DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The couple stood before a Dubai judge. The charge was sex outside marriage — illegal in the United Arab Emirates and across nearly all the Muslim world — and the magistrate offered an option: Suspended sentences to the Pakistani man and Filipino woman if they agreed to wed. The man consented, but the woman refused. They are awaiting sentencing, which could bring jail terms of several months or longer.
The case in May grabbed some attention because of the judge’s novel approach, but otherwise passed as a routine hearing on the misdemeanor docket in a city that relentlessly promotes itself as the new crossroads of the world.
Dubai’s Islamic-influenced laws on sex, morality and how they are applied are now center stage in a global debate following the legal battle of a 24-year-old Norwegian woman, Marte Deborah Dalelv. She was sentenced to 16 months in prison on unwed sex and alcohol charges last week after claiming she was raped by a co-worker in March. The alleged attacker received a 13-month sentence on similar charges.
Both were pardoned Monday after Dalelv’s sentence stirred an international outcry — which was furthered by the decision to waive the punishment for the 33-year-old Sudanese man.
Officials in the United Arab Emirates, however, stand by the sentences. They say the decisions were in line with local laws after Dalelv withdrew the rape allegation in the apparent belief that she could then simply reclaim her police-confiscated passport and leave the country.
It also underscores the contradictory and potentially baffling messages sent by places such as Dubai. Its tolerant atmosphere permits indulgences such as unlimited-booze brunches and lavish Valentine’s Day getaways but spends far less energy on reminding foreigners that its laws are influenced by Islamic tenets that outlaw sex out of wedlock or even getting too amorous with your partner in public.
While enforcement is laissez-faire in Dubai — there are no active morality squads at work — the Dalelv case speaks to the wider contrasts across the region between what happens on the street, what is written in the law, and how much authorities warn visitors and foreign residents of the legal boundaries.
The potential for clashes could grow with places such as Abu Dhabi and Qatar’s capital of Doha greatly expanding their international reach, including Doha hosting the 2022 World Cup. In countries that depend on tourism, such as Egypt and Jordan, the rising voices of Islamist groups could chip away at the traditional buffer given foreigners from laws about sex outside marriage.
HOLIDAYS AND PAYCHECKS
Parts of the Muslim world are magnets for tourism. Other points are increasingly important destinations for expatriate workers ranging from Western executives to laborers building and maintaining the sprouting skylines in the Gulf.
In both settings, enforcement of unwed sex codes is mostly very relaxed out of necessity. Demanding marriage licenses or applying other official pressures on visiting couples would threaten the lifeblood of tourism in places such as Morocco or Tunisia.
Morocco’s laws set penalties of between one month and one year in prison for unmarried sex between a man and woman, but the measures are almost never applied to foreigners. Hotels, for example, are rarely — if ever — asked for proof of marriage. According to Morocco’s Justice Ministry, there has only been one case of a foreigner prosecuted for “moral crimes” in recent years, a Filipina, but it did not give details.
In Lebanon, whose tourism has dropped off sharply since the civil war in neighboring Syria, there are no specific national laws banning premarital sex, but the country has subcategories of “personal status laws” for the country’s patchwork of religious and ethnic sects. These laws require Lebanese citizens to follow the traditions and rules of their respective groups. Both the major religions, Muslim and Christian, forbid sex outside marriage, but enforcement becomes a local issue. Unmarried couples living together in Lebanon also is increasingly common.
Tour operators in Egypt fear the now-ousted Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi would frighten off unmarried couples. Currently, though, the chaos in Egypt has choked off tourism to a trickle.
The government in Indonesia — with its popular Bali resorts — proposed in March changing long-standing liberal colonial laws from Dutch rule to impose jail sentences up to five years for unmarried sex. The possible changes reflect a growing emphasis on stricter Muslim codes in a nation that has long followed more moderate interpretations of Islam.
