The UAE's women need better recourse to justice

Despite the important strides taken by the UAE in the area of women's rights, not enough has been done to remove obstacles that prevent women from seeking justice.

Despite the important strides taken by the UAE in the area of women's rights, not enough has been done to remove obstacles that prevent women from seeking justice.

The UAE has ratified international conventions intended to serve as a basis for the creation of government programmes, but there is little financial assistance for impoverished women to engage legal services. There are also few means for women to reach out to legislators to express their opinions and reflect on the existing laws and the court judgments in cases concerning women's rights and equality matters in the UAE.

The main caretakers of UAE women are local women's associations, which are largely concerned with initiatives focused on education and career development. Such associations extend assistance to victims of domestic violence, offering psychological counseling and arranging legal counsel. The help they can provide, however, is limited due to their restricted budgets. Other women's groups such as the Dubai Women Establishment and the Emirates Business Women Council aim to connect Emirati women with distinguished Arab and western women by hosting seminars focused on women's leadership and empowerment.

But since all of these associations are local organisations, they are aimed at serving local women. Hence, foreign women lack sufficient access to assistance and moreover remain disconnected from acquiring knowledge of how the law impacts their lives .

At present, women remain informally divided into several categories based on their standing in society. This division is most evident in their ability to access justice. Poorer women are obviously the most vulnerable group, as they are often denied basic protections under the law and suffer from a lack of access to any sort of legal aid.

Provisions included in the UAE Constitution and other legislation aim to grant women the right to personal freedom. But the intent of these laws is often contradicted by family, penal, and personal status laws that effectively make the status of women subordinate to a man's. Laws often shape gender relations by upholding patriarchal structures, giving men legal authority over women in their families, which can undermine a women's equality in society and put them at a higher risk of violence.

Informal practices can also override what is formally granted in the Constitution and legal codes. Customs and social pressure, combined with certain interpretations of laws and religion, function to limit women's access to justice. Furthermore, women often confront negative ramifications if they do seek justice through legal means, making it a rarity for women to come forward with complaints.

Though the UAE Constitution and law state that all people are equal, there is no explicit mention of gender equality, nor are there enough laws or policies designed to eliminate existing gender-based discrimination. A lack of data makes it difficult to measure whether women have an equal voice before the court, though there are many instances where they have not been considered full persons before the law. To start with, according to Islamic jurisprudence, a woman's testimony is equal to only half of a man's. And while a woman may seek legal counsel and representation without a guardian at the age of 18, cases involving marriage contracts are an exception, since a requirement for any marriage to be executed before UAE courts is that a woman would have a wali, or a guardian.

While Article 29 of the UAE Constitution guarantees all UAE citizens - men and women - freedom of movement and residence within the limits of law, some restrictions on freedom of movement for both Emirati and foreign women remain. Women may be restricted from leaving the country if they lack permission from their husbands or guardians, for example.

Women in the UAE, pursuant to the Personal Status Law (No. 28 of 2005), are allowed to claim  khula (divorce that may be initiated by a woman in exchange for her dowry). Although the extent to which this provision has in fact improved women's autonomy is subject to debate, it is still a mercy in light of the fact that women who file for divorce because of harm and at the same time petition for custody of their children and alimony, face a long, difficult and agonising battle in court that they rarely win.

While organisations such as Dubai's Foundation for Women and Children protects national and foreign women from abuse, this shelter is only found in Dubai and not in any other emirate.

The Ministry of Justice should look seriously into extending legal aid to impoverished women and encourage litigators through funded schemes to offer their bona fide services to needy women in family law cases. Women's associations could also use some advocacy training to initiate dialogue with international organisations and the media locally and internationally. This training could be used to demand that the legislator in the UAE revisit the provisions of the law that impact women and call for necessary amendments that can play a more efficient role in bettering the capacity of women and their families.

An awareness of the legal code, and of its limits, are the best ways to initiate the changes that will allow women to attain equality with men in both the letter of the law and in the spirit in which it is lived.

Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and legal consultant. She is the founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai