Skip to main content

(Beirut) – United Arab Emirates authorities are failing to respond adequately to reports of domestic violence. The UAE should revise its laws to recognize domestic violence as a crime, and take immediate steps to prevent abuse and punish those responsible for domestic violence.

Human Rights Watch researched three cases in which UK nationals married to Western expatriates said that police discouraged them from reporting domestic violence and failed to properly investigate their complaints. Two subsequently lost cases over which parent the child should live with   in hearings in which the failure to properly investigate their allegations appears to have violated their right to a fair hearing.  Police told one of the women that, “In the UAE husbands are allowed to beat their wives.” In the only case in which the husband was prosecuted and convicted, the wife was also prosecuted and convicted for damaging his door as he assaulted her. The court fined them both the same amount.

In 2010, the UAE Federal Supreme Court affirmed that UAE law permits a husband to physically chastise his wife and a UN Committee on women’s rights has strongly criticized the UAE for, among other things, the absence of a law on domestic violence and the lack of adequate statistics on the issue.

“The UAE claims to be a leader in the region on women’s rights but apparently the courts don’t think  beating your wife is a crime,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “If the UAE is serious about women’s rights, it needs a domestic violence law, and to make clear to its police, prosecutors and judges that domestic violence is a crime.”

One of the women lost a case concerning the residence of her three-year-old son in August 2012, in a hearing in which she could not present any evidence of the two complaints about domestic violence she made to Dubai police. A second woman lost a case concerning the residence of her eight-year-old daughter in May 2014, six years after she made the first of three complaints of domestic violence to Dubai police. In both cases, the children were of an age at which, under UAE law, children generally live with the mother in cases of divorce. Incorrect or incomplete information that resulted from police failure to properly investigate allegations of domestic violence may have led to court decisions that were not in the best interest of the children, Human Rights Watch said.  

The three women all said that police officers took their statements in English but then typed them up in Arabic, although in each case the woman made it clear to the officers that she neither read nor understood Arabic. All three said the police told them that they had to sign the statements if they wished the authorities to take action on their complaints of domestic violence.

There are no independent women’s rights organizations in the UAE. The 2012 annual report of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWC), a government-run shelter for women and children who have suffered domestic violence, offered shelter to 17 victims of domestic violence in 2012 (six Emiratis and 11 expatriates), and handled cases of another  139 “external clients” who reported domestic violence. Of a total of 214 external clients, 54 percent were Emirati, but the report did not disaggregate the domestic violence complaints by nationality.

In March 2014, UAE media said officials reported a threefold increase in reports of domestic violence in Abu Dhabi in the last three years. The National newspaper reported that there had been 507 cases of husbands abusing their wives in 2013 by “physical attacks, verbal insults, defamation and threats.” Neither report contained details of any prosecutions.

The UAE’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) places it under an obligation to publish adequate statistics and documentation on the incidence of domestic violence. This should include data, disaggregated by nationalities of both victim and abuser, on the total number of complaints received by the authorities, the number of successful prosecutions and the sanctions imposed on offenders, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, authorities should issue guidance to ensure that police officers do not discourage women from filing complaints of domestic violence.

“Not only is the UAE failing abused women with the lack of a strong law and procedures to respond to domestic violence, but it is failing their children as well,” Stork said. “If the UAE police fail to investigate domestic violence properly, then the UAE courts cannot make informed decisions about a child’s residence after divorce that are in the best interests of the child.”

Case A
A UK national told Human Rights Watch that she first complained to Dubai police of domestic violence in the summer of 2008, when she tried to report that her husband had assaulted her. She said police officers at Bur Dubai police station told her she should return home and apologize to her husband. “The police told me that my husband could do what he wanted as it was his house and I was his wife,” she said.

She said that based on that experience, she did not report subsequent assaults, but that on the advice of her lawyer she reported another assault to police in Dubai on July 17, 2011. She told Human Rights Watch that she withdrew the complaint on the advice of the public prosecutor, who warned her that her husband had made a complaint against her for use of profane language – punishable by six months in jail under article 374 of the UAE penal code, which criminalizes “slander or abuse” – and that her husband would only drop the claim if she dropped her assault complaint against him.

She told Human Rights Watch that her then-husband – they were divorced in February 2014 – had placed a travel ban on their daughter in February 2010 and that in May 2011 police arrested her after he filed a complaint against her for working without his permission, which is illegal under article 72(2) of the UAE’s Personal Status Law. In October 2011 a Dubai court convicted her of working without her husband’s permission. The following month the UAE authorities deported her from the UAE, without her daughter. She had to wait 18 months to have her name removed from a blacklist and returned to the UAE in April 2013 to appear in person at a court hearing into the residence of her daughter.

On July 8, 2013, she complained to police at Bur Dubai that her husband had grabbed her by the throat and caused her to lose consciousness. She told Human Rights Watch that the police and public prosecutor again attempted to dissuade her on the basis that her husband had filed a complaint against her for criminal damage to his door, which she said occurred when he assaulted her.

When she did pursue the third assault complaint, her husband was prosecuted, convicted of assault and fined 2000 Emirati dirhams (US$554).  However she was herself prosecuted and convicted by the same court of criminal damage to her husband’s door and also fined 2000 dirhams.

An appeal court upheld the lower court’s decision in both her and her husband’s convictions. The judgment, seen by Human Rights Watch, confirmed the assault on her, and the fines.  “The forensic medical report established the existence of a curved fingernail scratch … on the front of the neck,” the appeal judgment said.    

