Gang rapes and the ‘cultural time bomb’

Christina Ho, University of Technology, Sydney

Paul Sheehan Girls Like You: Four Young Girls, Six Brothers and a Cultural Timebomb, Sydney, Pan Macmillan, 2006 (388 pp). ISBN 1-40503-727-X (paperback) RRP $32.95.

In the current political debates on ‘Australian values’ and cultural diversity, politicians and commentators have brought together Muslim integration and the treatment of women. According to Prime Minister John Howard, to integrate into Australian society Muslims need to speak English and ‘treat women equally’ (Kerbaj 2006). Mr Howard’s comments respond to the much publicised series of crimes and alleged crimes committed by Muslim men against women, from harassment of women on the beach to gang rape.

Girls Like You deals with one notorious case of gang rape committed by six brothers in 2002, and the ensuing courtroom dramas that hindered and delayed four teenage girls’ quest for justice. Written by The Sydney Morning Herald columnist, Paul Sheehan, the book is part of the larger debate about the gendered politics of cultural diversity in contemporary Australia. With journalistic detail, Sheehan records how the notorious ‘K brothers’ (so known because one of them was a minor at the time of the crimes, preventing the release of any of their names), lured girls to their home in Sydney’s inner west. There the brothers gang raped the girls, sometimes at knife point, afterwards dumping them in the street with a warning to keep their mouths shut. Sheehan devotes most of the rest of the book to the trials of the brothers, and their various defences, including feigning mental illness, systematic lying, and using their Muslim background by claiming that they would never receive a fair trial because the legal system was anti-Muslim.

Sheehan tells a harrowing story not only about violent crimes committed against young women, but also about how the legal system fails by prolonging rape victims’ trauma. He reports that only 15 per cent of sexual or indecent assaults are ever reported to the police, and only 10 per cent of reported cases result in a conviction (p. 353). Sheehan’s outrage at how Australia’s legal system treats rape victims will be shared by anyone concerned about women’s rights in this country. However, many readers will wonder what his motives for writing such a book were. What is the ‘cultural time bomb’ he refers to in the book’s subtitle? Ultimately, this book is a warning not just about the flaws of the legal system, but about the violent proclivities of one group in Australian society: Muslim men. Anyone familiar with Sheehan’s columns will see Girls Like You as part of his long-running campaign against Muslims, whom he sees as importing a barbaric, misogynistic culture into Australian society. He represents the crimes of the K brothers as crimes of Muslims against non-Muslims, as if the young men’s cultural or religious background was the cause of their heinous behaviour.

Sheehan tells a harrowing story.

In the very first pages of the book, Sheehan describes the brothers as ‘simulating the appearance of the most lawless tribal sub-culture in Sydney’s ethnic mosaic, the Lebanese gangs’ (p. 5). Later he notes the ‘Middle Eastern accent’ of one of the brothers as he harassed a victim’s mother over the phone (p. 36). He introduces the police specialised rape unit as having been formed in response to ‘a string of gang-rapes involving dozens of young Lebanese Muslims’ (p. 20). There is a heavy cultural framing of the rapes from the beginning of the book, and tellingly, a conflation of ‘Muslim’ with ‘Lebanese’ and ‘Middle Eastern’ that conveniently forgets that the K brothers were in fact from Pakistan, not Lebanon. At other times, Sheehan highlights the young men’s Pakistani origins in sensationalised accounts of the alleged violence, fundamentalism, and misogyny of the ethnic Pashtuns of north-western Pakistan. In a few theatrical pages, Sheehan moves from discussing the ‘primitive tribal code’ of the Pashtuns and their ‘Taliban sympathies’ (p. 16) to describing the K brothers’ criminal debut, a robbery of a 7-Eleven store in Sydney. Sheehan sees everything the brothers did as if they are simply acting out a criminal and violent predisposition created by their cultural upbringing.

Of course this ‘racialisation’ of crime has pervaded media accounts, particularly of gang-rapes, since the early 2000s. Popular expressions of outrage at gang rapes in Sydney highlighted not just that they were cases of violence against women, but, because the perpetrators were Muslim, they were almost crimes against Australia. From the beginning, the crimes were overwhelmingly represented as Lebanese or Muslim men raping non-Muslim women, making them a particularly un-Australian crime. As Alan Jones stated in 2001, ‘Lebanese Muslim gangs’ were ‘showering their contempt for Australia and our police on these young girls’ (reported on MediaWatch 2002).

