Dubai rape dispute points to wider Islamic rules

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 25, 2013 at 11:55 am •  Published: July 25, 2013
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The couple stood before a Dubai judge. The charge was sex outside marriage — illegal in the United Arab Emirates and across nearly all the Muslim world — and the magistrate offered an option: Suspended sentences to the Pakistani man and Filipino woman if they agreed to wed. The man consented, but the woman refused. They are awaiting sentencing, which could bring jail terms of several months or longer.

The case in May grabbed some attention because of the judge's novel approach, but otherwise passed as a routine hearing on the misdemeanor docket in a city that relentlessly promotes itself as the new crossroads of the world.

Dubai's Islamic-influenced laws on sex, morality and how they are applied are now center stage in a global debate following the legal battle of a 24-year-old Norwegian woman, Marte Deborah Dalelv. She was sentenced to 16 months in prison on unwed sex and alcohol charges last week after claiming she was raped by a co-worker in March. The alleged attacker received a 13-month sentence on similar charges.

Both were pardoned Monday after Dalelv's sentence stirred an international outcry — which was furthered by the decision to waive the punishment for the 33-year-old Sudanese man.

Officials in the United Arab Emirates, however, stand by the sentences. They say the decisions were in line with local laws after Dalelv withdrew the rape allegation in the apparent belief that she could then simply reclaim her police-confiscated passport and leave the country.

It also underscores the contradictory and potentially baffling messages sent by places such as Dubai. Its tolerant atmosphere permits indulgences such as unlimited-booze brunches and lavish Valentine's Day getaways but spends far less energy on reminding foreigners that its laws are influenced by Islamic tenets that outlaw sex out of wedlock or even getting too amorous with your partner in public.

While enforcement is laissez-faire in Dubai — there are no active morality squads at work — the Dalelv case speaks to the wider contrasts across the region between what happens on the street, what is written in the law, and how much authorities warn visitors and foreign residents of the legal boundaries.

The potential for clashes could grow with places such as Abu Dhabi and Qatar's capital of Doha greatly expanding their international reach, including Doha hosting the 2022 World Cup. In countries that depend on tourism, such as Egypt and Jordan, the rising voices of Islamist groups could chip away at the traditional buffer given foreigners from laws about sex outside marriage.

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HOLIDAYS AND PAYCHECKS

Parts of the Muslim world are magnets for tourism. Other points are increasingly important destinations for expatriate workers ranging from Western executives to laborers building and maintaining the sprouting skylines in the Gulf.

In both settings, enforcement of unwed sex codes is mostly very relaxed out of necessity. Demanding marriage licenses or applying other official pressures on visiting couples would threaten the lifeblood of tourism in places such as Morocco or Tunisia.

Morocco's laws set penalties of between one month and one year in prison for unmarried sex between a man and woman, but the measures are almost never applied to foreigners. Hotels, for example, are rarely — if ever — asked for proof of marriage. According to Morocco's Justice Ministry, there has only been one case of a foreigner prosecuted for "moral crimes" in recent years, a Filipina, but it did not give details.

In Lebanon, whose tourism has dropped off sharply since the civil war in neighboring Syria, there are no specific national laws banning premarital sex, but the country has subcategories of "personal status laws" for the country's patchwork of religious and ethnic sects. These laws require Lebanese citizens to follow the traditions and rules of their respective groups. Both the major religions, Muslim and Christian, forbid sex outside marriage, but enforcement becomes a local issue. Unmarried couples living together in Lebanon also is increasingly common.

Tour operators in Egypt fear the now-ousted Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi would frighten off unmarried couples. Currently, though, the chaos in Egypt has choked off tourism to a trickle.

The government in Indonesia — with its popular Bali resorts — proposed in March changing long-standing liberal colonial laws from Dutch rule to impose jail sentences up to five years for unmarried sex. The possible changes reflect a growing emphasis on stricter Muslim codes in a nation that has long followed more moderate interpretations of Islam.

Authorities the fast-growing Gulf states of Qatar and the UAE, meanwhile, apply a generally light touch on enforcing laws about unwed sex in a tacit acknowledgment of the dependence on the huge foreign workforce, including many singles, and the growing importance of tourism.

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