RAS AL KHAIMAH // Behind the rusty gate of a rented villa, Umm Danah and her four daughters are alone.
They were alone when her husband beat her in November, soon after he moved to Abu Dhabi and married a second wife. They were alone when he forced open her bedroom door and beat her again in January. And they are alone now as Umm Danah awaits her divorce.
Each time she visits the court, she bundles the girls – one-year-old twins, a four-year-old and a seven-year-old – into her car.
“I get exhausted, me and my babies,” said Umm Danah, 43, a UAE citizen by marriage. “One year like this – no solution, no end.”
Proving domestic violence is one of the swiftest ways for a woman to receive a divorce, lawyers say. Yet despite her husband’s three criminal convictions for abusing her, Umm Danah is still married, partly because a legal issue delayed her case for months.
Stuck in legal limbo, she struggles to provide for her daughters and fears her husband will assault her again.
“Yesterday I was so exhausted and tired,” she said. “I heard the gate from the neighbour, I woke up and I looked – is he coming?”
The experiences of women seeking divorce vary, and there are government services to protect them from violence, including hotlines and shelters in Sharjah and Dubai. But gaps in the system allow women such as Umm Danah to fall through the cracks.
“We need to have a clear law for domestic violence,” said Amna Al Mutawa, a case manager for the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, the country’s primary domestic violence shelter. “The husbands will know their limits, know their rights.”
Umm Danah’s story echoes many others, said Diana Hamade, a lawyer and columnist for The National.
“I have a client, she’s been now before Dubai Courts for two years – two years of agony,” Ms Hamade said. “The husband is physically, verbally, emotionally abusive … but he doesn’t want a divorce.”
Women who cannot find alternative housing may be forced to live with their husbands while fighting them in court. And there is limited refuge in the emirates that lack women’s shelters.
“Eventually all will work out, but there are small loopholes which many of us get caught in,” said Sarah (not her real name), a mother in Abu Dhabi who filed for divorce from her abusive husband last year.
“There is no protection when you go to court, no female officer when you have to sit side by side with a violent man. He can get you in the car park. He can call you throughout the divorce and threaten and weaken – until you have that final divorce certificate you are in limbo.”
Umm Danah was born and brought up in Germany. She moved to the UAE in 2002 to work as an office manager. She met her husband, an Emirati, in Dubai.
“When I met him, he had a baby face, he was very kind,” she said. They married in 2004. She left her job to move to Abu Dhabi and live with his family.
The couple later moved to Ras Al Khaimah, where rents were lower.
Umm Danah’s husband began to hit her when she was pregnant with their second daughter. In January 2012, the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children helped her to obtain a hospital report documenting abuse. But she stayed in RAK because she did not want to raise her children in a shelter.
Her marriage began to unravel in February 2012, when the couple hired a maid whom her husband eventually married. In August, Umm Danah returned from a trip to find the house in disarray, and shouted at the maid. Her husband beat Umm Danah with his fists and a stick. He was prosecuted and fined Dh2,000.
Umm Danah filed for divorce soon after.
Divorces involving domestic violence can take six to 12 months while the couple negotiates alimony, child custody and other issues, said Jouslin Khairallah, a lawyer in Dubai.
Another lawyer, Yousuf Al Sharif, said the legal procedures “are only for showing the truth”.
“UAE litigation is characterised by speed and independence in finalising cases to achieve justice,” he said.
But women’s experiences vary widely “from situation to situation and from husband to husband”, Ms Al Mutawa said.
Questions over jurisdiction delayed Umm Danah’s case, and after several months the court in RAK ruled that it should proceed in Abu Dhabi, where the couple had married. Umm Danah won an appeal, returning the case to RAK.
Meanwhile, her husband attacked her twice more. For a beating in November, he was fined Dh1,000. For a January beating, a judge sentenced him to a month in jail and a Dh1,000 fine. He appealed and spent a few days in jail.
The peak of Umm Danah’s frustration came this month, when she was found guilty of sending six text messages to her husband insulting him and his new wife.
She was fined Dh1,000 – a quarter of her monthly alimony. She lacked the funds to renew her tenancy contract and was afraid she would be evicted – women are not eligible for government welfare for divorcees until their divorce is final.
This week, some of her suffering was alleviated. A court official asked her to write a list of her problems and said the emirate’s government would give her the financial help she needs. Her fine was also taken care of.
“That’s a big relief,” Umm Danah said. Her main worry now is her daughters.
They seem oblivious when she tells her story. Mischievous girls with long black eyelashes, they run through the courthouse giggling.
But the children have suffered the most, Umm Danah says.
Despite an Abu Dhabi court order, Umm Danah’s husband will not register their seven-year-old in a RAK school.
He will not permit the children to travel with Umm Danah, who wants to visit Germany with Dalinah – one of the twins – to seek treatment for the girl’s epilepsy. Dalinah is developmentally delayed and cannot roll over, sit or hold up her head.
“I cry when I see especially my epileptic baby,” Umm Danah said.
Her wishes for the future are simple.
“I want to get my divorce,” she said. “I want to get my own villa in my name in Abu Dhabi. I want to have – or better, I need to have – a job.”
To work, she needs a nanny to help with the children Danah and Dalilah, Daniah and Dalinah. She hopes they can find a quiet life together.