Sufiah Yusof , genius prostitute
- Child genius and now prostitute: Sufiah Yusof attended Oxford
University at just age 13
By KATHRYN KNIGHT
5th April 2008
Until a week ago, her
instinct was always the
same: any time she was
away from home, Halimahton
Yusof would scan the
streets, hoping to catch a
glimpse of her daughter's face.
"I always looked for her. For the past few
years I didn't even know whether she was
alive," she says, her eyes moist with tears.
"Every time there was a story on the news
about an accident, or a death, I feared the
worst. I just wanted to know she was alive."
Then, last weekend, she got the confirmation
she desperately craved although in an
unimaginably sad way.
Halimahton, a devout
Muslim, was confronted by graphic Sunday
newspaper pictures of her daughter selling sex
from the dingy basement of a Salford flat.
Styling herself "Shilpa Lee", it emerged
23-year-old Sufiah Yusof was advertising her
services on the internet as a £130-a-time prostitute.
It would be a distressing discovery for any
mother, but for Mrs Yusof it is all the more
Ten years ago, the girl she still calls "Sufi" was admitted to
Oxford University to study
maths, at the age of 13 the
youngest undergraduate to do so
at the time.
Brilliant and determined, she
seemed destined for great things
expectations that were brutally
dashed when she ran away at the
age of 15 and asked to be admitted
into the care of social services.
In a bitter email to her elder
sister Aisha, she accused her
father Farooq of making her childhood
a "living hell" by "hothousing"
her in pursuit of academic success.
There have been many more
twists and turns to Sufiah's story
since then, too.
Just three years
ago, aged 20, she was back living
at the family home, apparently
reconciled with her father.
Yet within weeks, a bitter argument
over something minor the
family don't know what led her
to flee again, and she has not seen
her mother or siblings since.
Until their discovery last weekend, none
of them knew where she was or
what she was doing.
Nor is this the only
Just a week
before Sufiah was
unmasked on Sunday,
her father Farooq was jailed for 18
months after pleading guilty at
Coventry Crown Court to two
charges of sexually assaulting two
Scroll down for more...
Seeds of despair: Sufiah in 1997 on her first day at Oxford with her
father Farooq and sister Aisha
Halimahton is in the process of
divorcing Farooq, her pride having
finally forced her to act against the
man with whom she shared her life
for more than 30 years.
She has had to ask herself
difficult questions about whether
she could have done more to
safeguard Sufiah from the expectations
of the domineering Farooq.
"I was shaking when I found out
what had become of her," she says
in her first interview since her
daughter's lifestyle was exposed.
"No mother expects that, and
part of me is haunted by the
notion we had driven her to that.
"I have no idea what is going on in
her mind, but I refuse to judge her
and I want her to know my door is
always open, that I am here for her.
"We have been through so much,
but I have to believe that at some
point in the future we can become
a family again."
All week she has
been trying to reach her daughter,
but Sufiah's old mobile number has been ringing unanswered.
Halimahton says: "I haven't seen
the pictures in the papers, and I
don't want to see them. My sons
have told me it's not good for my
heart. I want to think of her as I
"I have no idea why she's doing
this, whether she's trying to make
her father angry or whether it's
"I only wish I
knew her state of mind but she
asked me to let go of her and I did.
"I asked my solicitor if there is
anything I can do to help her, but
she's an adult and beyond my
reach. I can only pray that she
comes to her senses.
"My friends are shocked but they
remember our relationship, how
close we were and they have told
me she needs help."
So does she lay the blame at her
"I'm not the
blaming kind. There's no use
trying to point the finger. All I can
hope is Farooq and Sufi look at
themselves and sort out the issues
they have. Deep in her heart, Sufi
is a kind and gentle girl and I just
hope she finds her true self again."
One comfort is that with the
exception of Sufiah and now
Farooq, the family remain close.
Three of Halimahton's other
children Abraham, 26, Iskander,
21, and 14-year-old Zuleika live
at the comfortable five-bedroom
family home on the outskirts of
Coventry, while her eldest daughter
Aisha, 25, lives nearby with her
husband and visits regularly.
