This article provides an analytical framework to assess the situation of women’s rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and this especially after the rape of a Norwegian national in 2013. Concerning the general context of the UAE, the country creation dates back to 1971. Since the discovery of oil in the 60s, the role of women in UAE society has gradually established itself over the years[1]. Today, Emirati women are well represented in all levels of society (72% of women go to universities)[2]. Concerning the women’s rights however, Human Rights Watch has recently published a global report for 2014 concerning the UAE, which shows that women’s rights are very low in comparison with Western societies. For example, the UAE Constitution does not address the gender concept (article 25)[3]. Also, should a woman complain of rape, she could risk criminal prosecution[4]. In the United Arab Emirates, a rape is a serious criminal offence punishable by death under article 354 (three fifty four)[5] of the penal code but many victims remain reluctant to report the crime for fear that they will be accused of adultery, and for the shame this represents towards the society and their families[6].

 

Discrimination against women in the UAE Penal Code

The criminal act of « zina » – which means any illicit sexual relation between a man and a woman, especially outside of marriage – violates international law and human rights. The UAE ratified the Convention for Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2004 but with extensive reservations[7].

The courts of the UAE condemn the offence of « zina » under article 356 (three fifty six) of the Penal Code, punishable by a minimum sentence of one year of jail. In some cases, the courts have imposed stronger criminal penalties (such as lapidation and flogging – flagellation)[8]. The offense of « zina » is often applied in a discriminatory way on the basis of gender: women are more affected because the pregnancy is used as « evidence » of the offense[9]. Besides, members of the hospital are required to report to the police women who choose abortion or are pregnant outside of marriage[10].

Finally, women can also be condemned under article 358 (three fifty eight) of the UAE Penal Code, which incriminates « scandalous and disgraceful acts » (but this term is still undefined by the court by the way)[11]. This charge was used to condemn people for public acts of affection – such as kissing or hugging, regardless of whether they are married or not[12].

Insufficient protection against rape and sexual harassment in the UAE

To prosecute and condemn rape cases is difficult because of the social attitudes of ethical behaviour in the UAE[13]. For example, some indicative factors are given to the police, prosecutors and courts to assess the credibility of a woman who alleges a rape. These factors include:

– If she was drunk ;

– If she knew the perpetrator of the rape ;

– If she sufficiently resisted to the attack ;

– And if she agreed to go for a car ride alone with the alleged rapper[14].

Besides the risk of prosecution, a rape victim in the UAE is generally socially rejected, even by her own family[15]. For many Emiratis, the honour of a family depends on the good reputation of the woman. Finally, the UAE criminalizes sexual contact between a single man and a single woman because this represents defying Islam. This puts rape victims in a disadvantage situation because they can be prosecuted and punished for « illegal mixture » if they cannot meet the strict standards of evidence required for rape.

According to a survey of 323 (three hundred and twenty three) women in the UAE, more than 50% of respondents said they would not report the rape to the police. Indeed, like we saw before, in many cases, women are obliged to face to a trial[16].

The UAE law criminalizes rape and harassment, but the law is clearly inadequate to protect women against those crimes. For instance, women who have been raped or sexually harassed risk of being condemned of the « zina » offence[17]. The UAE and the international media reported several cases of women who have been condemned for having illicit sexual relations after alleging rape. This is the case of Marte Dalely, a 24 year old Norwegian woman.

Court cases of sexual violence on foreign women

The case concerned Marte Dalelv who was condemned in 2013 while she was on a business trip to Dubai. After deposit of a lawsuit for rape against a Sudanese colleague, the Norwegian was sentenced to 16 months in prison for extra-marital sex, illicit alcohol and misrepresentation[18]. In fact, the police did not believe her claim that the sex was non-consensual. Norway and the International Community were revolted, alleging a breach of human rights by the United Arab Emirates[19]. The situation has created a diplomatic incident and forced the Sheikh of Dubai (who is the vice president of the UAE) to pardon the Norwegian[20].

Unfortunately, Marte’s case is neither the first nor the last one. Indeed, Westerners are more and more likely to travel to the United Arab Emirates, and many of them are ignorant about the legislation that is very different from European countries. For example, Islamic law does not recognize a person guilty of rape if this person recognizes the facts itself. Or, a rape conviction requires a confession of four adults male.

