Are You A Woman? Know Any Women? Don’t go to Dubai

A really fucked up story which has gotten worldwide attention this week is the Norwegian woman Marte Dalelv who reported a rape in Dubai and ended up being sentenced to prison for extramarital sex. Because in the eyes of the UAE legal system, that was the major problem with her being raped, apparently.

This story is obviously wrong on so many levels. It underscores the still tenuous hold on progress in the field of women’s rights happening on the Arab peninsula right now. Women are making major gains in education, employment, increased political representation and rights. There seems to be an understanding at some levels of the political establishment that women need to play a big part in the future of the region. And that concessions need to be made to avoid political unrest in the wake of the Arab Spring. This change is reflected both in actual political, economic gains for women and on a popular cultural level. There also seems to be increasing tolerance for sex and booze in practice, though the law has yet to catch up.

As a result, despite the double standards and the hypocrisy, I’ve actually been fairly optimistic. The United Arab Emirates are working up from a really bad baseline level. This is an old, established, rooted patriarchy. But one in which some forces are working hard and with a strong wind in their backs to make progress. Especially female activists themselves — some of which I’ve had the pleasure of meeting — who are really making headway.

However, there are still major, major issues with sexual and reproductive rights and political and legal restraints on women. Some of them are brought to light in this bizarre case.

When the victim is turned into the perpetrator, up becomes down and right becomes wrong. This is, apparently, something that happens with alarming regularity in Dubai. In keeping with what Human Rights Watch’s Nadya Khalife in a scathing piece calls Dubai’s “shameful record” on rape. It has lead to a culture of silence around the issue of sexual assault and rape.

More urgently, though, it has created a profound insecurity for women in the UAE. Because, duh, if women get the sense that if they report a rape they might end up in jail for letting someone rape them, they’re going to think that the law might not be entirely on their side. How many women would not report a rape? A 2010 survey showed that 55 % of women in Dubai would not report a sexual assault to the police (men would totally trust the police about a sexual assault, says the survey, so as you can see, women in Dubai have idiot men around them at all times). They just wouldn’t do it.

That’s a profound failure of the Dubai legal system to ensure justice at the most basic level for half the population.

Why does this happen? I think for two reasons. One is patriarchy blah blah blah and the fact that Arab society has been structured for centuries to dominate and oppress women.

The other is a little interesting, and it echoes something that I read recently. It’s in the classic and influential study of racism in the USA, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (full text online here, Amazon here), by  the Swedish social scientist and Nobel in economics laureate Gunnar Myrdal. In a footnote somewhere, Myrdal makes a completely offhand remark about the legal system which stuck with me: 

The tendencies of unsophisticated thinking to be “theoretical” are worthy of much more study than they have been given hitherto. They can be illustrated from all spheres of human life. To give an example outside our problem: The most human concept, bona fide, in jurisprudence is a late juridistical development in all civilizations; originally legal systems are formalistic and behavioristic (they do not consider people’s intentions) ; bona fide is even today only the trained lawyer’s way of thinking and has as yet, never and nowhere really been understood by the mass of laymen whose thinking on legal matters always seems formalistic to the lawyer. [my bold]

800px-City_of_Dubai_at_Night%2C_United_Arab_Emirates[1]

That’s the misogyny glowing in the dark.

So one component of this reaction is probably that the repressive and anti-women legal system in Dubai is permeated by this kind of dogmatic formalism which is so strikingly present in a lot of religious law. If a woman has sex, then she has committed a crime no matter what her intentions were or what the situation was — ergo jail. The mind boggles at this basic failure to understand the radical proposition that women are people, but this way of thinking is a deeper problem that goes beyond just this one case, or this one kind of case, or this one country. You see it in all sorts of repressive, misogynistic bullshit cases in repressive, misogynistic countries the world over.

Obviously, this is an untenable situation and it needs to be fixed. The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation just reported that Norway’s minister of foreign affairs, Espen Barth Eide is optimistic and engaged in high-level talks about the case of Marte Dalelv. So that’s promising.

But this is not about Marte Dalelv, it’s about women and people who think women are equal to men not taking this shit from a nation that wants to be modern. If Dubai wants to keep participating in the international economy — and it so, so does — there needs to be a show that Dubai is concerned with the rights of women and about sexual assault. And that’s not even getting me started on LGBT rights in the UAE.

But, wonderfully, there’s something you can do about it. Tourism is, along with oil, the primary driver of the Dubai economy and the property boom going on right now, with 31 % of the 2011 GNP being generated by the tourist industry. A drop in tourism would really hurt.

So here’s what I suggest we all agree to:

Are you a woman? Do you know people who are women? Don’t travel to Dubai until Dubai gets real about rape. It’s simple. And it’s literally the least we can do.

Update: There’s also an Avaaz campaign, a Facebook page and a twitter hashtag: #releasemarte

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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