Dubai leaves little to the imagination. Oozing class and prosperity, this Gulf city is an undisputed Arab capital of cool. The largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it is a haven for both tourist and expatriates alike. For this is a city that has sprung out of the desert – an oasis for the world’s beautiful people where dreams are fulfilled and fortunes are made.
But beneath the hanging steel of high-rise office blocks and world-class hotels a far less glamorous campaign is being waged. Led by Sharla Musabih, an American married to a UAE national, this fight has focused on an altogether darker and more hidden aspect of UAE society: domestic abuse.
The City of Hope – an organization founded in 2001 by Sharla and two other women, Lena Mustapha and Margaret Greeney – has served as a refuge for hundreds of abused women and children. Its establishment, says Sharla, was in direct response to a growing need that has been neglected during the UAE’s stunning infrastructural and cultural transformation.
Only around 800,000 of UAE’s 4.2 million population are nationals: the rest are migrant workers and their families drawn from all over the globe. ‘The development of the UAE is really amazing. But what I saw happening (at the beginning) was the development of a lot of social problems, which, as a result of the sudden influx of over 100 different nationalities, were being overlooked.’
The police and other social agencies, says Sharla, found it hard to cope with the sudden rush of an incoming multinational population. Their systems – designed with the customs of the UAE in mind – began to crack. ‘The local population instantly lost their heritage and identity and it was very hard for them to deal with everything that came with the bigger population and the rise and use of bigger and better technology.’
‘My friends and I discovered that domestic violence was stepping up and so I started taking women into my home,’ recalls Sharla, who has lived in the UAE for some 22 years. Now with three operational shelters across Dubai, the City of Hope – a concern funded in part through corporate sponsorship – is filled with numerous women and children of various nationalities, many of whom could recount shocking tales covering the full spectrum of abuse. ‘We have rape victims. We have rape victims who are pregnant. And sometimes after the pregnancy, we have had to do DNA tests to prove the identity of the child’s father.’
Unlike in much of Europe and North America there are few shelters for battered women in the Middle East, so escaping an abusive relationship can be difficult. Add to that the cultural and religious customs that exist in the Arab world, and abused women from Western cultures who are married to Arab men can often feel very isolated. ‘I often think about where we would be if I hadn’t had this shelter… the women simply wouldn’t have had a place to go,’ Sharla reflects as she recounts the story of a German woman brought to the UAE by her violent Syrian husband who was left stranded in a hotel. ‘She now lives in the shelter with her three children, and has done so for a long time.’
The sensitivity of her work has led to public accusations – most of which originate from abusive husbands of women who were helped by the shelter – that she is ‘an Israeli spy, planted by the US Government’. When she first introduced the idea of a women’s shelter to the UAE Government, she was met by a mixture of interest and unease. ‘I visited the Under Secretary of Labour and Social Affairs and she told me that they didn’t have a law under which to license this kind of organization. Nobody had ever applied for this kind of thing before, but she told me to carry on until some kind of agreement about its status could be agreed. That was five years ago, and I’m still waiting.’
According to figures released by the human rights section of the Dubai Police, some 45 cases of family problems were reported in the city last year, only four of which were cases of violence against women. At the time of the report’s publication, Sharla dismissed the statistics as a gross underestimate, blaming the police system for mishandling domestic abuse situations. Abuse victims are often sent back home ‘after the police ask the husband to sign a statement promising not to harm his wife again’.
Despite this, her relationship with the Dubai Police is good – she was officially honoured by them late last year.
‘Gaining official status from the UAE Government [should] protect me and allow me to work in safety. And building more shelters would allow us to cope with the results of an ever-increasing multinational population. This country must never be allowed to live in denial [of the needs] of a [foreign] population which they have invited.’
Sharla Musabih talked with Alasdair Soussi