A few weeks ago, Marte Deborah Dalelv, a Norwegian woman working in Dubai, was sentenced to 16 months in jail after reporting that she had been raped. Her sentence has since been dropped, but her ordeal is unforgettable. On July 17, Marte went from being a potential victim to a criminal in a place where Islamic law has a strong influence on the city’s legal system. Marte didn’t feel the trepidation that local hotel staff members did when she entered her hotel lobby, seeking police help. Reporting rape is “the natural reaction where I am from,” she later said. After calling the police, Marte was given a medical examination in search of evidence of the alleged rape. Later, the legal system made an outrageous move and Marte was charged with having premarital sex.
I can only assume that Marte’s medical examination provided evidence for this charge. Considering that police applied similar charges to the colleague Marte accused of sexual assault, I will also assume that Marte’s examination could support her rape claims. But, as she discovered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – there are more sanctified things at stake, like the protection of ideals that state sex should only happen within marriage. In order for someone to be convicted of rape in Dubai, there needs to be a confession or 4 male witnesses of the crime. It apparently takes much less to convict someone for premarital sex. In Dubai, marriage symbolizes moral and legally permittable sex.
In places like Canada and Norway, there’s an unspoken understanding that the line between consensual and non-consensual sex is one of the most decisive boundaries that differentiates moral from immoral sex. We’re generally less concerned with whether or not two adults are married when they have sex than whether or not that sex was something both actively chose to engage in. As someone raised in a culture that reveres individual rights, I agree with this view of sex. I don’t view acts of premarital or marital sex in moralistic terms but I think that granting people the freedom to choose which they want to engage in is morally right. Rape, however, is by definition an act that holds someone against his or her will; in order for rape to exist, someone has to take away another’s autonomy over his or her own body and degrade the individual liberties we value so much in “the West”. This is what makes it a morally reprehensible crime.
Just as “the West” has moralistic standards, the Middle East does too. Living in a country where we emphasize the virtues of the right to determine one’s own values and life choices, I would be a hypocrite if I were to respond to the infuriating way Marte has been treated by arguing that the “wrong” moral standards were upheld and avenged through Dubai’s legal system. However, like much of “the West,” I do feel that this is the case. From where I was standing, I saw a woman being convicted for something that should not be considered a crime, while a serious crime that she reported was ignored. Even though I accept that moral standards are culturally specific and that sex outside of marriage in Dubai breaches a moral code that is just as legitimate as any in Canada – I saw the wrong moral standard taking precedence over the other. I can’t justify criminalizing someone for something that perhaps goes against a collective moral conscience but does not produce a victim, while another crime that does victimize a human being is ignored. I feel this way because of where I’m standing and looking but I can’t force a nation to see things through the cultural lens I’m looking through.
I can only make one more point. If Marte was raped – she was convicted of a crime that she didn’t choose to commit. Everything that happened to her was against her will. The UAE’s legal system clearly attempts to impede evidence indicative of rape from surfacing . Even Dubai’s police must realize that there’s a huge chance Marte was raped. By ignoring this, they have undermined their own attempts at justly upholding their moral codes regarding sex out-of-wedlock . Marte’s status as a potential victim of a crime that forced her, against her will, to “commit” another, is a testament to this. And this is something that should leave the whole world, the Middle East included, shaking its head at the charges laid on Marte.