x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

How do we make women feel safe on the streets again?

Attitudes and behaviours will not change overnight but there are simple measures that can be taken now.

At a 2008 strategy session of the Dubai Executive Office, where I was then working, I saw the concern caused by crimes related to sexual harassment and assault. Because these issues are not generally in the public eye, many people might believe that Government does not actively discuss them - but it does. I will never forget the earnest response that we received at that strategy session: women in this society will be protected, they said.

Recently there have been a number of high-profile sexual assault cases which, in some instances, have made some women feel less safe here. At the same time, there has been progress on a number of related issues: at one end of the spectrum, there was a renewed effort to clamp down on human trafficking and other crimes that disproportionately affect women. And generally, there was a widespread social agenda to empower women in everything from business to academia. The outstanding Dubai Foundation for Women and Children was set up as an advocacy group for some of society's most vulnerable members.

Those general currents were accompanied by better policing efforts on the ground as well. Too many women across the UAE have stories of being sexually harassed and even assaulted as they go about their ordinary lives. At that meeting in 2008, a colleague and I raised the point that prostitution in public places had contributed to an environment where all women felt vulnerable to being sexually accosted. But there are other problems too, including preconceptions about how women are expected to dress and behave, the gender imbalance favouring men, the lack of respect demonstrated by too many men, and often women's reluctance to report crimes.

In Dubai, the law has taken strict steps to protect women. One example is the Al Ameen hotline (800 4888 or sms 4444), which was set up to encourage women to report incidents of sexual harassment. Crucially, the hotline does not question the woman's motives for calling, but merely tries to verify if harassment took place. The results are clear. One Emirati friend of mine, who is always clad in an abaya, was being followed in Dubai. Straightaway she called the service, reported the details about the car following her and the time of the incident. The police searched CCTV footage and promptly arrested the offending driver.

I had a reason to miss that hotline on a recent Friday night, when I was followed on my way home in Abu Dhabi. It is hard to describe to someone how it feels to be threatened in that way. A women may walk around fully covered, but this may not stop men from attempting to grope her while she is shopping. It is petrifying when a powerful car chases a woman driver for kilometres along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway - particularly when the pursuer is driving a car with an expensive vanity plate that implies a high social status.

In my first years living in Dubai, I once said that I felt safer in public in the UAE than I did in the West. Now I am not so sure. A direct order in 1996 from the Ruler of Dubai ordering the arrest of men for harassing women in public places shows that there is a zero-tolerance policy. But what is intended in the corridors of power does not always translate to the streets. And it is not just in public that abuse against women is a concern. While sexual harassment in the open might be the most visible assault of this type, related crimes of sexual abuse and rape often occur behind closed doors. As The National has reported before, some attorneys believe up to 70 per cent of rape or sexual attacks go unreported, due to a fear of being charged with consensual sex.

"If women hear stories of women being arrested when they report a rape, whether or not it's true, then it will add to the fear," said Dr Rima al Sabban, an assistant professor of sociology at Zayed University. In part, overcoming women's fear of reporting these crimes is why the Al Ameen hotline is such a good example. Women need to know, conclusively, that the law is on their side. Many may think that sex attacks are the preserve of the aberrant. But women are vulnerable to attack no matter what they wear, or what their behaviour is. After all, most attackers are someone the victim knows.

Attitudes and behaviour will not change overnight, but there are simple measures that can be taken now. A simple hotline can make a women feel safer - indeed, it might save her life.

habiba.hamid@thenational.ae