Feminists have challenged the 'cultural defence' in many countries.

This is the ‘cultural time bomb’ that Sheehan’s book is really about. The K brothers’ ‘cultural conditioning’ led them towards violence against women. Left unchecked in Australia’s liberal society, these explosive bundles of hatred were simply waiting to go off. In summarising the trials of the brothers, Sheehan writes ‘The big question that [was hanging] over these proceedings was how many other cultural time bombs were ticking within the liberality of Australia?’ (p. 294). Here Sheehan’s credibility is really tested. In presenting the brothers in this way, he actually accepts their version of events. Even the phrase ‘cultural time bomb’ was coined by one of their defence lawyers, as a desperate last measure to evade conviction. After all their other lies and manipulation of the legal process had failed, the brothers resorted to the cultural defence. They argued that because they came from a society ‘with very traditional views about women’, they did not know how to treat women appropriately in Australia (p. 291).

This is a tried and true method that feminists have challenged in many countries, because the cultural defence is typically used by men from minority backgrounds to explain or justify sexual assaults, attempts by fathers to marry off their young daughters, or honour killings of daughters, wives, or sisters (Adelman et al. 2003, p. 113). In the case of the K brothers, the court rejected the cultural defence, with the judges saying that cultural differences between Pakistan and Australia were no excuse for sexually assaulting women. In Justice Grove’s words, ‘The expression “cultural time bomb” was, to say the least, inappropriate and inapt’ (p. 298).

Sheehan himself is just as disdainful of the brothers’ cultural defence, pointing out that rape and adultery are also crimes in Pakistan (p. 292). He sees through this attempt by the brothers to justify their behaviour, just as he demolishes all of the other arguments they made throughout the court proceedings. Yet only two pages later Sheehan wonders how many other cultural time bombs are ticking in Australia (p. 294). And in all his newspaper columns on the issue, Sheehan continues to represent these crimes as crimes of Muslims against non-Muslims. Ultimately, despite himself, he effectively supports rapists’ use of the cultural defence.

People concerned about women’s rights do not need advocates like Sheehan.

In the end, this is why Girls Like You is a misleading and damaging book. People concerned about women’s rights do not need advocates like Sheehan, who insist on representing rape as if it were a racialised crime. In Shakira Hussein’s (2006) review of the book, she reminds us that there is no empirical evidence that Muslim men in Australia are any more likely to commit rape than non-Muslim men. As criminologists and social scientists have long pointed out, there is no simple correlation between cultural background and crime in Australia: factors relating to social disadvantage, such as lack of education and unemployment, have much more explanatory power than ethnicity (Collins et al. 2000; Poynting 2002; Warner 2004). As Hussein says, ‘Many Muslims do indeed have repellent ideas about rape but so do significant numbers of non-Muslim Australians’. The crimes of the K brothers were not Muslim crimes, any more than Anita Cobby’s murder was a Catholic crime.

People who are concerned about women’s rights should be worried when the language of rights and gender equality is appropriated for an anti-Muslim agenda. In recent weeks, John Howard has engaged in the same exercise. In turning ‘treating women equally’ into an indicator of Muslims’ integration into Australian society, Howard has hijacked the discourse of women’s rights for his political attacks on Muslim-Australians. If public figures like John Howard and Paul Sheehan are genuinely concerned about violence against women and gender equality, they should not be using these issues as part of their political war against Muslims and cultural diversity in Australia.


Adelman, M., Erez, E. & Shalhoub-Kevorkian, N. 2003, ‘Policing violence against minority women in multicultural societies: “Community” and the politics of exclusion’, Police and Society, no. 7, pp. 105–133.

Collins, J., Noble, G., Poynting, S., & Tabar, P. 2000, Kebabs, Kids, Cops and Crime, Pluto Press, Sydney.

Hussein, S. 2006, ‘Girls Like You’, The Australian, 5 August.

Kerbaj, R. 2006, ‘Howard stands by Muslim integration’, The Australian, 1 September.

Media Watch 2002, Criminal Gang or Islamic Gangs? 9 September [Online], Available: [2006, May 1].

Poynting, S. 2002, ‘Racism and community safety’, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 328–332.

Warner, K. 2004, ‘Gang rape in Sydney: Crime, the media, politics, race and sentencing’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 344–362.

Christina Ho is a Lecturer in Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her current research is on Muslim women’s networks, safety and security in contemporary Australia.