United Arab Emirates: Debate surrounds women's shelter in Dubai

Middle East Times
The recent introduction of a federal law against trafficking in human beings, and its intention to step up efforts to curb abuse of laborers have sparked a debate on the need to establish a women's shelter in Dubai.
There is "a need" for a women's shelter in the city, the director of the human rights section at the Dubai police department, Mohammed Al Mur, recently told the press.
He added that the section has already made a formal request for a government-sponsored shelter for abused women who have nowhere to go.

This unprecedented admission by an official on the importance of hosting a women's shelter came at the heels of charges by human rights organizations that the booming emirate does not do enough to protect foreign workers from abusive employers. It has also been charged that the cosmopolitan city tolerates human trafficking, especially that of women who often fall prey to prostitution.

The UAE responded swiftly with the official announcements that strict measures will be taken against those who violate regulations that guarantee laborers' rights and by issuing the anti-trafficking law.

The human rights debate soon after took another turn, focusing on the dire need for protecting abused women and children.

While the Dubai police department runs a "Caring for Victims" program aimed at helping women and children who have been victims of crime and abuse, the program only offers legal, psychological, and financial help, but refers women who seek refuge from abusive husbands or employers to Dubai's sole women's shelter, known as "City of Hope."

The "City," or better known as Villa 18, however, is not officially licensed, and has over the past few years come under attack by many locals, mainly men, who believe that its mere presence contradicts UAE culture.

The shelter, set up in 2001 by Sharla Musabih, who is originally from the United States and has been married to a local for over 20 years, houses tens of women and children at any given month. Musabih has tried for years to get the shelter officially licensed, but her requests always fell on deaf ears.

And while the Dubai police are proud of the work of their human rights department, they acknowledge that without logistical help, their efforts to support battered women will remain lacking.

Major Aref Baqer, head of the human rights department said he was "very happy with the humane and social work" the Caring for Victims program was doing. But Mur acknowledged that while the program was helpful, some non-resident women, however, still "have nowhere to go" to escape abuse.

Police say that they often refer women who repeatedly come to them for protection from abusive husbands to the shelter, despite the fact that it is unlicensed.

Disgruntled husbands, however, intensified attacks on the shelter, and some even physically stormed into it on several occasions to 'reclaim' wives and children. Some even went as far as charging that the shelter was a "whore house." The shelter has since become the center of a heated debate in the UAE.

Abu Rashid, the host of a popular mid-morning program on an Ajman-based station, said he initially raised the issue after unhappy husbands called in to complain about the shelter, and one of the coordinators, Sharla Musabeh, after their wives moved in there.

"I had no idea about the shelter, so I let them have their say, and then I did my own research and brought many other people to talk about the shelter as well, for and against," he told a local paper. "Many people, including intellectuals, had spoken out against the shelter, and said it was corrupting the women, that it was taking funding from foreign embassies, and that [its coordinators] did not want it licensed," he said.

"But I came to know that the women have tried for years to get the shelter licensed, that businesspeople pay for the shelter's upkeep, and that the women running the shelter only accept cases documented by the police."

Voicing his support for the shelter, Abu Rashid said: "Expatriate women have a right to feel safe here and UAE women need it, too. There are national women who have nowhere else to go."

"Even if people in the UAE society thinks it is shameful for them [UAE nationals] to go to a shelter, the reality is that a woman who has nowhere else to go will end up in prison, or on the streets if there is no shelter."

Officials approached with a request to license the shelter often responded that they had "other priorities," despite repeated pleas from its owners as well as others involved in the debate.

While it could be culturally unacceptable to speak out about domestic abuse in the UAE, government-sponsored and licensed shelters should be available for those who choose to seek refuge in them, observers say.

It would also compliment the UAE's current efforts to uphold human rights amid accusations by human rights bodies that it has been slow to do so, they add.

Natasha Bukhari
Middle East Times, November 16, 2006