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By Racha Haffar
Rape, a taboo topic in many societies, is a particularly sensitive topic in the Middle East. When 24 year-old Norwegian interior designer Marte Deborah Dalelv told authorities in Dubai, United Arab Emirates that her boss had raped her, she was convicted and sentenced to 16 months in jail on charges of unlawful relations, falsely reporting rape and drinking alcohol. The case made headlines in part due to her foreign status and came under scrutiny by human rights organizations.
Dalelv’s experience highlights concerns that harsh laws in the United Arab Emirates can leave women vulnerable to sexual abuses. Human rights groups have heavily criticized the UAE, saying it overlooks sexual violence against women. Human Rights Watch has called its record “shameful,” saying it has to change the way it handles such cases.
The country’s legal system has increasingly attracted international attention for being profoundly influenced by conservative Islamic traditions in a nation where foreign workers and tourists outnumber locals.
Previous cases in the UAE have raised similar questions about police accountability. On July 18 Dubai police said they arrested a man who posted a video of an Emirati beating a South Asian van driver after an apparent traffic dispute. Police said they took the action because images of a potential crime were “shared.”
Rori Donaghy, spokesperson for the Emirates Center for Human Rights in London, a group that monitors UAE affairs, said in a July 22 press release that the Dalelv case demonstrates the need for the UAE to expand its legal protections for alleged rape victims.
“We urge authorities to reform the laws governing incidents of rape in the country,” Donaghy said, “to ensure women are protected against sexual violence and do not become the targets of prosecution when reporting crimes.”
Dalelv’s case brings to mind two cases involving British women in Dubai. In December 2012, a British woman reported being raped by three men and was later found guilty of drinking without a license and was fined. In January 2010, another British woman was charged with public drunkenness and extramarital relations after telling authorities she had been raped by a hotel employee.
An Australian woman reported in 2008 that she was drugged and gang-raped. She was convicted of having sex outside marriage and drinking alcohol, and she was sentenced to 11 months in prison.
Maria Yrene Sabina, a Filipina living in Dubai, told The Atlantic Post that perspectives on women’s rights need to change in the UAE. “It’s time for the UAE to educate us and define our rights as women regarding rape issues. I’ve lived here for more than 11 years and I always brag about the quality of security in Dubai. However, not taking cases of rape seriously or covering them in media makes me question the country’s ability to protect women.”
Sabina said she was once almost a victim of rape in UAE. After going out with her friends, a man made clear his intention to take advantage of her and rape her. “When the incident happened almost 11 years back, my instinct was to go to police for protection; however, a trusted friend suggested that it was not the best idea to resort to police as I might be put into question instead and be prosecuted in effect.”
“Hence, I was told not to depend on the police. The key here is to empower us with our rights in this country, and help us avoid being ignorant of our own rights and fight when we are victims,” Sabina added.
“Until laws are reformed, victims of sexual violence in the UAE will continue to suffer in this way and we will likely see more cases such as this one,” Donaghy added. He said the organization received several calls this year from foreign women in Dubai who had suffered sexual assaults but were too frightened to report them to police. “With 1 million British tourists visiting the city each year, the British government needed to make the legal situation clear.”
Doneghy called for legal reforms, saying, “It is clearly a human rights violation in that the law does not provide adequate protection for victims of sexual violence.” He added, “While we are pleased that Marte can now return home to Norway, her pardon still suggests that she was somehow guilty of a crime. Until laws are reformed, victims of sexual violence in the UAE will continue to suffer in this way and we will likely see more cases such as this one.”
Authorities should change laws to ensure victims “are protected, feel comfortable reporting crimes and are able to fairly pursue justice,” Doneghy said, explaining that victims should receive support and protection from the law.
Dalelv was on a business trip in Dubai and went out for dinner with colleagues. She reported to the police that her boss has raped her in his room after dragging her there on March 6.
Dubai authorities did not respond to media inquiries for comments. The case has angered many human rights groups in the West, as well as the Norwegian authorities since Dalelv was sentenced on July 17.
Norway’s foreign minister Espen Barth Eide told the NTB news agency, “This verdict flies in the face of our notion of justice” and called the situation “highly problematic from a human rights perspective.”
When Dalelv appeared in court, she admitted to drinking alcohol, but denied having consensual relations and falsely reporting to police that she was raped. The case was complicated by a lack of evidence of physical violence in the police forensic report.
Dalelv’s 33-year-old Sudanese boss, who accompanied her to Dubai on a business visit from Qatar, pleaded guilty and confessed to consensual relations. He was jailed for 13 months for consuming alcohol and having extramarital relations. While in Dubai alcohol is sold widely, any evidence of drinking in public can bring charges.
Dalelv, who stayed at the Norwegian Christian Centre in Dubai pending the appeal, said a male colleague pulled her into his hotel room and raped her after she asked him to help her find her own room when they had a few drinks out with their colleagues until 3 a.m.
Abu Gareda, her advocate, told Gulf News that Dalelv first reported rape but then was advised to claim consensual relations to get a reduced sentence. This mix-up contributed to the outcome of a jail sentence.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Dalelv said that she fled to the hotel lobby and asked the reception staff to call the police after the alleged attack. The hotel staff asked if she was sure she wanted to involve the police in this, she said.
“Of course I want to call the police,” she said. “That is the natural reaction where I am from.” She said she was held in custody for four days before being able to reach her stepfather in Norway.
Norway’s foreign minister said he and other “very high-level” Norwegian officials had been in daily contact with high officials in the United Arab Emirates since the judgment against Dalelv.
Norwegian diplomats secured her release after the police confiscated her passport and seized her money. She was allowed to remain at the Norwegian Embassy but chose to stay at the Seamen’s Center in central Dubai to show that she was not hiding.
Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, vice president and ruler of Dubai, pardoned Dalelv after a week of international outrage and diplomatic pressure. Dalelv left the UAE on July 23, a day after being pardoned.
“I warmly welcome that Marte Dalelv was pardoned by the ruler of Dubai today. The fight for human rights for all continues,” Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s foreign minister, said on his Twitter account.
Racha Haffar is an Atlantic Post contributor based in Dubai, UAE and Tunis, Tunisia.