Dubai leader's domestic abuse undermines Emirate's hollow gender reforms

Dubai leader's domestic abuse undermines Emirate's hollow gender reforms
Comment: The UAE ruler's superficial efforts to combat domestic violence are falling woefully short, writes Alainna Liloia.
6 min read
13 Mar, 2020
Princess Haya fled to London from Dubai last April with her two children [AFP]
A UK court ruled last week that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, orchestrated the kidnapping of two of his daughters and subjected his wife to a campaign of "intimidation." 

The ruling places the spotlight on the problems faced by women - and not just princesses - in the UAE, and elsewhere in the Gulf.  

The allegations against Sheikh Mohammed were made by his estranged wife, Princess Haya of Jordan, who fled to London from Dubai last April with her two children. The court found Sheikh Mohammed's harassment of his wife included leaving guns in her room, divorcing her without telling her, attempting to have her abducted, and threatening to take her children away.  

Princess Haya was not the first to flee the clutches of Sheikh Mohammed. The court found that he organised the abductions of two of his daughters from a previous marriage, Shamsa and Princess Latifa, after they attempted to escape their father's family in 2000 and 2018, respectively.

Sheikh Mohammed forcibly returned them to Dubai, where they remain "deprived of liberty". Princess Latifa, who previously attempted to escape in 2002, also 
alleges that her father abused and tortured her repeatedly over a period of years. 

The Dubai ruler's treatment of his former wife and daughters draws attention to issues in the UAE faced by women of all social classes, and exposes the superficial nature of his gender reforms. The ruler's claims to advance gender equality ring hollow when his own example is characterised by the egregious abuse of his female family members. 

Like his ally, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Mohammed claims to advance gender equality. The Dubai ruler even touts his efforts to combat domestic violence through social reforms. In reality, however, he continues to uphold harmful patriarchal customs and policies that limit social change, and leave women without sufficient protection against domestic abuse. 

The limits of social reform for women in the UAE 

The UAE's recent social reforms have included removing restrictions on women's employment, implementing legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, and enacting a policy to combat domestic violence. Women's participation in the UAE workforce is the highest of the Arab Gulf countries, at 51 percent, and Emirati women's enrollment in higher education exceeds that of men. 

The ruler's claims to advance gender equality ring hollow when his own example is characterised by the egregious abuse of his female family members

Yet, while the state's male-dominated leadership presents their gender reforms to the international community as a symbol of progress and modernisation, they continue to enforce harmful patriarchal values and restrictions domestically. This serves to appease conservative groups - who value a patriarchal family structure in which men have authority over women - and maintain social stability. 

Under the UAE's discriminatory laws, women cannot marry without the permission of a male relative and are required to be "obedient" to their husbands. Women who work without the consent of their husbands may be considered disobedient, and women who refuse sexual relations with their husbands without a "lawful excuse" can be denied financial support. Men also have a unilateral right to divorce their wives, whereas women must apply for a court order. 

Domestic abuse also remains a serious problem in Emirati society. According to the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC), 1,027 cases of violence against women and children were reported in 2018 in one shelter alone, 893 of which were classified as domestic abuse. 

In December 2019, the UAE government issued a "family protection policy" to prevent domestic abuse, which defined domestic violence and called for the creation of a standardised system for reporting domestic violence. There was previously no law recognising domestic abuse in the nation. Sheikh Mohammed himself announced the policy, stating that the UAE does not tolerate "any kind of harm against children, elderly or vulnerable women."

Yet, the harm committed by the very leader lauding the state's reforms, and the absence of any legal consequences for his actions exposes the emptiness of the state's claims that it is committed to preventing domestic violence, and the superficial nature of the state's reforms.

Indeed, superficial reforms are not enough to combat domestic abuse. If leaders are immune to the consequences of domestic violence and reforms are not enforced or accompanied by changes in social norms, the state's efforts to combat domestic violence will continue to fall drastically short of what women need. 

Top-down reforms fail to combat domestic abuse 

Despite the state's reforms claiming to combat domestic violence, domestic abuse often goes unreported and women still face many social barriers to receiving protection. Social stigma often prevents women from coming forward, and many women do not know their rights under the law, or how to report domestic violence. 

For many women, the threat of repercussions from their abusers serves as a deterrent to coming forward. Perpetrators of domestic violence are not always prosecuted for their crimes, and even those who are often receive minimal jail time. The law designates the punishment for domestic abuse as a six-month maximum jail term or a fine - neither of which grants women long-term safety from their abusers. 

There are safehouses for victims of domestic abuse throughout the country, but women abused by relatives may not have a network of familial support when they leave the shelter - also a significant barrier in a society that highly values family relationships and the patriarchal family structure. 

Women's shelters for victims of domestic abuse, which provide women with temporary housing as well as legal, psychological and medical assistance, are a necessary support. And the women who run and staff these institutions provide much needed leadership on how to effectively combat domestic violence. 

In an interview with Vogue Arabia, the Director General of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC), Afra Al Basti, addressed the problem of domestic violence in the UAE. "It's hard to say how many women are suffering from violence in the region," she said.

"While we have our own statistics on victims of abuse, the number only refers to women who come forward. There are many more who are still too afraid to talk."

Al Basti also encouraged women who experience abuse to come forward. "My advice to women suffering any form of domestic abuse is to speak up, otherwise no one will hear and no one can help… Speak up and we can help." 

While institutions like hers provide an essential safety net, Emirati society will never move beyond damage control if women do not have a safe and secure society to return to after coming forward. Without widespread social change and the dismantling of harmful patriarchal structures, domestic abuse - and how its perceived - will remain a widespread problem. 

Top-down social reforms are not enough, especially when those at the top are failing to enforce the so-called changes they are promoting

The superficial efforts of the state's male-dominated leadership to combat domestic violence are falling short. Top-down social reforms are not enough, especially when those at the top are violating the values underlying their initiatives and failing to enforce the so-called changes they are promoting.

If male rulers took the problem of domestic violence seriously, they would look to women and experts who work with victims of domestic abuse for cues on how to effectively reduce it. And they would stop protecting abusers.

Widespread social change is possible, but rulers must listen to the voices of women who come forward - their own family members included. 

Alainna Liloia is a PhD student in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Her research is focused on gender, politics and nation building in the Arab Gulf states.

Follow her on Twitter: @missalainneous

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.