She said that her lawyer advised her not to present her husband’s assault conviction as evidence in a final appeal hearing on the case concerning her daughter’s residence before the Court of Cassation on the basis that her criminal damage conviction and the conviction for working without her husband’s permission would prejudice her case:

I didn’t use [my ex-husband’s] assault convictions during the custody hearing because they said it would be bad for me because I was a criminal too and it would be my second charge committing an illegal act. They said I would look worse than him.

On April 29, 2014, the Dubai cassation court overturned an appeal court hearing in her favor from January 2014 and ordered that her daughter should live with her former husband. Her lawyers are opening a new case.

Case B
On January 14, 2011, another UK national complained to police at the Bur Dubai police station that her husband had physically assaulted her. He had made a complaint earlier in the day alleging she had assaulted him. One male police officer interviewed her, in the presence of three other male officers. She told Human Rights Watch that, after the interview, two of the officers told her in English that she should listen to her husband, and one of them added “in the UAE husbands are allowed to beat their wives.”  She filed another complaint, with supporting medical evidence showing injuries from her husband’s beatings, at the same police station on January 20, 2012.

In August 2012, her husband divorced her in absentia in a Sharia divorce in a court in Dubai.  At the same hearing the court ordered that her son be removed from her care to the care of her husband. She told Human Rights Watch that the court had previously dismissed her claims of domestic violence and that she was unable to support her claims with documentary evidence of any police investigation into her complaints. In December 2013, an Emirati lawyer whom she had hired to handle the case concerning her son told her that the police failure to give her a case number or any documentary record of either of her two complaints indicated that they had not investigated them.

Her husband filed a criminal complaint against her for defamation in June 2011 and placed a travel ban on her, having placed a travel ban on their son in April 2011. Police confiscated her passport in June 2011, which left her without any personal identification documents and unable to hire a lawyer to represent her until March 2014. In November 2013, police in Dubai informed her that her former husband had charged her with kidnapping her son.

In February 2014, a Dubai court convicted her of kidnapping her son and gave her a one-month suspended sentence, after a judge refused to hear evidence from her witnesses on the basis that they did not bring appropriate identification. One of the witnesses confirmed to Human Rights Watch that she had planned to testify that she had seen the woman’s former husband assault her publicly in a park in Dubai.  She cannot appeal the 2012 court decision but she is attempting to file a new case over where her son would live.

Case C
A third UK national told Human Rights Watch that a police officer initially refused to take her complaint of domestic violence in February 2014 because her husband had “only hit her once.” However, she refused to leave the station until they took her complaint. Police first referred her to a local hospital for a medical examination, where a hospital official told her that she should come to the hospital every time there was an assault. “Once you have a big file, we can do something,” he told her. He advised her to forgive her husband, saying that he was “probably just stressed.”

On one of several occasions when she returned to the police station to follow up on her case an officer said, “We don’t often do anything with domestic violence cases because they normally resolve themselves.” Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm the status of the case.

The UAE has no specific law on domestic violence. While general Penal Code provisions, such as on assault, can apply to spousal abuse, UAE law fails to spell out protection measures and the responsibilities of police, courts, and other government agencies in handling such abuse. In March 2014 local media reported that the Abu Dhabi public prosecutor had written to the Attorney General to request that a new family abuse law be enacted.

Article 53 of the UAE's penal code allows the imposition of “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. Article 56 of the UAE's personal status code obligates women to “obey” their husbands. In 2010 the UAE’s Federal Supreme Court issued a ruling, citing the UAE penal code, which sanctions beating and other forms of punishment or coercion by husbands on their wives providing the violence leaves no physical marks.

In 2010 the UAE’s Federal Supreme Court issued a ruling that upheld a husband’s ‘right’ to physically ‘chastise’ his wife under article 53 of the Penal Code.

Article 339 of the penal code states that anyone who physically assaults another person in any manner “shall be punished by detention and by a fine” if the assault results in “illness or the inability to perform his personal work for a period of 20 days.” If the results of the assault are “less serious” the law stipulates a maximum period of detention of one year and a maximum fine of 10,000 AED (US$2723).

Article 156 of the UAE Personal Status Law gives priority that children should live with their mothers after divorce until boys reach age 11 and girls reach age 13, at which point the priority would be that they would live with fathers. Courts can decide otherwise, on the basis of the best interest of the child

International Obligations
In 2004, the UAE ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The UN committee that monitors implementation of this treaty (CEDAW Committee) issued a General Recommendation on Violence against Women, which explains that gender-based violence is a form of discrimination against women and calls on governments to take effective measures to combat all forms of violence against women, regardless of whether the act is private or public.

In 2010, the CEDAW Committee called on the UAE “to enact legislation on violence against women, including domestic violence, to ensure that it is a criminal offence” and to “ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted and adequately punished.” In 2010, the CEDAW committee expressed regret over “the lack of adequate statistics, research and documentation on the incidence of violence against women” and the fact that women are “generally reluctant to report cases of violence.”

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UAE ratified in 1997, gives the child the right to have his or her best interests assessed and taken into account as a primary consideration in all actions or decisions that concern him or her, both in the public and private sphere. In civil cases – including those concerning a child’s residence or their separation from a parent, courts must provide for the best interests of the child to be considered in all such situations and decisions, whether of a procedural or substantive nature, and must demonstrate that they have effectively done so.  

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.