103