On the last night of a business trip in Dubai on March 6, Marte Deborah Dalelv, a 24-year-old interior designer from Norway, went out with female colleagues from her own country; some male Qatari colleagues joined them. As Dalelv told Norwegian news site VG Nett, “The morning after, I woke up being raped, my clothes were taken off and I was lying on my stomach.”
When Dalelv went to the police, she was arrested and detained for four days and her passport was taken from her. Last week, she was sentenced to 16 months in prison on charges of extramarital sex, alcohol and perjury. A global uproar arose after Dalelv went public about her ordeal. This Monday, she was told that she was pardoned and her passport was returned to her.
Dalelv is now free to leave Dubai, but her case highlights the risks for foreigners in the United Arab Emirates and, even more, how societies in the Middle East seek to control women via restrictions on how they dress and what they do in public.
In just six decades, Dubai has been transformed from a small fishing village into a global commerce center known for its oil wealth and “larger-than-life offers” such as a recent plan to offer residents gold for losing weight. While it markets itself as a cosmopolitan and international city where tourists say alcohol is readily available in restaurants and hotels, Dubai remains strongly influenced by Islamic traditions.
Thousands of Westerners and others are on resident visas to work and live in the emirate; they outnumber the country’s own citizens. While Dubai’s law that makes extramarital sex a crime is often not enforced for foreigners, they have still been arrested for small public displays of affection and for, like Dalelv, reporting that they have been raped.
A young British woman of Pakistani descent who reported being raped by a hotel employee on New Year’s Eve in 2009 was arrested and, along with her fiancé, charged with having illegal sex and alcohol consumption. Both had their passports taken from them and could face up to six years in prison, as Nadya Khalife wrote in 2010. A British couple, Ayman Najafi and Charlotte Adams, were jailed for a month in 2010 after what Najafi said was an “innocuous peck on the cheek” in a restaurant; a witness claimed they had kissed on the mouth.
Dalelv’s arrest after reporting she was raped shows that things have not changed. Back in March, Dubai hotel workers expressed reservations when Dalelv asked that the police be contacted about what had happened to her. Dalelv says she was given a medical examination to check for evidence of rape after police were alerted and also a blood test for alcohol. But the police also asked Dalelv “did you come to us because you didn’t like it?” and then arrested her. Dalelv was placed in a prison cell for four days until she was able to contact her father on a borrowed phone.
Saying that Dalelv’s situation “flies in the face of our notion of justice” and is “highly problematic from a human rights perspective,” Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide condemned her sentencing. The Norwegian government was able to secure Dalelv’s conditional release; after being charged, she was placed under the protection of the Norwegian Seamen’s Center in Dubai.
Dalelv’s attacker was reportedly sentenced to 13 months in prison for extramarital sex and alcohol consumption. For someone to be convicted of rape in Dubai, there must be a confession or testimony from four adult male witnesses.
Gisle Meling, the minister to the Norwegian Seamen’s church in Dubai, described Dalelv’s conviction as one in which “the legal system here has obviously taken the information she has given them and concluded she is guilty of something else” because of “their Sharia legislation.”
Before boarding a flight to return to Norway, Dalelv made sure to thank those at the Seaman’s Center who had supported her through the past few months. It is a great relief to know that she has been pardoned. But the fact remains that in Dubai women, whether tourists or residents, can still be convicted of illegal acts when they are innocent and have themselves been subjected to violent crimes.
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