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A woman fighter pilot doesn't mean that the UAE respects women

How typical of the United Arab Emirates to turn the bombing of Iraq and Syria into a reputation-laundering propaganda operation. Pictures of Mariam Hassan Salem Al-Mansouri, the first Emirati woman to hold the rank of fighter pilot in the UAE Air Force, have been circulated widely, along with headlines suggesting that the Emirates might suddenly have morphed into a female friendly nation.

Did the UAE take advice from one of their Western public relations firms over this? Perhaps it was the Camstoll Group, which was caught recently feeding information to Western journalists smearing the UAE's political opponents in Qatar; or the Harbour Group, another firm of publicists reported to be on a retainer of $4.4 million; or propagandists employed by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and DLA Piper, spinning agencies who together have raked in over a million dollars for obscuring UAE's systemic lack of respect for humanity.

Despite some progress in introducing women to the workplace, those in the UAE are hardly burning their bras just yet. Human Rights Watch accused the UAE authorities in August of "failing to respond adequately to reports of domestic violence." They noted that the government's version of sharia law may be invoked by male accusers in court, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not. Under this codified interpretation, it is then permissible for a husband to physically chastise his wife. Hammering your missus is legal, but hey, a female Top Gun, that makes up for it, right?

Wrong. And there are a number of examples which demonstrate why. Afsana Lauchaux, a former civil servant from east London, was branded an unfit and un-Islamic mother by a UAE court earlier this year for "refusing to obey her husband". The court also ruled that she was a bad mother. The evidence? Her son had eczema.

Lauchaux was in fact a victim of domestic abuse. Her ex-husband, a non-Muslim expat, invoked sharia law during the custody case over their son, and the court permitted a litany of lies to come spouting from his lips, while defence witnesses for his former wife weren't permitted to give evidence. According to Lauchaux, she was attacked by a Dubai police officer in the weeks leading up to the trial. She has since returned to Britain, without her little boy, and now campaigns with HRW for gender rights in the UAE.

In another case exemplifying the UAE's disrespect for women, Tess Lorrigan, a schoolteacher from Britain, was deported from Dubai in 2011. She was working without her estranged husband's permission, which is still an offence under UAE law.

Women in Dubai can even face prison for reporting their own rape. A 24 year old Norwegian woman reported an attack on her to the police, and received a prison sentence for "perjury, consensual extramarital sex and alcohol consumption". In 2010, a Muslim woman in Abu Dhabi retracted her allegations of being gang-raped by 6 men, claiming that the police threatened her with corporal punishment for premarital sex. It's no surprise, then, that over 50 per cent of women living in the UAE say that they would not report a rape to police.

Ethiopian Consul-General to the Emirates, Yibeltal Aemero Alemu, urged UAE households last year to ""treat your maid as a human being not as a machine." That he needed to remind his hosts of this would be an outrage in any civilised country, but in the UAE the repugnant kafala system for migrant workers, which ties immigrant labour visas to their employers, enables abuse of the half a million domestic workers, most of whom are female (and many are Ethiopian).

HRW is banned from the UAE; last year the organisation reported on widespread physical abuse and torture, including beatings, kicking, slapping, hair-pulling and burning with hot irons or coals. When domestic workers try to assert their rights on wage issues, contact with family, rest, food or medical care, the abuse often escalates and employers accuse them of lying or stealing.

Since workers have no access to health care, medical attention is infrequent even when the abuse results in serious injuries. Female domestic workers are vulnerable to sexual abuse by male employers and other male relatives or visitors to the home. There are documented cases of domestic workers who have become pregnant as a result of rape, and then jailed.

So what of fighter pilot Mariam Al-Mansouri? She was flying an F16 Fighting Falcon, a jet sold to the UAE by an American company, Lockheed Martin. Pilots in the UAE Air Force have been trained in Arizona, at a US military facility, using American taxpayers' dollars. This defence partnership, and dozens more like it, are symptomatic of the intimate relationship based on economic and political interests that Western powers, including Britain, enjoy with the Emirates.

Disrespect for women is just one element of the UAE's systemic abuses of human rights: there are allegation of the widespread use of torture, kidnappings and disappearances, severe restrictions on media freedom and political activity, as well as the migrant worker abuses, all of which affect the majority of the population. Al-Mansouri might be amongst the lucky minority, but too many women in the UAE have a government that does nothing to protect them. By their aforementioned relationship with the Emirates, Western governments don't just look on, they are complicit in the human rights abuses taking place in the wealthy Gulf State.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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