United Arab Emirates: Dubai shelter sees dramatic rise in number of abused women

The Daily Star - Lebanon
Sharla Musabih's mobile phone hardly stops alerting her with messages from female victims of domestic violence seeking help or refuge in the Dubai-based shelter she runs. Some sound very desperate.
"Help me find a place to stay. This mentality isn't right ... There is no respect at all," said a message from an American woman who has been married for some 20 years to an Emirati.
Musabih, one of the directors of two shelters known as the City of Hope is herself American and married to an Emirati.

She said the desperate mother of five is married to a wealthy man who "beats and rapes her" and does not provide food despite housing her in a mansion.

Musabih said complaints have increased sharply since she started the shelter back in 2001.

"I used to get one case a month ... But for the past six months, I get at least one case a day," she told AFP.

Another message is from a caseworker informing her of a fellow American whose abusive husband told her a traditional midwife was coming to circumcise her.

"He's planning to tie up his wife, and cut [her clitoris] off," the message read, saying the woman, a Muslim convert in her mid-20s and married for six years, had run away.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), as it is referred to by human rights organizations, is not common in the United Arab Emirates. Musabih said it was the first time in her 25 years in the country that she has heard of such a "shocking" case.

But for a Muslim cleric who sees the shelter going against the conservative culture of the society, Musabih is a "suspect foreigner who is inciting women against their husbands." "There are courts and law in this country. A woman being beaten by her husband can file a lawsuit and the judge would divorce her," Iraqi Sheikh Ahmad al-Qubaisi said.

The U.A.E.-based cleric said people are very wary of the role of the shelter, claiming that some see it as a stop to traffic women into prostitution.

Musabih said she was aware of many campaigns to distort the image of the shelter, mainly by "abusive husbands of women who were helped by the shelter." Qubaisi said marital problems should be sorted first through the family, and government departments if needed, but not by running to a "suspect" shelter.

Musabih agreed the first port of call for a woman subjected to domestic violence should be the police human rights department, which usually refers her to hospital for a medical report.

But she complained that human rights officers are generally not trained to deal with cases of domestic violence. She said they tend to call in the husband of a pleading wife, promising to make him sign a pledge not to abuse her again.

"That's why most women don't want to go to the police because that triples their problems," claimed Musabih, pointing out that women later suffer the revenge of a husband who feels humiliated. In court, women who demand divorce over domestic violence have to wait a long time, even years.

In one of the City of Hope shelters, located in a two-storey villa in an affluent neighborhood of Dubai, a handful of women and several children shifted between the small backyard and the living room.

The two shelters can accommodate around 80 women but they currently host a total of 22 women, Musabih said, adding that donations in kind and money keep the facility running.

The majority of women who seek help from the shelter are foreigners. They are married either to Emiratis or other Arabs, or subjected to violence from family members. Some are abused domestic workers.

A 22-year-old veiled Asian girl told AFP she ended up in the shelter after repeated attempts to escape being abused by her family, which had confiscated her passport and tried to force her into an arranged marriage.

"My mother and younger brother were violent with me, beating me with fists and pulling my hair," she said, adding her country's embassy refused to issue her a new passport to be able to leave the U.A.E., telling her: "It is wrong to go against your family's wishes."

There are no independent statistics on violence against women in Gulf countries.

Thursday, May 18, 2006
Ali Khalil
Agence France Presse