This Expat Paradise is a Woman’s Nightmare

Dubai may be a popular holiday destination but it is also a human rights quagmire for women

Dubai, on the Gulf coast of the United Arab Emirates, can appear to be a dream come true to holidaymakers, with its golden beaches, seven-star hotels and luxury shopping. But for Afsana Lachaux, a British woman who moved to Dubai in 2010, that dream turned into a nightmare. 

It was an easy choice for Afsana to move from East London to Dubai to start a new life with French aviation engineer Bruno Lachaux. Yet only a year later she found herself alone and in hiding, accused of kidnapping her own son by a sharia court.

“I left a deeply unhappy marriage and took my child away from a dreadful situation, but women are not supposed to do that in Dubai,” says Afsana. “As punishment the courts branded me the criminal and took my son from me.”

Her case highlights the appalling way that women are treated under sharia law, and the effective way in which Dubai has whitewashed its image in order to attract a huge influx of tourists.

Things started to go terribly wrong in her marriage to Lachaux after Afsana gave birth to their son Louis. While she was in hospital recovering from the birth, Lachaux applied for a French passport for Louis without Afsana’s knowledge. Under French law, this process does not require the consent of the mother.

I met Afsana during her first visit to London in four years. She was visibly nervous, agitated and upset, pausing from telling me her story only to dry her tears. “My fate was sealed the day he got the passport because he hid it,” she said. “It was never in the house.”

When she left Lachaux in April 2011 she had no means of supporting herself or her son. Because she did not have Louis’s passport she was unable to leave the country to return to her two adult sons in London. “I was frightened, sleeping on floors, lonely and abandoned.”

Before meeting Lachaux, Afsana had devoted much of her working life to supporting women and their children who were suffering from domestic violence in her work at a specialist refuge and in housing services for women. When she first left Lachaux, Afsana agreed to him having contact with Louis, but things were fraught, and in March 2012, she claimed she was assaulted in public by her estranged husband during a contact visit. She reported the incident to the police but no action was taken. Immediately after the alleged incident Afsana went into hiding with Louis. What she did not realise was that, in her absence, Lachaux applied to the sharia court for divorce and for sole custody of Louis. He was granted both. He also filed a complaint of kidnapping against Afsana.

Under sharia law in the UAE, if 12 months have lapsed and the decision of the court has not been challenged, it is no longer appeal-able and is upheld. Sharia is available to all expats in Dubai, although most choose to use the system of their home country.

In October 2013 Lachaux snatched Louis from a play area while he was being looked after by a friend of Afsana. Under sharia he was perfectly entitled to do so, and the charges of kidnapping against Afsana remained.

“Sharia benefits men, not women,” says Afsana, “and the irony is that Bruno is Christian, I am Muslim, but he used it against me.” When she was charged with kidnapping, her passport was confiscated by the police.

Most of the British tourists I spoke to in Dubai appeared to have no idea that human rights abuses exist in this modern, seemingly liberal city. Certain activities, such as alcohol consumption, are glossed over in Dubai in order to attract Western tourists, but the rule of law is strict sharia — as some Britons have discovered to their cost. A number of UK citizens have been imprisoned and even tortured in Dubai jails for adultery or even kissing on the beach.

The UAE is certainly not a democracy. It has a small suffrage of chosen people who vote for a parliament which has no constitutional power. Each emirate is an absolute monarchy. Dubai has been ruled by the Al Maktoum family since 1833. The current ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is also the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates.

More than 600,000 UK residents flock to Dubai every year to soak up the sun and the opulence. Dubai International Airport provides 147 direct flights per week from the UK. According to the Dubai department of tourism and commerce marketing Dubai saw an increase of 6.6 per cent in UK visitors in 2012 and further growth in 2013.

But for all the gloss that makes Dubai appear to be a liberal state, the inhumane treatment of women under sharia is shocking. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to hear, while researching the status of women in the UAE, of a government-sponsored service for victims of domestic violence. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWC) was established in 2007 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. It is the first licensed shelter in the country, and provides services for women suffering domestic violence and sex trafficking, and for child abuse victims.

In 2012, a year after leaving Lachaux, Afsana sought refuge in the DFWC. However, she and two other women to whom I spoke, who had escaped to the DFWC, cast some doubt on whether the service always operates in the best interest of the victims.

