Marte Deborah Dalelv was working in Dubai when she was sexually assaulted by a coworker. She immediately fled the room and went to the hotel lobby, then reported the assault to police. For her troubles, she was sentenced to 16 months in jail for having sex outside of marriage. Luckily, the government of Dubai today dropped the sentence and is allowing her to leave the country.
Dalelv’s case sparked international outrage, as it should. It’s abhorrent to sentence rape victims to prison time. It’s abhorrent that this is hardly the first time a woman as reported rape in Dubai and been charged with a crime herself. It’s abhorrent that “justice” was served not by prosecuting a rapist, but by allowing a rape victim to avoid prosecution. And it’s abhorrent to sentence anyone to prison time for the “crime” of having sex before marriage. Dalelv was able to get publicity for her case in part because she didn’t feel shame about being raped, and has a community of people behind her who also see rape as a crime and not as an event that tarnishes a woman’s virtue. She was able to get publicity because she’s from Northern Europe, and was assaulted and charged in a country that’s trying to bill itself as cosmopolitan and modern, and positioning itself as a good place for international business. It’s increasingly difficult to be a modern, international business hub and also brutally oppress women.
And yet it’s quite possible to be a very wealthy nation that engages in international business while still brutally oppressing women (see, e.g., Saudi Arabia). And it’s particularly easy to oppress women who are citizens of your country while looking the other way for foreigners. It would be nice if large businesses simply refused to do work out of places where women were legally designated as second-class citizens. Perhaps if more women were in charge of large companies, we’d see that. And as more Emirati women work their way up the ladder of big businesses, my guess is that some of these things will change. But in the meantime, Emirati women and migrant female workers (and the wives of migrant male workers) in Dubai typically don’t have the same set of connections and circumstances that allowed Dalelv to eventually be freed after a horrific ordeal.
I’m glad Dalelv can finally return home. I hope her case will inspire real legal reforms for all women who reside and travel through Dubai, but I’m not holding my breath.