Swapping marriage for punishment

Should marriage be made an alternative to jail? Credit: iStockPhoto.com
Should marriage be made an alternative to jail? Credit: iStockPhoto.com

In a multicultural society like ours, deciding what is a crime, how serious a matter it is and what is the right punishment can be difficult. This is clearly much on the minds of some of Abu Dhabi’s legal luminaries as they consider the severity of charges against couples accused of sex outside of wedlock if they decide to marry.

As reported yesterday in this newspaper, a judge could ask a couple accused of having an intimate relationship if they wanted to be married. If each said “I do”, charges might not be as severe. Court caseloads would be affected and society at large would not be criminalised.

Many would probably welcome such a move. Given the centrality of marriage in Arab and South Asian cultures, it is likely that many of these couples may have planned to marry anyway.

In conservative cultures, sex outside wedlock can have profound implications for a couple, if it becomes public knowledge. But it is always worse for the woman because the full force of societal disapproval falls upon her more than on the man.

The offer of marriage would probably, therefore, be particularly welcomed by them. That said, the UAE’s multicultural ethos, with close to 200 nationalities living and working here, makes it difficult to identify any one way forward as the norm.

Even so, the discussion is demonstrably part of a trend towards discretion and judiciousness in sentencing in the UAE.

Last month, the head of Dubai’s civil court told The National that some crimes – such as flashing a middle finger or kissing in public – were “not that big a deal” and it was not right that such offences were punished with deportation. Such deportation, he noted, could have lifelong consequences.

All in all, there is a general understanding that sentencing has to reflect both the norms of Emirati society and the reality of modern life in the UAE. But both of these evolve over time and it is only right that judges periodically re-evaluate crime and punishment and the balance between deterrence and licence.

It is a welcome discussion and one that contributes to justice not only being done, but being seen to be done.

Published: December 7, 2014 04:00 AM