During my visit to the DFWC I was taken aback by how well-resourced the centre was. Having travelled much of the world researching violence towards women and children I have visited a number of refuges. The facilities have never matched those I found in Dubai.

Situated in the middle of the desert, opposite a prison, and next door to the ministry of foreign affairs and immigration detention, the centre comprises several large buildings and external play areas. Gardeners and builders were hard at work as I walked through to reception, having been vetted and searched by the security guards at the main entrance. The high walls were topped with barbed wire. I was shown around plush, well-furnished offices and meeting rooms by Ahmad Mamdoh, the communications director. I asked who funded the centre and its services, but he brushed away my question.

On being introduced to Ghanima Hassan Al Bahri, the care and rehabilitation director, I again asked how the centre was funded. “We have a full, newly established fundraising department. We have a fund from the regular court. We also have an agreement with the hospitals for our sheltered clients — they receive medical attention free of charge. We also have an agreement with one law firm, so each sheltered client receives one lawyer free of charge.”

Al Bahri spoke at high speed, having obviously delivered her speech on several previous occasions. She appeared slightly put out when I held up my hand to ask a question. I asked what the relationship was between the centre and the Dubai police. “They have been a really good partner for the women. As far as we are working with the Dubai police, they have been more than helpful.”

Did sharia, I asked, affect the way the police deal with domestic violence? Al Bahri had no answer for me and told me I should speak to the foundation’s legal director.

Afsana, who spent a month in the DFWC in February 2012, told me that when she was taken to the shelter she was informed that, under Emirati law, the staff were obliged to tell her husband where she was. Two other women, both expats, whom I tracked down, told me the same thing had happened to them. “I left immediately,” said Afsana. “I no longer felt safe.”

Was it required that husbands of women escaping domestic violence had to be informed, under UAE law, of their wives’ whereabouts? No, said Al Bahri. “We operate under a system of complete client confidentiality.”

Despite Al Bahri insisting that Dubai has progressed significantly in terms of tacking violence against women, the law remains archaic and deeply misogynistic. Article 53 of the UAE’s penal code acknowledges the right of a “chastisement by a husband to his wife and the chastisement of minor children” so long as the assault does not exceed the limits prescribed by sharia. Similarly, article 56 of the UAE’s personal status code obligates women to “obey” their husbands.

There have been multiple instances of women in Dubai being sent to prison for sex in public or outside marriage, including a number who alleged they were raped. Unsurprisingly, it is illegal for women to get abortions, and UAE’s sharia divorce laws are biased in favour of men. A Muslim husband can divorce his wife by simply saying, “I divorce you.” 

A divorced mother is forbidden by law to travel outside the UAE with her child without written approval from the child’s father. A father may even place a stop order on his ex-wife travelling with their child, which is enforced by officials at airports and borders. In February, the UAE passed a “children’s rights” law requiring all women to breastfeed until their child is two.

Nevertheless, prostitution is tolerated and visible in the city. In one of the hotel bars I visited there were a number of British male tourists sitting with Chinese women who, I was informed by the security manager, were “known working ladies”. Behind the Dubai Grand Hotel at 6pm on a Wednesday there were women on the street corners waiting for trade.

Before the DFWC was set up, a Dubai resident, Sharla Musabih, took it upon herself to provide care and legal assistance to women and their children who were the victims of domestic violence and trafficking. According to Musabih, an American convert to Islam who is married to a UAE national, she was eventually silenced when she was “taken over” by the much bigger, government-licensed DFWC.

From 1991 Musabih took women and children into her home and eventually earned a reputation as a tough operator, and received some support from the authorities. In 2001 she set up the first independent shelter in Dubai, accommodating up to 60 women and children, and named it the City of Hope.  But it would appear that Musabih was too outspoken about the lack of attention to the human rights abuses of women and children and the influx of women trafficked into prostitution.

“People were so offended by these women coming and they didn’t know what was going on,” she says. After 9/11 ,she found that things became much harder for her as an American working in Dubai. “My work was never difficult before the Iraq war, but from then on there was a seething resentment for anything or anybody remotely Western. All of sudden I was no longer one of them. I had been living there for 25 years on their terms, but it was just over.”

