In the midst of National Day celebrations on Abu Dhabi's Corniche, five women were surrounded by a large number of men and, as the women reported in detail, they were groped and physically assaulted in an abhorrent and frightening incident.
The women, all teachers at a local school, were cutting through the crowd gathered to watch the fireworks display, as The National reported yesterday. One woman estimated that a group of more than 70 men participated in the assault, grabbing their hands and one woman's chest. The women stuck together, and were assisted by several passersby, but did not report the incident to the police. For them, a festive community event had been ruined by a terrifying assault.
The story draws attention to the issue of women's safety in public spaces. In any society women and girls are vulnerable no matter what they wear or what their behaviour is, but in the UAE the gender imbalance makes this a particular issue of concern.
Only one in 10 sex-related attacks against women is reported to police in the UAE, according to a recent report by Dubai Police. In the aforementioned incident, the women did not see a policeman to report to, and one can understand that they must have been shaken up by the incident. In other cases mentioned by Dubai Police, women have said they were afraid of losing their jobs or damaging their reputations if they reported assaults.
Several police initiatives have been launched over the last few years to address the problem and encourage women to report such assaults. Among them is Al Ameen, a hotline (800 4888 or sms 4444) to which women can anonymously report cases.
There are many issues related to women's security in public places. On the one hand, most public spaces should be for everyone; on the other, large crowds of men have no right to make women uncomfortable or feel threatened. But physical assault is an extreme case - and must be dealt with severely, for deterrence if for no other reason.
Women must be encouraged to go to police stations and report such cases. For them to feel safe to do so, police must always treat the allegations with the gravity and the respect that they deserve. There should be a zero-tolerance policy towards physical harassment, which in turn will change attitudes and behaviours over time.