All fiercely intelligent Iskander
attended Warwick University from
the age of 12, and Aisha at the age
of 15 they seem to have escaped
the tortured circumstances their
sister finds herself in, and do not
seem a dysfunctional clan.
The house is warm and comfortable,
strewn with the usual
paraphernalia of family life.
2004: She marries Jonathan Marshall
centre, Halimahton clearly retains
a close bond with her children.
Yet it is within this same family
that, as a teenager, Sufiah, in that
angry email written after she had
run away from Oxford, claimed
she had been subjected to "years
of physical and emotional abuse".
Her father, she said, bullied his
children intellectually and physically,
flying into fits of rage if he felt
they were not working hard
The routine was so
effective that at 12 Sufiah had
already passed three A-levels.
Today, her siblings agree their father could be difficult but insist
he was not fundamentally violent.
"It was like he had something to
prove, as if he wanted to use us to
get back at the world," Iskander, a
computer programmer, says.
"He would be fine but then he
would scream and shout. It was
the thought of it that scared us as
much as it happening."
he smacked them.
For a woman clearly devoted to
her children, it seems odd Halimahton
did not intervene but
while she considered leaving, she
felt trapped by financial worries
and the belief that her husband, at
heart, had good intentions.
Theirs was not the most
conventional of romances.
Halimahton, 51, had
arrived in this country
from her native Malaysia
as a 19-year-old to take up a
sponsored study course at Oxford
College of Further Education.
Within months she had met
Farooq Yusof, also a student who
was living in the same block of
the couple quickly married in a
small ceremony in Oxford in 1975.
By the mid-Eighties, they had
produced four children, who were
all remarkably bright, but Sufiah
"When she was barely 18 months
she could sing whole nursery
"She could recognise numbers
and letters at ten months old,
and do a 20-piece jigsaw upside
"Farooq said she was a little
genius even when she was a baby."
Eventually all the children were
home-schooled, after Sufiah had
told her mother at the age of five: "I
don't like it at school, I want you
to teach me."
apparently felt the same.
But life at home was under a dark
In 1989, Farooq had gone on
the run, implicated in a £1.5million
mortgage fraud, leaving Halimahton
alone to rear four children.
"I didn't even have the energy to
be angry with him," she says. "I was
exhausted trying to make ends
meet and look after the kids."
Three years later, in 1992, her
husband was arrested on his
return to this country and given a
three-year prison sentence for
obtaining mortgages by deception.
When he was released, there was
inevitably a difficult period of occurred to me to separate, but I had
this belief that children need both
parents,' Halimahton says.
"In hindsight, I can see this was
perhaps the wrong decision, but I
kept asking myself: 'If I was one of
the children, what would I want?'
"I was exhausted, and I had four children
who I felt needed their father."
Within months of Farooq's return
she had conceived again, later giving
birth to daughter Zuleika, now 14.
"Farooq could be difficult and I
would try to talk to him, but I would
not have picked Sufi out as suffering
she was the one who got criticised
least," she says.
"But I realise now she
kept everything bottled up."
Nonetheless, it is not difficult to
imagine the impact this pressured
environment had on a clever adolescent
So brilliant was Sufiah
that by 12, she had been accepted to
study maths at Oxford.
"Whenever we asked her, she was
adamant she wanted to go,"
But the family did
not take into account the fact that
Sufiah was still a child on the day
she enrolled she chipped her front
tooth while riding on a seesaw.
When asked how she was coping
with her degree, Sufiah would maintain
she was "fine".
In fact, she was
struggling under what she felt was an
increasing pressure to perform.
"My father found out she had not
been doing as well as he hoped and
he took it very badly," Iskander says.
"He became obsessed with her
getting back on track. For Sufi it only
exacerbated the pressure she put on
herself. She felt she couldn't get away
But any danger signals passed by
largely unnoticed by the family until it
was too late.