Musabih became increasingly unpopular. The local press ran scathing articles about her, suggesting that her style was too indiscreet and informal, and that she opposed the UAE’s customs and traditions. In 2006 Sheikh Ahmad Al Kubaisi, a prominent Iraqi Sunni scholar and TV commentator who lives in Dubai, accused her of encouraging women to rebel against their husbands. “If every woman hit by her husband is encouraged to rebel, the sanctity of marriage would disappear from society.”

The following year Musabih was contacted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He told her he planned to set up a foundation for women and children, and he wanted her to be centrally involved. But she told him she could not put her name to a government iniative. “My interest lies with the victim and your interest lies with policy and diplomacy.”

Eventually it was agreed that the foundation would be a semi-government organisation. But Musabih was never to work there. While she was on holiday with her family, the organisers emptied City of Hope of all 60 women and children and moved them to the new foundation. “I allowed them to do it because I had been led to believe that I would be running it.”

The media campaign against Musibah continued until she decided to leave her husband and six children and return to the US. “I left because of the smear campaign,” she says. “The US consulate called me and said, ‘You’re not safe, you need to leave’.”

Rori Donaghy is the coordinator of the Emirates Centre for Human Rights (ECHR), a tiny organisation based in London. Donaghy believes that the UAE are effectively “whitewashing” the problem of violence towards women and children rather than genuinely tackling it. “They can open a refuge, and even send female ambassadors to international human rights conventions to make it appear as though they are committed to ending discrimination, but it’s all a veneer.”

Why, I asked him, do we hear so little criticism of the UAE from democratic nations? “The UAE is hugely important to the UK on a governmental and trade level. The UAE’s armed forces are one of the best equipped in the world and the UAE is the third biggest arms importer,” he said. “Due to this the UK attempts to buy diplomatic support. David Cameron, for example, has claimed that Dubai is progressive. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is aware of what is going on but is reluctant to do anything.”

The UAE has been criticised for its response to the trafficking of women. In 2009, two years after the establishment of the DFWC, a US State Department report condemned the UAE for its poor record on protecting victims, calling its position “ambiguous and inconsistent”. The report said that the UAE “historically has not recognised people forced into labour as trafficking victims”. The director of the DFWC hit back, claiming that the UAE does support trafficked women. Lieutenant General Dahli Khalfan Tamim, chief of Dubai police, said: “I stopped reading those reports several years ago. They are full of contradictions.”

I asked Afsana what support she has had from UK officials based in Dubai with her case. Very little, she said. “After Louis was snatched I sought British Embassy help quite a few times, asking them, ‘Look, I need to get out of this situation, can you get me an emergency passport?’. They said that they could not do anything because that would be aiding abduction, and they would be in breach of Dubai law, aiding and abetting a child abduction.”

Afsana’s claims of domestic violence were never, it appeared, taken seriously. She was asked to provide three witnesses in court supporting her claim against her ex-husband, in accordance with sharia. When she was, unsurprisingly, unable to do so, Bruno filed for defamation. This charge remains on file. “The vice-consulate said, ‘Afsana, we can’t do anything, but if you’re in prison we’ll come and visit you’.”

At a hotel in Dubai I met Ahmed Mansoor, one of five prominent human rights activists in the United Arab Emirates who were detained in April 2011 and charged with opposing the Emirati government, inciting demonstrations and insulting the country’s leadership. These charges stemmed from a website Mansoor managed called where bloggers criticised government officials. “I simply wanted an elected democratic government,” said Mansoor. He was sentenced to three years in prison but released after seven months when the president pardoned him and the other four activists.

Mansoor was wearing the kandura, the traditional white dress of the UAE, but in place of the headdress (ghotra) he sported a blue baseball cap worn back to front. He chose the hotel because it was “quiet”.

He spoke quietly and discreetly, looking over his shoulder at regular intervals. “We are hitting really the worst situation that we’ve seen in the history of civil rights,” he said. “Actually, we are talking now of torture being systematic and state-sponsored, and that’s subhuman behaviour. So you can imagine what goes in between if we are talking about things as bad as torture.”

Why does he think the West seems so reluctant to criticise or even expose such human rights abuses? “Dubai branded itself really well over time. It has diversity in terms of nationalities and so forth, and superficially it gives people the impression that it is more free than it is. There are lots of businesses that you can establish here, and they have beautiful infrastructure when it comes to roads and buildings, so it gives a false impression.”

