x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Guilt aside, my sympathy for a woman alone in court

To be scrutinised by judges dressed in formal robes, looked over by jury members and gossiped about by the audience can leave even the most confident of us shaken.

Whether you are merely an observer or directly involved in the proceedings, there is something quite intimidating about a court that is in session and the many powerful forces in play. To be scrutinised by judges dressed in formal robes, looked over by jury members and gossiped about by the audience, it can leave even the most confident of us shaken and feeling vulnerable. With a single knock of the judge's gavel, a person's fate is decided which can affect their entire lives.

Many of us learn about the law from television shows or other media, and don't really know what happens in a court or how disorganised it can be. Many years ago I was dragged into court by several family members over a disputed land inheritance in Poland. It was me against four older men and, despite advice from my parents, I refused to back off and ended up fighting in court as a matter of principle rather than for the actual property.

I lost, partly because I was a woman with only a weak lawyer on my side. At one point, the judge asked me impatiently: "What are you going to do with the farm land? You are not even a farmer." That was beside the point. My cousins weren't farmers either; they were businessmen. It was humiliating and, hounded with irrelevant questions, I stuttered and was made to look incompetent. Lame as it sounds, I longed for a strong male presence to be on my team defending me.

So I had some idea of what was going on in the mind of a young Emirati woman whose trial I covered recently. She had brought charges of rape and she had been accused of having sex outside of marriage. Normally, just the procedure in the courtroom is intimidating. The court clerk hovers over a stack of dockets holding a rubber stamp marked "innocent". He marks some files, and leaves the guilty ones in a pile of their own.

Every time a name is called out by the judge, everyone in court turns to see who it is. Probably everyone wonders if the accused is truly guilty, watching his or her face and posture for hints that would give away what he or she is thinking as the sentence is read out. After each sentencing, everyone watches the defendants being escorted away in shackles, often with their heads hung low and their eyes glued to the floor.

In this recent case, when the young woman's name was called out, the entire room fell silent and all eyes turned on her. Pale, in a green prison uniform and black headscarf, she showed no expression when she was sentenced, along with a 19-year-old man, to one year in jail for consensual sex outside of wedlock. After the verdict, she didn't say very much but showed clear signs of exhaustion. She stressed her relief at having the trial finally finished.

She and the other defendants have 15 days to appeal. When I asked if she was going to appeal, she simply shrugged her shoulders as she was led away to the women's prison. But while in my case, I simply had a bad lawyer, she was truly alone with no advocate or family member present. Speaking to many people who observed the case, there was often the sentiment that she got what she deserved. When I called the prison, the warden asked me why I was sympathetic. "She sinned as a Muslim woman and is paying for it."

There are many issues including religion involved. Whatever the truth may be, what woman would report to police that she was sexually violated if the result is that she will be shunned by those closest to her? As long as the traditional status of men remains unchallenged, I think there will always be cases where women are taken advantage of. By reporting a sexual crime, she is reporting herself, and possibly sentencing herself to a life that can be worse than one behind bars.