• Andrew Harris

Melissa McBurnie case exposes anti female bias in UAE

- Princesses Haya & Latifa cases reveal discriminatory system from the top


Sexual harassment victim, but she was the one who was charged with a cybercrime

American sexual harassment victim arrested in Dubai for cybercrime shows Dubai’s terrible treatment of women. UAE, a country where rape victims are jailed, and princesses like Princess Haya and Latifa must flee.

Millions of women around the world are made to feel almost as nervous opening their smartphones as they would feel turning down a blind alley at night. Opening a chat window can often mean opening up a valve that floods a woman with unsolicited lewd sexual messages and obscene graphic image that can never be unseen. A recent study called 'Sexting and Psychological Distress' found that unwanted sexual messages can be traumatising for women, causing depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem. Worse still, is when women are victims of 'revenge porn', the non consensual sharing of their own private photos. Research has found that the emotional trauma women suffer in such cases can be equivalent to physical sexual assault.

American Melissa McBurnie knows all about this kind of abuse; she has been the victim of it for the past 4 years. She has been stalked online and cyber-assaulted by a married Egyptian man with whom she had a brief relationship after the two met on Facebook. When Melissa wanted to end it, he unleashed an onslaught of vulgarity, and began sending compromising pictures of her to third parties without her consent, even threatening to send them to her members of her family.

Instead of receiving the support she needs, and the legal intervention necessary to stop the abuse, Melissa has been charged in the UAE with slander and defamation after she lashed out at the man via email.

“In some ways Melissa is the victim of Dubai’s unruly Cybercrime laws, and in some ways she is the victim of Dubai itself,” says Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai and founder of Due Process International, who is representing Melissa. “Her abuser has taken advantage of the vague wording of the Cybercrime laws which make it a crime to use language online that might be deemed insulting or offensive; but he is also taking advantage of what he knows to be the prevailing patriarchal attitudes of the society and legal system in the country which invariably dismisses the rights of women.”

The UAE, like all countries in the Gulf, maintains a rigid system of legal and cultural male supremacy in which women are regarded as perpetual minors and men are often unaccountable for abusive behaviour.

“We have seen numerous cases of women who are victims of rape being charged and convicted of illicit sex in the Emirates,” Stirling explains, “If a woman receives indecent messages from a man, or if a man she was involved with possesses intimate pictures of her; in the culture of the UAE, she will be prejudged as having bad character, but the man will be treated as blameless. The double standard is stark and only compounds womens’ victimisation.”

When Melissa approached the Dubai police last week with the hundreds of abusive messages, obscene images, and explicit threats she had received from the man; literally a package of evidence weighing a full kilogram; officers were patronisingly supportive and talked abstractly about dismissing the charges against her; but since then, Melissa has been given the run-around. “She has been sent from one office to another in what they claim to be the necessary steps to end the case against her,” Stirling says, “But of course nothing is actually required on her part. The Public Prosecutor’s office simply has to dismiss the charges and Melissa would be free to go. It appears that the police only wish to placate her since her story received media attention, and they are intent on pursuing the charges once that attention subsides.”

Stirling continues, “This is a country in which the female members of the ruling family are not even secure from abuse within the palace walls. The former wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler, only felt safe filing for divorce after fleeing to the UK with her children, and two of his own daughters tried to escape the country and have alleged severe brutality. The culture, values, and attitudes of the country and its institutions flow from the top down. When the ruling elite, the heads of the government, appear to view Emirati women as male-owned property, the position of a foreign woman in the legal system is even more bleak.”

Stirling emphasizes that Melissa McBurnie is not to blame for the abuse she suffered, "she didn’t 'ask for it', and she deserves, as all women do, to be allowed to heal and move on with her life. Melissa’s case has struck a chord with women around the world who have been similarly abused both by strangers and ex partners. If Dubai proceeds with this case, they are sending a very damaging message that they believe women do not have the right to say ‘no’ to unwanted advances, and that they do not have ownership of their own privacy. Dubai has the opportunity to send a better, more empowering message by dismissing this outrageous case, and standing up for the victim instead of the perpetrator. We hope that is what they will do, and that the American government and international media will continue to urge them to do so.”



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