Letter to Congress: Systemic Violations of Women’s Rights in the UAE: Challenges and Solutions for the US Administration

Dear Members of Congress,

We are writing to you to bring to your attention the widespread and systemic violations of women’s rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Despite some recent reforms and efforts by the government to promote women’s rights, women in the UAE continue to face significant discrimination and abuse.

One of the most pressing issues affecting women in the UAE is the practice of male guardianship. Under this system, women are required to obtain the permission of a male guardian – typically their father, husband, or brother – for important life decisions such as marriage, divorce, and travel. This effectively denies women their autonomy and restricts their freedom of movement and access to justice. While the government has introduced some reforms to this system, it remains in place in many areas and is enforced by both social norms and legal structures.

The UAE also continues to enforce strict dress codes for women in public spaces. While the country has loosened some restrictions in recent years, women are still required to cover their hair and dress modestly. Failure to do so can result in fines or even imprisonment. This dress code not only limits women’s freedom of expression but also reinforces patriarchal attitudes that view women’s bodies as objects to be controlled and managed by men.

Another area of concern is the prevalence of domestic violence and other forms of abuse against women. Women who report such abuse often face significant barriers to accessing justice, including a lack of legal protections and resources, social stigma, and fear of retribution. The government has taken some steps to address this issue, including the creation of a hotline for reporting domestic violence and the establishment of shelters for victims. However, much more needs to be done to ensure that women in the UAE are protected from abuse and can access justice when they need it.

Finally, women in the UAE also face significant employment discrimination. Despite the country’s rapid economic growth and modernization, women continue to be underrepresented in the workforce and are often relegated to low-paying and low-status jobs. Many employers also enforce strict gender segregation and dress codes in the workplace, further limiting women’s opportunities and reinforcing gender-based stereotypes. This discrimination not only harms women but also limits the country’s economic potential by depriving it of the talents and contributions of half of its population.

To illustrate the severity and extent of these issues, I would like to highlight a few examples of women’s rights violations in the UAE:

– In 2018, British academic Matthew Hedges was arrested in the UAE on charges of spying. During his detention, his wife Daniela Tejada was forced to surrender her passport and was prevented from leaving the country. She was also subjected to intrusive questioning about her personal life and marriage by authorities. This incident highlights the extent to which the male guardianship system can be used to restrict women’s freedom of movement and control their lives.

– In 2019, Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, one of the wives of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, fled to the UK with her children, citing fears for her safety. She later initiated legal proceedings against her husband, alleging that he had been abusive towards her and that he had detained and mistreated one of his daughters from another marriage. While the case is ongoing, it highlights the prevalence of domestic violence and abuse against women in even the highest echelons of UAE society.

– In 2020, the UAE amended its personal status law to allow for cohabitation without marriage, a significant step towards recognizing the rights of unmarried couples. However, the law still requires that unmarried couples must provide proof of their relationship, such as a marriage contract from another country, in order to cohabit. This requirement effectively discriminates against women who may have difficulty obtaining such documentation, and perpetuates the idea that women require male protection and approval for their relationships.

Furthermore, the UAE has also been criticized for its treatment of migrant women who make up a significant portion of the country’s workforce. Migrant domestic workers, in particular, are often subjected to exploitative and abusive working conditions, with many working long hours without rest days or breaks, and some experiencing physical or sexual abuse. The government has taken some steps to improve protections for these workers, including implementing mandatory rest days and providing access to legal recourse. However, more needs to be done to address the root causes of this exploitation, including the kafala sponsorship system that ties workers to their employers and limits their ability to change jobs or leave the country.

The US administration can play a significant role in minimizing women’s rights violations in the UAE by using its diplomatic leverage to pressure the UAE government to enact reforms and adhere to international human rights standards.

Firstly, the US administration can publicly condemn violations of women’s rights in the UAE and raise the issue in bilateral and multilateral discussions with the UAE government. This can include calling for the repeal of discriminatory laws and policies, such as the male guardianship system and dress codes, and demanding that the UAE government take concrete steps to protect women from domestic violence and abuse.

Secondly, the US can leverage its economic ties with the UAE to promote gender equality in the workplace. This can include encouraging US companies to adopt gender-sensitive policies and practices in their operations in the UAE and advocating for the inclusion of gender equality clauses in trade agreements with the UAE.

Thirdly, the US administration can support civil society organizations in the UAE that are working to promote women’s rights and gender equality. This can include providing funding and technical assistance to these organizations and raising awareness of their work through diplomatic channels.

Finally, the US can continue to provide humanitarian aid and support to refugees and asylum seekers who have fled gender-based violence and discrimination in the UAE. This can include providing funding to organizations that offer legal assistance, shelter, and other forms of support to these vulnerable populations.

In summary, the US administration can play a critical role in promoting and protecting women’s rights in the UAE by using its diplomatic leverage, economic ties, and humanitarian aid to pressure the UAE government to enact reforms and adhere to international human rights standards.

In conclusion, the violations of women’s rights in the UAE are significant and pervasive, affecting women of all ages and backgrounds. While the government has taken some steps towards reform, much more needs to be done to address the underlying attitudes and structures that perpetuate discrimination and abuse. The international community, including the United States, has a critical role to play in promoting and protecting the rights of women in the UAE and holding the government accountable for its obligations under international human rights law.

Thank you for your attention to this important issue.


New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs

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