On June 22, 2000, the day
she should have boarded a train home
from Oxford after finishing her third
year exams, Sufiah got on a train to
the South Coast instead, leaving
most of her possessions behind.
"I had spoken to her in the morning
and she sounded flat, which I couldn't
understand. I offered to pick her
up and she said: 'I'm OK momma,
I'll make my own way.'"
And she did, to Bournemouth,
where she found work as a waitress,
finding the time to send that bitter
email to her parents.
When traced by the police three
weeks later, she asked to be taken
into foster care. It was a desperate
time for her mother.
"I was deeply upset," she says. "I
didn't understand why it had got to
this, why she had not tried to talk to
"But I didn't want to fight her. I
thought: 'If she's unhappy, let her go,
let her do what she needs to do.'
"My main concern was that she was safe."
Halimahton's eyes fill with tears,
her thoughts tormented by what
might have been.
"Maybe this was a
mistake. Perhaps if I had been firmer,
then perhaps what has happened
now, well "
In fact, there was to be reconciliation:
Sufiah was happy to allow her
mother and siblings to visit her, but
not her father.
"If I tried to talk to her
about what had happened, she would say: "It's fine now, I don't want
to upset you", her mother recalls.
Sufiah seemed to be getting back on
She was studying again at
the local college, and talked of going
back to Oxford, returning aged 18 to
take the final year of her four-year
There, shortly after arrival, she met
Jonathan Marshall, a law student
four years her senior.
to Islam for the sake of his young
girlfriend, and the couple married
With her newfound happiness,
Sufiah agreed to introduce her fiancé
to her father after three years of
"She was anxious, I could see, but
it all unfolded very calmly," Halimahton
"Her father hugged
her and she hugged him back."
All the family attended
the civil wedding dinner
in July 2004, and when, in
the spring of 2005,
Jonathan was posted to
Singapore on a short-term job contract,
Sufiah, who had been working
for a building contractor in Oxford,
moved back to the family home.
The events of the past, however,
were clearly never far from her mind:
her brother Iskander recalls how,
during one emotional discussion, his
sister demanded an apology from her
father for his behaviour in the past.
"He said he was sorry, and she
seemed happy with that, but I
remember wondering if it was
enough," he says.
It clearly wasn't.
Within days, an argument was
sparked between Sufiah and her
father and she packed her bags and
left the family home for good.
had a row and I heard Farooq tell her
to shut up, then within minutes she
had packed her bags and was out the
door," Halimahton recalls.
"I rang her and she was getting a
train to London. She said: 'I'm fed
up with him, he needs psychiatric
Astonishingly, she has had no
verbal contact with her daughter
Voicemails and emails passed
unanswered, the only contact a terse
email, sent in August 2005, in which
Sufiah revealed that she and her husband
Jonathan were separated.
She said she wanted no further
contact with any member of her
family under any circumstances.
"I felt numb," Halimahton says. "I
didn't understand why she felt this
way. I always thought her quarrel was
with her father, not us.
"But I knew it
was pointless to fight her, I had to
respect her decision. I could only
hope she would come back to us."
So far, of course, that hasn't
Instead, Sufiah has gone
down the most depressing path
imaginable, reduced to selling her
body to strangers presumably to
fund an economics course she is
pursuing in London.
It seems the
final desperate act of a profoundly
troubled girl, who can only have been
further distressed by news of her
father's recent misdemeanors.
Halimahton is as bewildered by her
husband's conviction as she is her
"At first I
thought there must have been a
mistake," she says. "There was never
anything to suggest..." she blinks.
"I thought these two girls weren't
telling the truth. But after he pleaded
guilty, I had to accept they were. I
have to accept he has confessed."
His incarceration has, at least,
encouraged Halimahton to divorce
And without Farooq in the
house, Halimahton hopes Sufiah
might feel able to return and that
she might finally be able to prise
from her daughter quite how her
upbringing came to wreak such
For now, however, it seems the
brilliant little girl who could do jigsaw
puzzles as a baby remains hopelessly
incapable of pulling together
the pieces of her own fractured life.
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