I was harassed outside sex club, says councillor

Rania Khan, 29, (below) is Tower Hamlets' councillor for Bromley-by Bow and has appeared a couple of times on the local London BBC this week, as the face of Tower Hamlets' proposed ban on lap-dancing and strip clubs.

Khan told me that her leading role in the campaign against the borough's sex clubs was in part the result of having been attacked outside the Nag's Head strip club on Whitechapel by a group of five men.

"I was walking past and five men in suits came and crowded round me. One said 'pull up your top, love' and in that moment I felt everything I believed in had been belittled. I felt really like a small little object. Had it not been on a high street..." She trailed away, suggestively. "They had formed a ring around me." She escaped physically unscathed.

It happened six years ago, she claims, the year that she stood to be an elected representative for the first time, at the age of 23. But she didn't report the incident to the police. "I thought 'Maybe these things just happen'."

The story is troubling, but because she didn't report the alleged attack she is open to accusations of instrumentalism and political opportunism. As an aspiring local politician you would have thought that filing a complaint about a sexual attack by a gang of men would have been the public-spirited thing to do, as well as providing some closure on an ugly incident? Surely anyone assertive enough to campaign door to door in the East End would have no trouble explaining what had happened to a police officer? What stopped her?

If this seems cynical on my part, it is worth bearing in mind that Khan appears to be involved in a PR effort to de-emphasise the role of morality and religion in the campaign against sex clubs, so that it's not perceived as being all about Muslims banning things.

"I don't like the terminology 'ban'," she said, explaining that the new legislation gives a voice to local people about whether or not they want these clubs near them. There would be nothing to stop venues applying for a licence, they just wouldn't, um, get one.

"They're trying to make it out as a religious-based issue," she then tells me, slightly bewilderingly since the proposed policy is notable as far as I can see for its absence of opposition. Lap dancing might be a sexy issue but it's not one with many visible supporters. When I rang Equity - which, by its own account, represents some of the women who dance in these clubs - it wasn't aware of the proposed ban and the council has noted that none of the eleven club owners have made any representations on their own behalf. This speaks volumes about the nature of the business and the shady places that it loves, as well as how disconnected most of the the 6,000 participants in the borough's recent consultation exercise are from the mainstream media. Where was the anecdotage in The Guardian?

What Khan means, though, is that nearly 50 per cent of the borough - which houses the enormous East London Mosque - is now Muslim and that it recently acquired a Muslim mayor. You cannot logically separate the borough's voters from the actions of their representatives.

Khan is at pains to insist, though, that for her it's a very personal issue.

"I understand the thing about choice," she says, referring to the live-and-let live argument. "But what about my choice not to be harassed? Everyone's choice not to see the exploitation of women?"

Questions about whose idea the "nil tolerance" of sex clubs policy was, meet with an insistence that every political party on the council is united behind the proposal. "It was everyone's idea," she added.

Moreover sex clubs "cause harm to society and harm our local community. We could do without them."

And yet, there are many questions raised by this proposed ban and the way in which it's being prosecuted. The club over the road from my house was there when I moved in, making me feel that I'd be a hypocrite for objecting now. Like someone who moves into Soho and then complains that it's noisy - doh! - there is an issue about having made one's bed and then lying in it.

However, what's the point of local government if it doesn't allow people to reshape their environment? I've come to wish personally that the club over the road wasn't there (see this previous post for an explanation) and have come to think that if they belong anywhere these clubs belong in business districts, not residential areas. Since most of the men who use them are from the two big business districts - the City and Canary Wharf - that jostle residential Tower Hamlets, why not encourage a relocation? After all, Canary Wharf is even in the borough, though it's not clear to me how much political influence Tower Hamlets council has there. I've put in a call to see what the Canary Wharf Group thinks about the idea of opening a few lap-dancing venues, so watch this space.

The council should be straightforward about its reasons for wanting to see the clubs gone and not avoid the issue of what Islam says on the subject because it's clearly relevant. I'm sure their reasons would bear scrutiny - if they don't the council shouldn't have picked the fight - and there are plenty of non-Muslims who would approve, albeit probably for different reasons.

As a run-of-the-mill British liberal my instinct is not to ban things, but to create a situation in which the least harm is done by people whose priorities are different from my own (hence the CanaryWharf idea). My approach couldn't be more mainstream: it's how, as a country, we ended up with multi-culturalism for a start.

If I were a good Muslim representing my constituents in Tower Hamlets I think I'd try and build an unanswerable case against sex clubs that would impress everyone. And I think I'd probably start by making sure I were able to demonstrate the unanimity of local feeling against them by inviting the local Church of England and the other non-Muslim denominations to set out their own positions.

Forget the stuff about "moral harm to the local community". Firstly, it raises questions about which community we're talking about exactly? And secondly, if that were at the top of the agenda for Tower Hamlets' Bangladeshis - rather than building a successful economic life in this messy, cosmopolitan city - they'd do what every other nimby from East London has done over the centuries and move to Essex.

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