What can and should schools do when they learn about cases of self-flagellation, as part of religious ceremonies like Ashura in the Shi’a Muslim community?

August saw the start of a trial at Manchester Crown Court about young people being forced to take part in a Shi’a Muslim religious ceremony involving flagellation. It is alleged that two boys, aged 13 and 15, were forced to flog themselves with a whip called a zanjeer, which had chains and blades attached.

Flagellation is only one part of the Ashura ceremony and this article should not be read to suggest that all Shi’a Muslims see flagellation as essential. In the current case, the charges brought against the adult are two counts of child cruelty.

Some schools will be aware of the Ashura ceremony and may have raised concerns about young people being encouraged to take part in flagellation, but may not be aware that they should use child protection procedures in such cases.

What is Ashura?
Ashura (which means ‘tenth’) falls on the tenth of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. For Muslims as a whole, it is a voluntary day of fasting to commemorate the day Noah left the ark, and God saved Moses from the Egyptians.

For Shi’a Muslims, however, Ashura is a major religious festival commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain, a grandson of the Islamic prophet Mohammad, in 61 AH (around 20 October, 680 AD) at Karbala in modern-day Iraq. It is made up of mourning rituals and passion plays; Shi’a men and women dressed in black also parade through the streets, slapping their chests and chanting.

Some Shi’a men seek to emulate Hussain’s suffering by flagellating themselves with chains or cutting their foreheads until blood streams from their bodies; but some Shi’a leaders and groups discourage the bloodletting, saying it creates a backward and negative image of Shi’a Muslims.

In 2005, one of the UK’s most prominent Shi’a organisations, the Khoei Foundation, was asked to advise on a case where parents had allowed their child to participate in flogging. It responded that the matam ceremony is ‘neither obligatory nor recommended… it is merely permissible’. The foundation ruled that children under 18 should not practise matam with a zanjeer. Those who refused to accept that advice would risk tarnishing the reputation of Britain’s Shi’a community – or, to quote the foundation: ‘When the use of zanjeer by children who are below the age of consent is illegal, the Muslim community has to make it clear that it is an obligation on parents to prevent children from participating, otherwise they themselves will face the legal consequences that may arise.’

Letting children self-flagellate with knives on the ends of chains is an offence under Section 1(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 – one of wilful neglect in a manner likely to cause a child unnecessary suffering or injury.

A child protection issue?
There has been little discussion or debate as to whether being allowed, or encouraged, to take part in flagellation should be seen as a child protection issue, and you will not find advice on any of the government websites. The current case is fairly straightforward, as the two teenagers have openly declared that they felt forced to take part. There is a general understanding that young people under 18 should not be expected to take part and, as the 2005 case demonstrates, parents may be prosecuted for wilful neglect.

Another difficulty is that parents who themselves practise self-flagellation as part of Ashura may have no real intention to cause suffering to their teenage sons by allowing them to take part, and may even have some difficulty in stopping them.

That said, it is clear that young people can be heavily influenced by their parents and other adults and, where the adult introduces the idea of taking part, the young person may feel that they have no choice. For this reason, where it comes to light that a young person has taken part, child protection agencies should always be consulted.

In most cases where the parent has allowed but not coerced or forced a young person to take part, child protection agencies are likely to view the issue as one of educating parents about the law and the risks such practices pose to their child’s health. However, in the minority of cases where a young person has been forced to take part, it may indicate that they are also at risk of other forms of abuse, such as emotional abuse.

Schools can play an active role in raising these issues with young people, including discussion about alternative ways to participate in Ashura  without taking part in self-flagellation; and can make them aware that their parents may be at risk of prosecution if they do.

Signs and indicators of self-flagellation

Children and young people who have taken part in self-flagellation may:

  • boast about it,
  • complain about injuries, usually to the upper back but can also include the forehead
  • sit uncomfortably in their seats not being able to rest their backs in their chair
  • be reluctant to talk about the ceremony for fear of getting their parents into trouble.

We are unable to publish reader comments about individual child protection concerns on this website. If you are worried about a child please call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 for help and advice. Alternatively you can contact your Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) through your local council.