Afsana is of Bangladeshi origin and the authorities, she tells me, refuse to believe she is British, although she is an LSE graduate with a British accent. A court official in the UAE claimed that the only reason Afsana’s case was getting any attention from the British press “was due to her good looks”. 

In March 2013 a woman from Norway who was in Dubai for business was raped in a hotel. She was arrested and sentenced to 16 months in prison. After pressure from the Norwegian government and media, the woman was released and subsequently pardoned, as was her rapist. Last December an Austrian woman was raped and arrested. A campaign on her behalf, along with pressure from the Austrian media, resulted in her being pardoned.

Yet also in February a report by the Social Progress Index was widely reported in the Dubai press: it ranked the UAE number one in the world for treating women with respect. This claim was based on a so-called “major scientific study” that compared development and wellbeing among 132 nations of the world.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said the evidence on respect for women reflected “fundamental truths about Emirati culture and traditions”. But the women I spoke to who had had cause to seek help after fleeing violent husbands certainly do not hold that view.

I met a European journalist who has been living in Dubai for more than a decade and wishes to remain anonymous. I asked if he had noticed any significant improvements in the status of Emirati women during his time in the UAE, and he told me “no”. He added: “How can the rulers be so against [sex] trafficking when prostitution is so tolerated and under the control of the police?

“I don’t think local women are at the stage of being able to go to the police and report their husbands for domestic violence. I can’t imagine where [the DFWC] get their funding aside from the government, which makes me wonder whether it exists simply to give the impression that something is being done to help these victims.”

Had he witnessed much resistance to such an unequal society, not just for women but in protest against the slave-like conditions experienced by many migrant workers?

“The vanguards of the Left [in the UAE] all have their maids, so if they don’t see what is wrong with that, there is little hope for the others. And political Islam has been emboldened lately, so there are major difficulties convincing the majority that these human rights abuses should be tackled head-on.”

On my final day in Dubai I went to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel for Friday brunch, an institution for expats and tourists willing to part with £70 in return for free-flowing alcohol and limitless food. Hungry Britons thronged the several food stations, the busiest being the roast beef with all the trimmings. It was 40oC outside and the beach was packed with tourists in bikinis and shorts sunbathing and playing volleyball. I approached a table of Britons and asked about views of Emirati laws and, in particular, the status of women in Dubai.

“The women here have no rights,” said Simon, a Londoner living in Dubai. “It is different for the expat women, but the locals are lower than dogs as far as men are concerned.” I asked him why he had this impression. “I was told not to go into my office late at night if the [female] cleaner was there, because it is against the law for a Muslim woman to be alone in a room with a man.”

Domestic workers also suffer from debt bondage and wage exploitation in addition to sexual abuse. In April the Gulf News reported that Dubai residents were advised to “choose their maids carefully and treat them humanely if they want to ensure they don’t turn on them”, following an attempt by an Ethiopian maid to kill the three children in her care.

“I think a lot of people don’t get this,” said Afsana. “Dubai is based on a slave labour system where there is a racial hierarchy. Everybody’s got a Filipino nanny. It’s £200 a month and for that you get a full-time nanny, and they will do your cooking, cleaning and looking after you. Basically they’re your slave.”

But, she said, even the relatively rich expats such as herself were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by men because the sharia system treats them as chattels. “They don’t care about women in danger. Who are we? We’re the lowest of the low.”

In February Afsana was convicted of kidnapping the son she has not seen since October 2013 and given a one-month suspended jail sentence. After her passport was returned she took a gamble and booked a ticket to the UK to see her older sons, while fearing that she may never see Louis again. “The FCO tell me that there is little they can do for me because they respect the laws of the UAE. But this is not justice, this is sharia.”

Rabbhi Yahiya, Afsana’s older son, is campaigning for his mother to be reunited with her child. “This four-year long nightmare has ruined all of our lives. All my mother did was flee her marriage and yet she is the one who has been punished by a system that has continually failed to protect her basic rights and freedoms and is clearly open to abuse and gender bias.

“In no society, least of all ones which advertise themselves as ‘progressive’ and open to the world for tourism and business, should a mother and child endure what my mum and Louis have faced. They were at their most vulnerable, destitute and subjected to sustained violence, yet state institutions failed them at every turn. It is a clear signal that a wealthy expatriate man can abuse the sharia system to punish his victim.”

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