UAE relaxes Islamic laws to ‘boost tolerance’

Published November 8, 2020
In this file photo, people watch the sunset over the skyline, with Burj Khalifa at right, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. — AP
In this file photo, people watch the sunset over the skyline, with Burj Khalifa at right, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. — AP

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates announced on Saturday a major overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosening alcohol restrictions and criminalising honour killings.

The broadening of personal freedoms reflects the changing profile of a country that has sought to bill itself as a westernised destination for tourists, fortune-seekers and businesses despite its Islamic legal code that has previously triggered court cases against foreigners and outrage in their home countries.

“The reforms aim to boost the country’s economic and social standing and consolidate the UAE’s principles of tolerance,” state-run WAM news agency reported, which offered only minimal details in the surprise weekend announcement.

The government decrees behind the changes were outlined extensively in state-linked newspaper The National, which did not cite its source.

The move follows a historic US-brokered deal to normalise relations between the UAE and Israel, which is expected to bring an influx of Israeli tourists and investment. It also comes as skyscraper-studded Dubai gets ready to host the World Expo. The high-stakes event, expected to bring a flurry of commercial activity and some 25 million visitors to the country, was initially scheduled for October, but was pushed back a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The changes, which The National said would take immediate effect, also reflect the efforts of the Emirates rulers to keep pace with a rapidly changing society at home.

“I could not be happier for these new laws that are progressive and proactive,” said Emirati filmmaker Abdallah Al Kaabi, whose art has tackled taboo topics like homosexual love and gender identity.

“The present year has been tough and transformative for the UAE,” he added.

Changes include scrapping penalties for alcohol consumption, sales and possession for those 21 and over. Although liquor and beer are widely available in bars and clubs in the UAE’s luxuriant coastal cities, individuals previously needed a government-issued licence to purchase, transport or have alcohol in their homes. The new rule would apparently allow Muslims who have been barred from obtaining licences to drink alcoholic beverages freely.

Another amendment allows for cohabitation of unmarried couples, which has long been a crime in the UAE. Authorities, especially in the more freewheeling financial hub of Dubai, often looked the other way when it came to foreigners, but the threat of punishment still lingered. Attempted suicide, forbidden in Islamic law, would also be decriminalised, The National reported.

In a move to better protect women’s rights, the government said it also decided to get rid of laws defending honour crimes, a widely criticised tribal custom in which a male relative may evade prosecution for assaulting a woman seen as dishonouring a family. The punishment for a crime committed to eradicate a woman’s shame,” for promiscuity or disobeying religious and cultural strictures, will now be the same for any other kind of assault.

Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2020

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