UAE: Stop Policing Gender Expression

The United Arab Emirates should stop arbitrarily arresting transgender, gay, and gender non-conforming people on the grounds of a law that criminalises men “disguising” as women, Human Rights Watch said today.

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On August 9, 2017, Emirati police in Abu Dhabi detained two Singaporean nationals in a shopping mall. A court convicted them of crimes and sentenced them to one year in prison”for attempting to resemble women. The UAE deported them on August 28 after they spent nearly three weeks in custody, much of that time in a cell they said was designated for “effeminate” people.

The two Singaporeans, Muhammed Fadli Abdul Rahman and Nur Qistina Fitriah Ibrahim, told Human Rights Watch they were wearing jeans, sneakers, and long-sleeved button-down shirts at the time of their arrest. Fadli, a cisgender male fashion photographer, said he wore a chain around his neck and has an ear piercing and a nose piercing, while Ibrahim, a transgender woman who works as a model, had long hair. Police told them their arrest was on the grounds of “looking feminine.”

“It’s bad enough that the UAE is arresting people solely on the basis of hairstyles and accessories, which the police rely on to make wild guesses about people’s gender identities,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Worse, the authorities are going far beyond the letter of the law, which only applies to spaces designated for women – not shopping malls.”

The two arrived in the UAE on August 8 to meet with clothing designers and organise a fashion shoot. Police charged them under article 359 of the country’s federal penal code, as well as article 58 of the emirate of Abu Dhabi’s local penal code. On August 20, a court sentenced them each to one year in prison. They were not represented by a lawyer in court. On August 27, an appeals court converted their sentence to deportation and a fine, and they were deported the next day.

Article 359 of the UAE’s federal penal code punishes “any male disguised in a female apparel and enters in this disguise a place reserved for women or where entry is forbidden, at that time, for other than women” with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 dirhams (approximately US$2,723). Police arrested Fadli and Ibrahim in Yas Mall, Abu Dhabi’s largest shopping mall, which is not a place “reserved for women.”

Article 58 of Abu Dhabi’s local penal code punishes “violation of public morals” with up to two years in prison and a fine of as much as 15,000 dirhams (approximately US$4,084).

Other people are in detention in the UAE on the grounds of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Fadli told Human Rights Watch that he and Ibrahim were held in a cell that they called the “Detainees’ Apartment,” in which a nurse and other inmates told them that “effeminate” detainees are held, both in pretrial detention and after conviction.

A number of the other detainees told Fadli and Ibrahim the reasons for their arrest and detention, they said. They said the detainees included Emiratis, Moroccans, and Filipinas, most of whom said that they had been arrested solely for “looking feminine,” including two men who said they were arrested while in line at a movie theatre; another man who said he was arrested at Yas Mall; a transgender woman who said she was arrested while wearing a work uniform because of her feminine-looking face; and a transgender woman who, like Ibrahim, had long hair but was wearing men’s clothing when arrested, in accordance with the “male” gender marker on her documents.

Fadli said another detainee told him he had been charged with sodomy and had been subjected to a forced anal examination, which constitutes a form of torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

Fadli and Ibrahim said that police and prison guards did not physically abuse or insult them, but that prison guards ransacked their luggage, threw out Ibrahim’s hormone pills, and shaved both of their heads. “Shaving my head – that was the most devastating part for me,” Ibrahim told Human Rights Watch.

Laws that criminalise people on the basis of their gender identity or gender expression violate the right to freedom of expression, protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They can also violate freedom of movement and freedom from discrimination on the basis of gender. Such laws punish transgender people’s very existence, as Ibrahim told Human Rights Watch: “I’m very feminine, and I can do nothing about it.”

As a state party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the UAE is obligated to prohibit all forms of discrimination against women, including on the basis of gender identity.

While article 359 of the Penal Code only criminalises men who dress in women’s clothing and enter women-only spaces, the language used in judgment against Fadli and Ibrahim suggests that the law is being abused to target people perceived as gender non-conforming even when they are in mixed-gender public places, and that vague laws on public morals are also being misused to limit gender expression. The judgment, on file with Human Rights Watch, states that they were sentenced to a year in prison for “being disguised in women’s dress” and “violation of public morals by being in a public place appearing as women.” The judgment further states that they were “attempting to resemble women.”

The UAE government website says, “The UAE Government emphasises on tolerance in the society. Moderation and acceptance of others are innate in the UAE culture.”

In accordance with these principles and with its obligations under international law, the UAE should cease all arrests on the grounds of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, Human Rights Watch said. It should amend vague laws that punish “violation of public morals” so that such laws are not used to persecute people on any of these grounds. The UAE should release the other detainees held who have been arrested, sentenced, or are awaiting trial on these grounds, including those currently held at the “Detainees’ Apartment.”

“The UAE describes itself as an ‘ideal tourist destination’ and a ‘safe place to work’, but when visitors can be arrested on such arbitrary grounds, it’s clear that the UAE is neither safe nor friendly for visitors or its residents,” Whitson said. “The government should live up to its own rhetoric about tolerance and openness, rather than cracking down on sexual and gender minorities.”