After the case of Norway national, it was the turn of a Muslim Austrian to face a similar situation. The case dates back to December 2013. The woman of 29 years old, claims to have been sexually assaulted by a young Yemeni. When she complained to the police the rape, the man denied and claimed having had paid sexual services. At the end, despite the confiscation of her passport, she finally returned to Austria in January 2014[21]. In those two cases, women who reported being raped were condemned to jail for « having extra-marital relations » but in this second one we see that Islamic law is much more serious with Muslim women than women of other faiths, regardless of their country[22].

Small improvements in women’s rights but gradual in UAE

After those two cases, Human rights groups hope that the UAE’s media’s attention will oblige a review of the laws to protect victims of sexual violence. Norway also reminded the UAE’s obligations under UN agreements to fully investigate claims of violence against women. Until the laws are reformed, victims of sexual violence in the UAE will continue to suffer in this way and we will likely see more cases like this[23]. We see here the real impact and consequences of the globalization in the human rights.

In the recent years, only small improvements have been observed in terms of civil liberties and political rights for women[24]. Women in the UAE have obtained legal protection measures. Although gradual, the evolution of women’s rights is very favorable for them but level of freedom in this country shows a very low class. However, some laws continue to discriminate Emirati women. There are victims of Sharia judicial punishments derivatives such as lapidating and flogging[25].

The sentence against Marte Dalelv – which is the most famous case – caused a wave of indignation in the Western countries and highlighted the clash between Western way of life and Islamic legal code, or sharia[26]. In a way, it shows the impact of the globalisation in a regional issue (the Sharia or Islamic law). These legal cases could have been the trigger for a change in the UAE for the women’s rights, but no change has been observed. The State stay very conservative and linked religious and cultural principles and concepts.

 

 

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[1] Felicitas Fyfe, C., (2013). A comparison of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates. p.17.

[2] Sanja, K., Breslin, J., (2010). Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, p.2.

[3] F.I.D.H., (2010). Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). p.4.

[4] Social Institutions & Gender Index, (2010). United Arab Emirates. OECD Development Centre. p.3.

[5] Felicitas Fyfe, C., (2013). A comparison of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates. p.52.

[6] Directorate General for External Policies, (2012). Women’s Rights during Democratic Trasitions. p.40.

[7] Felicitas Fyfe, C., (2013). A comparison of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates. p.23.

[8] F.I.D.H., (2010). Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). p.4.

[9] Felicitas Fyfe, C., (2013). A comparison of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates. p.13.

[10] Social Institutions & Gender Index, (2010). United Arab Emirates. OECD Development Centre. p.4.

[11] Social Institutions & Gender Index, (2010). United Arab Emirates. OECD Development Centre. p.3.

[12] European Parliament, (2012). Human rights situation in the United Arab Emirates. Resolution.

[13] Social Institutions & Gender Index, (2010). United Arab Emirates. OECD Development Centre. p.3.

[14] Felicitas Fyfe, C., (2013). A comparison of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates. p.48.

[15] F.I.D.H., (2010). Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). p.5.

[16] Dupont, K., (2012). Perles des Emirats. Edition du Moment. p.114.

[17] Felicitas Fyfe, C., (2013). A comparison of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates. p.48.

[18] Williams, C., (2013), Norwegian who reporte drape in Dubai pardoned but laws still target victims, Los Angeles Times.

[19] Human Rights Watch, (2014). United Arab Emirates. World Report.

[20] Goulding, N., Deaton J., Smith-Spark, L., (2013). Dubai ruler pardons Norwegian woman convicted after she reporte drape. CNN.

[21] Stolz, J., (2014). L’Autrichienne menacée de prison après un viol a pu quitter Dubaï. Le Monde.

[22] Sanja, K., Breslin, J., (2010). Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa. p.10.

[23] Dupont, K., (2012). Perles des Emirats. Edition du Moment. p.112.

[24] Felicitas Fyfe, C., (2013). A comparison of Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates. p.8.

[25] F.I.D.H., (2010). Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). p.5.

[26] Human Rights Watch, (2014). United Arab Emirates. World Report.