x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Unreported sex assaults mean a new approach is needed

There is something seriously amiss with the UAE society if women who have been sexually assaulted are afraid to report the fact.

An article in The National last Friday quoted a Dubai Police official as saying a recent study had determined that only 9.5 per cent of people subjected to sexual assault report the crimes.

Given the number of court cases involving sexual assault that are reported in the papers, that figure suggests that many hundreds, if not thousands, of attacks take place every year without being reported. There is, clearly, an urgent need for society as a whole to take the issue much more seriously.

I recently discussed this issue with a victim of rape. In her case, it was a man she had known for some time. During the course of their acquaintance, she had never detected anything untoward or unseemly about his behaviour. She felt comfortable with him as a friend.

And so, when he invited her back to his flat one day for a coffee, she went - only to be set upon and raped. She didn't confide in her family and she certainly didn't report the attack to the police.

Why not? Because she feared that it would be suggested that she had somehow been partly to blame. So she had to deal with her fury, and her hurt, alone.

Another friend, to whom I referred in a previous article, had been at a party where alcohol was being consumed, though she didn't drink herself. Someone slipped a "date -rape drug" into her fruit juice and she passed out. When she came to, hours later, she realised she had been raped. She subsequently discovered she was pregnant and, for the past few months, has been trying to cope with the enormous emotional, financial and legal consequences.

She didn't report the attack, either, afraid of the response she would receive from the authorities. This woman is against abortion on principle but, had she wished to have one, that would have been illegal.

The two rapists are walking around free, one still in the UAE while the other, fearing the consequences, has left the country.

Many of us, I suspect, know other women who have been assaulted and violated, yet who have felt unable to turn to the police and the courts for support - something on which they should be able to rely as a matter of course.

In every country, the legal system is affected by, and guided by, the moral values of society. That's as it should be - after all, laws are supposed to emerge out of society itself, and anywhere, laws that the vast majority of society find unacceptable are often ignored or circumvented.

Neither law nor society is unchanging, of course, and moral values change, too. In the time of Egypt's pharaohs, to take a particularly obvious example, it was acceptable for ruling kings and queens to marry their brothers and sisters. Not today.

Here in the UAE, sexual relations outside marriage are frowned upon, in accordance with the moral code of Islam. As a corollary, they're illegal too, though it's no secret that they are pretty widespread. It's unlikely that will change, and it's equally unlikely that the legal prohibition will be removed.

However, it is time, as the Dubai Police study suggests, that the police and courts reviewed their approach to cases where it appears that a woman's participation in sexual relations outside marriage may not have been voluntary. If 90.5 per cent of sexual assaults are not reported to the authorities, there's something very seriously wrong.

Let us not overlook, either, the problem of the unwanted children who may result from a consensual liaison. Scarcely a week goes by without another report of a newborn being found abandoned or, worse, of a dead baby, sometimes with a dead mother, both having died because it's illegal for a woman to get pregnant outside marriage and so the pregnant woman is frightened to seek medical help. In such circumstances, attempts to deliver without medical assistance will flourish, as will backstreet abortions by unlicensed butchers. And yet few arrests are reported.

Whether or not there should be a change in the laws is a topic for future debate, perhaps. But there's something seriously amiss with our society if women who have been sexually assaulted are afraid to report the fact, or if the transgressions of unmarried mothers are visited upon their innocent children.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture