Skip to main content

Why is U.S. silent on imprisoning rape victims?

By Nina Burleigh, Special to CNN
July 24, 2013 -- Updated 1217 GMT (2017 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nina Burleigh: Case of woman sentenced to jail in Dubai for reporting rape is not unusual
  • Westerners can leave, she says, but Arab women and foreign servants must stay and endure
  • She says Arab Spring hasn't done much for women: Don't be fooled by modern skyscrapers
  • Burleigh: The power of petro-dollars fuels our silence, shows we fail on global women's rights

Editor's note: Nina Burleigh is an investigative journalist and author who has reported frequently from the Middle East. Her last book was "The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italian Trials of Amanda Knox."

(CNN) -- A friend of mine who works in advertising recently got called for a job in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Knowing I have traveled in the Middle East, she asked me if she should take it. I said it might be interesting in terms of cultural anthropology, but don't expect to enjoy yourself. The social and legal restrictions on women are rampant.

In the end she turned it down, and one big reason was her trepidation about how she would be treated.

Western women work in the notoriously misogynistic Gulf States, mostly in PR for governments and doing business with multinationals. But the biggest contingent of foreign women working in those countries -- the millions of Bangladeshi, Indonesian and Filipino servants -- are off the radar. The events of this past week should be regarded as their, and the native women's, silent scream.

Nina Burleigh
Nina Burleigh

Marte Deborah Dalelv, an interior designer working in Qatar, reported being raped last year while on a business trip to Dubai. Although her alleged attacker was arrested and jailed, so was she. A court sentenced her to 16 months in prison for having unlawful sex.

World outrage at the Kafkaesque situation apparently provoked the Dubai potentate Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to "pardon" Dalelv. She gets her passport back and is free to go home. She told reporters in Dubai she planned to get out soon.

The incident should be a wake-up call for any woman, and any man who cares about women, working in or doing business with the petro-cash soaked Gulf States.

It is a reminder to us that no matter how many glittery skyscrapers they build, no matter how many jewels of Western culture they attract -- the Sorbonne, Guggenheim and NYU in the United Arab Emirates, for example -- their laws are stacked against women. To convict a rapist in the United Arab Emirates, he must confess or at least four Muslim men who witnessed the rape must come forward.

Dalelv: Pardon is 'fantastic'
Woman reports Dubai rape, faces prison

Norway's government helped negotiate Dalelv's release, perhaps motivated by the 72,000 signatures collected by outraged Facebookers. That is not always the case. In 2008, an Australian woman who reported being gang-raped served eight months in jail.

In December 2012, a British woman reported being raped by three men in Dubai and was found guilty of drinking alcohol without a license and fined.

In January 2010, a British woman reported being raped by an employee at a Dubai hotel. She was charged with public intoxication and having sex outside of marriage.

Davelv thanked the emir for pardoning her (for what, exactly?), but royal forgiveness of a rape victim is not enough.

We ought to be pressuring the leaders of Dubai, and other Gulf States, all the time, and not just when foreign women are victims.

The U.S., incredibly, has had three female secretaries of state in a row who never put this issue on the table despite many meetings with kings and princes. We should be applying much more political and diplomatic pressure on these countries to give women their basic human rights.

We should also be supporting the brave women in these countries fighting for change.

A slender young Saudi woman named Manal al Sharif has been courageously fighting for women's right to drive in the Kingdom. She's been jailed. The rich and powerful nation where she lives and works forbids women from driving by refusing to grant them driver's licenses and arrests those who do drive.

The Saudis' justifications include the risible statements from religious muftis who preach that driving is a gateway activity to promiscuous sex.

The real reason women Saudi Arabia forbids women from driving is that the law regards them as children for life. Females remain legally under male "guardianship" from cradle to grave in the Gulf theocracies. Mobility profoundly threatens that lopsided intimate power structure.

In 2011, our nation's 14 female U.S. senators signed a letter urging Saudi Arabia to let women drive. Shouldn't there have been 100 senators' signatures -- male and female -- on such a letter?

In any other circumstance where biased laws affected men, too, we would see a more coordinated response. What if a nation forbade an ethnic group from driving, forced its members to walk about in blankets in desert heat and criminalized them for being victims of violence?

Absolute power, as the saying goes, corrupts absolutely. The abysmal state of gender relations in the theocracies includes girls in their early teens forced into marriage, rampant and unreported domestic violence and -- as in the Dalelvy case -- laws that offer no protection for rape victims but instead make them criminals.

The Arab Spring hasn't done much for women anywhere in the Arab world, and least of all in the Gulf States, which have avoided any revolutionary activity by crushing dissent and jailing people without charge.

Dubai, with its cool, gleaming skyscrapers, has earned a reputation as a playground for the world's wealthiest people. Al Jazeera, owned by the Qatari princes, is a reputable news organization not just in Arabic but in English as well.

The trouble is that these visible advancements are attached to medieval attitudes toward women.

And the real victims are not Western women, who can come and go at will, but the millions of powerless women who live in those countries.

Dalelv -- blond, First World and educated -- gets to go home to her mother and friends in Norway. How many female rape victims are languishing in the emirs' and sheikhs' jails or ostracized by society for life or suffering in silence for the "crime" of having been sexually assaulted?

Our silence is a measure of the power of petro-dollars and a powerful signal about where women's human rights rank on the world stage.

Until and unless Gulf State leaders start making some pro-female changes, women invited to work in these countries should boycott all job offers. Maybe if the emirs are isolated in their all-male 21st century utopia, they will begin to change.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nina Burleigh.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT