The Crime of Unwanted Sex

It is a perverse kind of entrapment to arrest a woman, after she is raped, on charges of having sex outside of marriage. Authorities in Dubai are not troubled by this type of perversity.

Marte Deborah Dalelv, a Norwegian citizen who is now 24, worked for an interior design firm in Qatar since 2011. She claimed she was sexually assaulted by a co-worker in March during a meeting in Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates. She reported the crime to police.

Marte was then charged with having sex outside of marriage. Yes, Marte. Charged with the crime of having sex she did not want to have.

She was detained for four days. Her embassy won her release from custody, but she was confined to the Norwegian Seamen’s Center in Dubai for approximately three months as the case against her was heard.

Marte’s attacker also faced charges. Not rape charges, though. Her attacker faced the same charges she did: having sex outside of marriage. Both were found guilty of the offense. Marte was sentenced to 16 months in jail. Her attacker was sentenced to 13 months.

Dubai is known as a “cosmopolitan” city, which is shorthand for relatively Westernized. It is a popular destination for tourists, who do not expect to be subject to the city’s Islamic-influenced legal code. That code outlaws behavior most Western adults consider an uncontroversial aspect of daily life, such as consuming alcohol. In 2009, a British couple was sentenced to a month in jail for kissing too passionately.

Dubai has struggled with balance, stuck with one proverbial foot firmly entrenched in a strain of Islamic doctrine and another dipping its toe into the relative liberalism of secular culture. Marte’s case demonstrates the degree to which the city continues to struggle with common notions of modernity.

It is one thing to blame the victim. It is quite another to arrest her for being party to an act that was perpetrated against her will. It is one thing to look the other way. It is quite another to stare directly at an event and see the wrong thing. It is one thing to disagree whether the crime of rape occurred. It is quite another to agree that rape is not the crime at issue.

Dubai took the position that made the extreme position look friendly. It took the position that a monogamous marriage wasn’t just an important thing, it was the only important thing. It took the position that a woman’s prerogative, a woman’s decision, a woman’s autonomy, was entirely besides the point.

Outside observers did not react quietly. Norway’s foreign minister called the verdict “highly problematic from a human rights perspective.” A spokesman for the Emirates Center for Human Rights made the fairly obvious observation that the case highlights the need for expanded legal protections for alleged rape victims.

These criticisms were enough to frighten Dubai into remorse. Recognizing that the outcry was doing nothing for its promotional image as a forward-looking metropolis of cross-cultural understanding, officials dropped Marte’s sentence. She is now free to return home.

As far as face-saving measures go, this is a flimsy one. The motivation stems not from a change of legislative heart, but a change of political heartburn. Any redemptive value is nearly destroyed by the fact that officials also vacated the sentence of Marte’s attacker.

And whatever credibility Dubai might think it restored is undone by the following: Marte’s freedom was won because she was pardoned for having sex she never wanted to have.

Featured image via Huffington Post.