A foreign domestic worker with a child under a billboard in the United Arab Emirates.

© 2006 Abbas/Magnum Photos

“Every woman has our deepest appreciation. Every role a woman takes to contribute to society makes her a partner in building our nation.”

So said Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Ruler of Dubai, in an April 2014 twitter posting.

Like many other countries, the United Arab Emirates will mark International Women’s Day on March 8, when we may hear more words from UAE leaders celebrating the role of women. Important as it is, this year, instead of fulsome praise, what women in the UAE really need is for their government to act to end discrimination they face in law and in practice.

On International Women's Day, the UAE should use the day to set out concrete measures to achieve equality for all women. Certainly the United Nations will push the UAE to do so this year, when its expert group on gender discrimination—known as the CEDAW Committee—meets with UAE officials in Geneva to examine the many ways their country’s laws and practices continue to discriminate against women and should be changed.

Despite some advances, women remain second class citizens in the UAE, where the concept of “male guardianship,” incorporated in UAE law, denies women the right to make autonomous decisions about marriage. Because of this, a woman cannot marry unless her male guardian concludes her marriage contract. If he objects, she can appeal to a judge to act as her guardian. Men, on the other hand, can marry up to four wives. Once married, the law requires a woman to be obedient to her husband.

Many women are in paid employment in the UAE, but a woman who takes work without her husband’s consent can be deemed “disobedient” under the law.  In one case Human Rights Watch documented, a court found that a woman victim of domestic violence had breached the law by working without her husband’s permission.

A man retains a unilateral right to divorce. A woman who wishes to divorce must apply for a court order, which may be granted only on limited grounds, unless her husband has formally given her a unilateral right to divorce. Alternatively, women can dissolve their marriage through what is known as khul’, but this requires giving up financial rights to the mahr— the dowry she received as part of the marriage contract.

Furthermore, 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 addressing domestic violence and other abuse. There have been recent calls, such as by the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children and the Abu Dhabi public prosecutor, for a law on domestic violence, but as yet there is no sign of such legislation on the horizon. By contrast, UAE law allows the “chastisement” by a husband of his wife and minor children, so long as the assault does not exceed the limits prescribed by Sharia (Islamic law). In 2010, the UAE’s Federal Supreme Court cited this law—Penal Code article 53—when it ruled that husbands may beat or use other forms of punishment or coercion against their wives so long as this does not leave physical marks. Human Rights Watch has documented three cases in which UAE police discouraged women from reporting domestic violence and failed to properly investigate their complaints.

UAE laws also make it difficult for women who are sexually assaulted or subjected to rape to report these crimes, as this may lead to their prosecution on charges of zina (sexual relations outside of marriage).

Migrant domestic workers are among the most vulnerable groups of women in the UAE although they are a main element of the country’s workforce. At least 146,000 women, primarily from Asia and Africa, have migrated to the UAE for domestic work. Many enjoy good working conditions, but others face severe abuses.  In its 2014 report, Human Rights Watch documented how the UAE’s visa sponsorship system, known as kafala, and the explicit exclusion of domestic workers from labor law protections, leave migrant domestic workers exposed to abuse and exploitation. Before publishing its report, Human Rights Watch spoke to 99 domestic workers in the UAE. Many described not being paid earnings due to them, not being permitted rest periods or time off, confined to the homes of their employers, and excessive work, with working days of up to 21 hours. They described being deprived of food and reported psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Many said their employers treated them like animals, or as if they were dirty and that any physical contact with them would be contaminating. In some cases, the abuses amounted to forced labor or trafficking.

Women in the UAE, both Emirati and migrants, contribute hugely to UAE society. They deserve more than fine words from the men who rule the UAE.  They deserve far-reaching reforms to ensure the country’s laws, policies, and practices repudiate discrimination and promote basic equality of rights and opportunities.