Every once in a while, somewhere in the world, we come across a case that proves either overtly or implicitly that men can get away with things that women can’t.
When I was a student in France in the 1990s, I recall reading often about President Francois Mitterrand’s mistress, Anne Pingeot, and their illegitimate daughter, Mazarine. Even in Catholic, conservative France, that a man should have a mistress is accepted with a Gallic shrug. The two women even stood side by side at his funeral in 1996.
I remember thinking to myself then, what if France had a married female president who happened to keep a few men around on the side to keep her company at her whim? Would they be allowed to attend her funeral and stand side by side with her husband in public?
Here in the UAE we have the case of the South African diving instructor who has been imprisoned because of an alleged sexual indiscretion; a case that is not unique in many aspects. Allegedly, the 22-year-old expatriate woman was caught with a married Emirati national last May at the wrong hour of the night in the east-coast town where they both work. It later emerged that the married man’s wife had informed the police about the incident, presumably to teach her husband a lesson. Although medical tests have proved that there was no sexual contact, they were both found guilty – possibly of being “alone in a work building after work hours”, which was the second charge brought against them.
Both were sentenced to imprisonment, but the Emirati male was released early on appeal. This case is clear evidence that the issue of adultery and matrimonial disputes throughout the UAE is probably better handled by a civil court rather than a criminal court, since it is clearly open to abuse. One has to keep in mind the UAE’s multi-layered and ambiguous court systems. For instance, UAE federal law applies to all the Emirates except Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, which have their own Courts of First Instance that allow them to settle such matters in a civil court rather than a criminal or Sharia court.
In another case, the Court of First Instance in Dubai fined an Italian man $3,000 for kissing his Egyptian girlfriend in a taxi. She was fined $500 for the same misdemeanour. Why the monetary difference? And had this case been handled by a criminal court, ie, in any emirate other than Ras Al Khaimah or Dubai, it could have meant that they both ended up in jail, and with different jail terms.
However, if anyone likes to think that discrimination against women is alive and kicking only in the Middle East a slew of cases proves otherwise. In the West, women have successfully sued DKR Capital, UBS and Citicorp in the past few years for discrimination. In other cases women have not been so successful, even though they were using similar laws, including a Merrill Lynch female executive and another from Schroders.
Not long ago a friend of mine was living with his fiancée in their apartment in Dubai. They weren’t legally married, so, technically, their good intentions about an imminent wedding aside, they were still breaking the law in the bedroom every night. As he was a senior manager with a multinational company, he sometimes had to take the unfortunate decision to let people go. One soon-to-be-fired employee threatened my friend that if he lost his job he would tip off the police about these illegal domestic arrangements. My friend wanted to keep both his job and his fiancée, so they decided to get legally married immediately and have their official wedding day a few months later.
What should be clear to everyone in the UAE is that sex outside marriage is against the law. This is not France. What isn’t clear is whether the implementation of this law is even-handed. Why should an adulterous woman be given a different sentence from a man, when they have committed the same crime? In fact, I recall being taught how in the early days of Islam, and for similar crimes, women were shown more leniency: for example, in cases where they had become pregnant, they were punished only after the baby had become independent of the mother’s breast-feeding.
And finally, what is the use of conducting medical tests if a person is going to be punished anyway, even if the results prove them to be innocent?
Sharia is a complicated set of laws and regulations, but if one thing about those laws and regulations is clear it is that they must be applied even-handedly. No discrimination can be tolerated with regards to gender, nationality and ethnicity. Sadly this is another case where men get away with much more than women can: and in this case, a forensically proven innocent woman who was a victim of a jealous wife’s police tip-off.
*This article was first published in The National on Sunday, July 11th 2009.