Women’s rights in the UAE
The UAE government claims that “the empowerment of women is fundamental for our development as a modern and progressive society. Women participate on an equal basis in every facet of civic, economic and political life in the UAE.” However in reality, women remain second class citizens in the UAE and face a daily struggle of discrimination. The legal framework discriminates against women in regards to equality to men, marriage, nationality, and freedom of movement. Furthermore, violence against women, especially migrant domestic workers, is high as the law provides no safeguards against gender-based violence, domestic violence or rape. Women are particularly vulnerable due to the strict Sharia laws that are still applicable in the UAE.
Although the UAE constitution grants general equality before the law in Article 25, the second part of this article lacks the important legal prohibition of gender-based discrimination, only stating that “no discrimination shall be practised between citizens of the Union by reason of race, nationality, religious belief or social position.”
This inequality permeates the whole legal framework of the UAE. The Personal Status Law of 2005, which is based on Sharia law and governs topics such as marriage and divorce, discriminates severely against women. Preventing women from making their own decisions, this law prescribes women to have a male guardian. Without their guardian’s consent, women cannot marry or travel abroad, which violates their right to freedom of movement guaranteed by Article 29 of the UAE constitution. Men are even allowed by law to hold back their wives’ passport in order to prevent them from travelling.
The Personal Status Law gives the husband the right to the “wilful obedience” of his wife, and it is also his right that his wife looks after the house and raises his children. Being disobedient is, for example, a woman working in a job without her husband’s consent. Furthermore, being only physical guardians to their children, women only have a right to custody until their children turn 13 and 11, for girls and boys respectively. Sharia law allows men to marry up to four women and men hold the unilateral right to divorce. If Emirati women want to marry foreign men, they have to obtain a license, otherwise they risk losing their citizenship. Men, on the other hand, are free to marry foreign women and are able to transfer the Emirati nationality to their wives. Furthermore, nationality can only be passed on to children by the father.
The UAE not only lacks the highly important legal framework to protect women from domestic violence and rape, but the penal code actually allows men to chastise their wives and children as long as the punishment does not exceed the prescriptions of Sharia law. Marital rape is not punishable at all and rape is only mentioned in one article of the penal code, defining it as “coercion in sexual intercourse”, which only occurs “if the victim at the time of the crime was under fourteen years of age.”
All sexual relations outside of marriage are illegal in the UAE and punishable by a prison sentence of at least one year. Therefore, women who have been sexually assaulted or raped cannot report these crimes without fear of being prosecuted themselves. In a study, Dubai police found that only 9.5% of all sexual assaults are ever reported. Complicating the situation even further, abortion is illegal and cases of pregnancy resulting from rape are no exception.
As it is not illegal, female genital mutilation (FGM) is still practised in the UAE. The Ministry of Health prohibits the practice in state hospitals and clinics, however FGM is usually performed by traditional midwives and thus girls continue to be circumcised secretly. In a study from 2011, Wafa Al Marzouqi found that 34% of the women interviewed had been subject to FGM.
One of the most vulnerable groups of women in the UAE are migrant workers, who constitute an enormous part of the country’s work force. Among them are around 146,000 female domestic workers, coming from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Ethiopia. Domestic workers are excluded from labour law protections and have no other legal framework protecting their rights. In a report about the plight of female migrant domestic workers in the UAE, Human Rights Watch found that many of them are not paid their full wages, not allowed breaks or time off, are confined to their employer’s house, and are supposed to work excessive hours, sometimes up to 21 per day. Domestic workers are often physically, psychologically, and sexually abused. They are denied adequate food, living conditions, or medical treatment.
Additionally, the kafala system, a system of visa sponsorship common in the Gulf region, leaves women even more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Under the kafala system, workers are tied to their employers as they sponsor the worker’s visa, meaning the employer has great power over the worker. In many cases, employers confiscate the workers’ passports, trapping them in the country and forcing them to live in servitude without pay, which amounts to human trafficking. Female migrant workers are not only trafficked into forced domestic labour but also into the sex industry.
When the UAE ratified the UN Convention for Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2004, they only did so with extensive reservations. The UAE declares that they do not consider themselves bound by the articles that give women equal rights to nationality matters and equal legal rights. The reservation in regards to marriage and family relations states that the UAE will only abide by the provisions as long as they do not conflict with Sharia law. In addition to these reservations, the UAE does not recognise Article 2f, which urges the State Parties “To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women.” Essentially, this way the UAE is able to disregard most parts of the convention, under the guise of it conflicting with Sharia law. The reservation concerning Article 2f shows that the UAE is not willing to change their discriminatory laws or to ensure the end of discrimination against women.
In March 2013, Norwegian interior designer Marte Deborah Dalelv, 24, was raped while on a business trip to Dubai. When she reported the attack to the police, instead of being helped she was arrested herself for having sexual relations outside of marriage. The UAE penal code places any extramarital sexual relations under punishment, including rape. Dalelv was sentenced under this law to 16 months of prison. Arguing that the arrest violates human rights, the Norwegian government put pressure on UAE authorities to release Dalelv, who was eventually pardoned by the ruler of Dubai and allowed to go home.
The abuse of female detainees in UAE prisons
In a series of letters and audio recordings smuggled out of Abu Dhabi’s al Wathba prison, female detainees have revealed torture, degrading treatment and inhuman conditions.
In a hand-written letter, 36-year old Amina al-Abdouli explained that she was forced to stand blindfolded for four consecutive hours with her hands and feet tied. She was then tortured by being drenched in water and was beaten on the head, face and across her body. The assaults came with curses and insults against her family.
21-year-old Mariam al-Balushi reveals in her letter that she was repeatedly hit on her head and face and emotionally abused by threats of rape.
Both women say they suffered visual impairments as a result of the beatings to the head. However, no adequate medical care was provided to them.
Amina went on to describe the fate of a fellow detainee, Faten Aman, a Canadian-Egyptian citizen, who was brutally whipped and beaten as well as burned with cigarettes all over her body.
Both accounts furthermore, report appalling prison conditions: detainees were denied clean drinking water, and served inadequate food resulting in ill-health. The women argue that the al Wathba administration does not provide any of the inmates’ basic needs.
To make things worse, cells in al Wathba are overcrowded and crawling with insects, such as ants and cockroaches. Cells are designed for eight people each, but up to 80 prisoners are forced into each cell. There are four bunk-beds in each cell, with four people sleeping on each bed and the rest sleeping on the floor.
Air conditioners are turned off during the summer for up to six months, making living conditions unbearable. Meanwhile, in winter, filthy, foul-smelling blankets are distributed to prisoners.
The inmates are denied their right to communicate with family members over the phone and the families are prevented from visiting them.
The appalling conditions at al Wathba prison lead detainees to think of committing suicide: Mariam writes that in May 2017, a Chinese woman hanged herself in front of the cameras and remained suspended for four hours; a Moroccan woman threw herself from the top floor. Mariam herself tried twice to kill herself.
- Report by Human Rights Watch on the abuse and exploitation of female migrant domestic workers in the UAE:
- More information on Dalelv’s case: