Men are using social networking websites to threaten to expose pictures of their victims for money or psychological revenge, even exploiting the women's desperation to coerce them into sexual relations.
Arab women being blackmailed over online photos
An increasing number of Arab women are being blackmailed into paying money or having sexual relations with men who threaten to expose pictures of them taken from social networking websites.
Officials from the Ministry of Interior and social groups are calling for urgent legal reforms to protect victims from what they describe as a growing problem.
Photographs were the most common blackmail tool as they were more easily obtained through social media, officials warned.
While some blackmailers target women for money, others "thrive on emotional and psychological control", according to Dr Azhar Abuali, the care and rehabilitation director at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.
"There is also the type who seek revenge in response to being rejected by the girl, and whose objective is to dominate the victim and place her in a submissive and helpless state so that she will eventually accept his demands."
In interviews, several young Arab women said they had not reported sexual blackmail for fear of being "forced into an early marriage or not getting married altogether", being "harmed" by the blackmailer or their parents or "being grounded for life".
NA, 19, from Al Ain, has been blackmailed into unsafe sex for the past several months by a former boyfriend, who threatened to spread revealing images of her.
"I hate my life, there is no way to end this," she said. "We were together very briefly, and somehow he got pictures of me in a swimsuit - this is bad in my name and my family's, I never want my family to find out.
"I am scared most of the time, I would do anything to get my life back. I hate him," N A said.
Dr Abuali said girls should not be blamed in such cases.
"Blackmailing is a type of abuse and is a violent act that can have severe emotional and psychological impacts - especially if the victim feels that she is isolated and unable to ask for help," she said.
"Blackmailing is also unpredictable, as the victim may think it is over at one moment, and then the perpetrator may re-emerge again, leaving the girl in a state of constant fear and helplessness."
Blackmail, she added, can leave the girl suffering depression and anxiety.
"It is important not to underestimate the perpetrator," Dr Abuali said. "The longer the cycle remains, the more dangerous and aggressive the perpetrator can become, and the more the victim is at risk."
A common fear is that the circulation of revealing photographs could, in extreme cases, ruin a girl's chances of getting married because of the perceived stain on her family's honour. "For some girls, a picture of her wearing shorts and a vest top is bad enough, and even worse if it is next to a boy," NA said.
Last week, the father of an Emirati girl, who said she had been blackmailed, flew into an outburst in front of judges after he was told she was charged with consensual sex. He threatened to "kill" her, citing family honour.
In the absence of legal immunity, there are social support groups that can offer confidential help to victims in order to avoid either family retribution or criminal charges.
The Ministry of Interior's social support department, for example, provides victims of blackmail with assistance without the need to inform police or family.
The department has seen a steady increase in cases of sexual blackmail that uses revealing photographs taken from social media.
A ministry official, who did not wish to be named, said the department offered "complete confidentiality" for blackmail victims.
"If the victim, for example, is involved in a certain criminal act, we can not simply protect them, especially when there are other victims involved," the official said.
"In such cases, we would refer the case to the police. But if the person is a real victim and there is a necessity to go to the police, we would advise the victim and refer the case only with the victim's consent."
Generally, the department would focus on the needs of the victim, rather than the situation, the official said.
"But we have also
to keep in mind that some girls are not really victims and they would file a complaint for personal grudges," the official said. "So, the department would try to investigate the issue before making a move.
"Basically, the department deals in the same way with social issues like the police but with complete confidentiality.
"We urge victims of any crime, not only blackmail, to tell the department about their problems."
The police would intervene as an official body, the official said, by warning the perpetrator of the penalties they could face unless they stop.
However, another official, who also did not wish to be named, said there was a problem with a legal system that could allow a victim to be charged when reporting a crime.
"The whole issue lies with the public prosecution, they are the ones who charge a victim after they report an assault," the official said.
Khaled Abdultawaab, a public prosecutor at Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, said it was the prosecutors' job to investigate a case and see whether a person was involved in an offence, even if they had reported a crime.
"If it appears to us that the victim who reported the crime was actually involved in a criminal act, then we would surely charge them," he said.
What can victims do:
Call the Ministry of Interior's social support department on 8005354. The department promises complete confidentiality. Victims file a report and then meet a specialist, who will investigate the issue. If the specialist agrees the woman has been the victim of a crime, the department will advise on how to proceed. It could advise the victim to go to the police or try to persuade the blackmailer to stop.
Call the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children on 800111, or visit www.dfwac.ae. The foundation offers its own social and psychological support services, especially to child victims, ranging from individual to family therapy. It also refers victims to the appropriate official entities.
Call Al Ameen, the Dubai Police family unit, on 8004888, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Aman, its counterpart in Abu Dhabi, is on 8002626. All calls and cases are dealt with in strict confidence.