Saturday 3 July 2010

How the UAE condones sexual violence

In the United Arab Emirates, a country that prides itself on modernity and its willingness to advance women's rights, the criminal court in Abu Dhabi has sentenced an 18-year-old Emirati woman to a year in prison for illicit sex after she reported that six men had gang-raped her.

Sadly, her treatment, though outrageous, is not unusual in the UAE. It comes as no surprise that more than half of Emirati women questioned in a survey in January by the YouGov Siraj consulting organisation said they would not report sexual assault or rape to police.

The woman, whose name authorities have not made public, said in court that she had agreed to go for a drive with a 19-year-old male friend. News media reported that she said the friend called five other men to meet them, and when they arrived, they raped her.

During the first hearing on 17 May in Abu Dhabi's criminal court, the six men were charged with rape, four in absentia as the authorities had not found them. The forensics unit at the Abu Dhabi judicial department noted that evidence of assault was visible on the woman's body. Despite the physical evidence and the charges against all six men, the criminal court also charged the woman with illicit sex, or sex outside marriage, which is punishable by imprisonment and flogging in the UAE. The prosecutor argued that the fact that she went for a drive with a man was sufficient proof that she consented to having sex.

A week later, during the second hearing, the woman retracted her statement, reportedly to avoid lashes and a jail sentence for extramarital sex. She said that she was beaten by her brother after he found out that she had been speaking to men, and that as a result, she decided to report that she had been raped.

On 13 June, the Abu Dhabi criminal court sentenced both the woman and her 19-year-old friend to one year in prison for engaging in consensual sex. The court acquitted all the men of rape, finding four of them guilty of less serious charges of "moral crime".

The UAE has made commendable strides in promoting women's education, entrepreneurship and political participation. When it comes to seeking justice for sexual violence, however, women in the UAE still face formidable – and often insurmountable – barriers.

Rape is a serious crime in the UAE, but the very act of reporting a rape automatically puts a woman in danger of being charged with illicit sex. The law places an almost impossible burden of proof on rape victims to show that sex was nonconsensual.

In a similar case reported earlier this year, a British woman told Dubai police that a hotel worker raped her while she was on vacation in Dubai with her fiancé to celebrate their engagement. The Dubai criminal court charged the woman and her fiancé with having sex outside marriage. The same court charged the hotel worker with rape.

When the couple provided documents to prove that they were planning to get married, the extramarital sex charges against them were dropped. But the court also freed the hotel worker, and the public prosecutor appears to have concluded that the woman had fabricated the story.

On top of risking prosecution, a rape survivor in the UAE is also likely to face ostracism by society, and even her family. For many Emiratis, a family's honour depends on a woman's good reputation, and society is quick to judge sexual assault victims as "immoral".

By making it almost impossible for a victim to prove rape, and then treating the brave few who choose to report rape as criminals, the UAE discriminates against women and violates their fundamental right to due process of the law. This treatment causes women to live in fear and makes the trauma of rape worse.

The UAE, first and foremost, urgently needs to reform its penal code and rules of evidence. Reporting a rape should never be grounds for charging a victim with illicit sex. And the UAE should ensure that consensual sex in private between adults is not a criminal offence.

The UAE should also improve law enforcement and judicial practices, and offer health and other services to sexual violence victims. Police, investigators, public prosecutors and judges should receive proper training to handle these cases, and policewomen with specialised training should be available to assist and support women who report rape. Instead of being thrown behind bars, rape victims should receive medical treatment, psychological counselling and other support services.

Finally, the UAE should do more to promote women's full equality in society, including combating stereotyped views concerning women's morality and sexuality. The UAE's law on illicit sex is not unusual in the region, but the government's public commitment to gender equality is. If the UAE is serious about promoting women's rights, it needs to ensure an effective response to sexual violence.


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