Authorities the fast-growing Gulf states of Qatar and the UAE, meanwhile, apply a generally light touch on enforcing laws about unwed sex in a tacit acknowledgment of the dependence on the huge foreign workforce, including many singles, and the growing importance of tourism.
The blows to Dubai’s image from the Dalelv case are cautionary tales for Gulf states trying to project a Western-friendly aura. But there appears to be no suggestions of amending the morality statutes in its laws, which are strongly influenced by Islamic codes but include tribal customs and international jurisprudence.
In most cases, the police only intervene after a complaint.
An Egyptian living in Qatar, Mulham Ashraf, said he called police because he was offended when his roommate’s girlfriend began spending the night. The man was arrested, he said, but he was not sure of the fate of the woman.
“I lived with my Filipina girlfriend for several years before she returned to the Philippines,” said Abdullah Owaidat, a Jordanian living in Qatar. “We were not harassed or questioned. But we were careful not to socialize with neighbors for fear of being reported. I have a lot of friends — Americans, British and even Arabs — who live with partners outside marriage.”
Still, like the Dubai case, rape claims can bring complications for the accusers.
In December 2011, the Doha-based newspaper Al Arabi Qatari reported on an Asian maid who was charged with sex outside marriage after she claimed she was raped by her boyfriend. She was later deported.
Earlier this week in Dubai, an unmarried Filipina and her boyfriend were sentenced to a year in prison each on sex charges after she was treated for a miscarriage.
Parts of the Muslim world that follow strict interpretations of Islamic law, or sharia, can impose death sentences for sex outside marriage.
In Pakistan, punishment can be stoning to death or 100 lashes under laws issued in 1979 when strongman Gen. Zia ul-Haq ruled the country. Lawyers say there have been cases where rape victims were punished under the law, although not stoned to death, because they were not able to prove the rape claim — which needs the corroboration of adult male witnesses.
The law applies to Pakistanis and foreigners, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Khurram Khosa, a criminal lawyer, said there are several examples of foreigners who were caught and tried on charges of sex outside of marriage. These were mainly women who came to Pakistan to work as prostitutes, Khosa said.
In Afghanistan, Islamic law can be applied in cases of premarital sex or adultery, but rarely is enforced because it is almost impossible to meet the requirement of four witnesses. Instead, judges use Afghan law that calls for one to five years in prison if two unmarried people have sex outside wedlock. In Taliban-controlled areas, there have executions of people found guilty of adultery or sex out of wedlock.
Afghanistan’s laws apply to foreigners, but most in Afghanistan live in guarded compounds that are restricted to non-Afghans.
Under Iran’s Islamic codes, punishment for adultery can be death by stoning. If both partners are single, it can bring 100 lashes.
Such cases are difficult to prove, however, requiring material evidence such as a videotape or the testimony of four male witnesses.
In Gaza, controlled by the militant group Hamas, a cleric offered the improbable boast that sex outside marriage cannot be found in the territory.
“Islam asks people to bear the burden of their pleasure” only through marriage, said Sheik Hisham Akram. “In our country, thanks Allah’s blessings, we don’t have these kind of forbidden relations.”
Nevertheless, the law says violators could face up to six months in prison.
In Iraq, there is no punishment for a relationship outside marriage if it has the consent of both partners. With adultery, however, the punishment is from one to seven years in prison for both people.
Jordan bans all sex outside marriage, with jail sentences up to three years, although the law is rarely enforced. Families of women suspected of out-of-wedlock sex are sometimes slain by relatives in so-called “honor killings,” which occur across the Muslim world, although Jordan’s Queen Rania has led a campaign against the ancient practice.
Last month, Cambridge University released a survey of 850 Jordanian students that found about half of the males and 20 percent of female respondents advocated killing women or girls if their sexual behavior dishonored the family.
Associated Press writers contributing to this report include: Smail Bellaoualli in Rabat, Morocco; Niniek Karmini in Jakarta; Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar; Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Patrick Quinn in Kabul; Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip; Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad; Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan; and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran.