There is something perverse about a legal system when a country’s vice president must pardon an alleged rape victim. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler and the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, summarily dismissed Marte Deborah Dalelv’s case one week after she was sentenced to prison following her retraction of a rape accusation in March.
The pardon – while pleasing to a news cycle that glories in swift wins – will offer no justice for the victim, or for the alleged attacker, who also returns home without a sentence.
More importantly, the royal pardon does little to reform deeply flawed notions surrounding sexual violence in the UAE and the Gulf region.
In 2010, an 18-year-old Emirati girl was infamously charged with consensual sex in Abu Dhabi after reporting that six men had gang-raped her. The court ruled that the victim engaged in “consensual sex” partly because she had agreed to enter the car of one of one of the men – an act of willingness that denoted she knew what she was getting into. The shame and fear of dishonouring her family, as well as the indignity of having to defend herself in the same court room as her assailants, compounded the punishment for crime that she did not commit.
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Alicia Gali also suffered an equally bewildering verdict. The 29-year-old Australian hotel employee spent 8 months in a Dubai jail after reportedly being gang-raped by several co-workers in 2008. Similar to Dalelv, she was unsure whether or not to report the event to authorities for fear of being imprisoned.
More worryingly, the royal pardon – an extraordinary option external to the UAE’s legal system – doesn’t address the muddled legal distinction between “rape” and “sex without consent” that allows courts to impose lighter sentences for the accused.
It also sets a twisted precedent for future cases in the UAE and throughout the region.
One woman’s “victory” has come at the expense of a multitude of silences, and a message that rather than engage in deep reform, authorities can choose to wash their hands of unpalatable cases when international pressure compels.
Each case highlights a deeply flawed legal code and the unhealthy social norms that surround the reporting of sexual crimes by women in the UAE. In an effort to side-step the death penalty from crimes of rape (imposed by the fact that criminal law is not meant to deviate from Sharia), courts often charge attackers with a non-violent misdemeanour of “sex without consent” or “indecent assault” that can carry a lighter sentence because there is no hard evidence to prove rape. In 2010, for instance, a man received a six-month sentence for repeatedly raping his Ethiopian housemaid in Abu Dhabi because the woman had reported the crime months later, and no evidence could be found of the assault.
For Dalelv’s case to truly mean something, it must spark serious and realistic reform. Taking a hard look at the applicability of the UAE’s penal code to violent sexual crimes, as well as sexual misconduct, is one way to begin. There should be no logical reason that a downgrade from “rape” to “indecent assault” implies an acquittal or light sentences for assailants; and there is no reason that a woman should feel compelled to plead guilty to consensual sex when she was raped because she fears a jail sentence for a crime she did not commit.
Unlike Dalelv, who possessed bold personal temperament and strong political support from her home country, most women working in the Gulf region will not report rape or sexual abuse. According to Dubai Police, only 9.5 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported, and a 2010 YouGov Siraj poll found that more than 50 percent of women in the UAE indicated they would not report a rape to the police. Forty-nine percent of respondents feared that they would be judged by society or accused of “immoral” behaviour.
Adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual violence is the only way to fundamentally shift the conversation.
While such cases are certainly not endemic to the UAE or the Gulf region – Dubai recently upheld a 10-year court sentence for another rape case – they highlight a recurring trend of unjust verdicts and misguided action when it comes to prosecuting violent sexual crimes. The Gulf States perennially stand at the cross-hairs of scrutiny all the more because of their demographic gender imbalances and previously mottled human rights records.
The UAE and its neighbours would do well to understand that rape is not a sexual act. It’s an act of violence and power. In countries like the UAE where there is an inherent power imbalance between those who are citizens and those who are guest workers, those who hold the “right” type of nationality and those who do not, those who are visible and those who remain hidden, abuse of power – including rape – will not be fixed through presidential pardons alone.
Effie-Michelle Metallidis is a former editorial writer and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, who has worked in the United Arab Emirates.
Follow her on twitter: @effiemichelle