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LGBTQ Rights Under Sharia Law in the UAE

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

Written By: Riya Singhal

Editor: Jenna Jokhani

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The United Nations has failed to comprehensively protect the rights of LGBTQ individuals around the world. Members of the LGBTQ community are undermined, mistreated, tortured, and imprisoned due to their gender identity and sexuality. Some consider this level of state interference in the lives of private citizens to be draconian. Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Brunei, Qatar, Iraq, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Sudan, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Indonesia are ruled by Sharia law, which is a religion-based code that includes moral and ethical standards by which all Muslims are expected to adhere to, including prayers and fasting. The law aims to help Muslims understand how they should lead every aspect of their lives according to God's wishes. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, individuals that are caught engaging in “homosexual activities” can be imprisoned for up to fourteen years. More generally, members of the LGBTQ community in the UAE are at constant risk of state-sanctioned discrimination and violence.

Although the UAE is a member of the United Nations General Assembly, the country has consistently violated human rights and banned UN representatives from investigating any suspected violations. In its current iteration, the legal system chooses not to recognize the human rights of the LGBTQ community, or the privileges promised to all individuals, regardless of nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. The relatively new 2015 law in the UAE against “Discrimination and Hatred” prohibits “all forms of discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, sect, faith, creed, race, color, or ethnic origin”. Although this piece of federal legislation offers individuals a degree of religious freedom, it does not protect individuals under any other grounds, including gender and sexuality.

In the UAE, government officials can target members of the LGBTQ community through Article 356 of the penal code, which criminalizes “indecency”. Although the code does not define the acts that comprise “indecency”, the crime of indecency is punishable by a minimum of one year of imprisonment. In the UAE, this article is used to sentence and convict individuals for Zina offenses, which include same-sex relations as well as consensual heterosexual relations outside marriage. Different emirates within the UAE’s federal system have laws that criminalize same-sex sexual relations, including Abu Dhabi, where “unnatural sex with another person” can be punished with up to 14 years in prison.

Islam strongly influences the structure of culture, society, and politics in the UAE through the enforcement of Sharia law. The Quran provides an outline of basic standards by which humans should behave, but it does not prescribe a legal code. In actuality, only a few verses of the Quran refer to legal matters. Tenets of Sharia law are usually derived from the Quran, but they are not direct citations - only interpretations. Sharia law bans several things such as drug use, public displays of affection, “promiscuous” dress in public, alcohol consumption, and sexual activity between individuals of the same sex. Although the Quran states that men who have sex with other men should be punished, it does not specify how. Notably, it adds that they should be “left alone if they repent”. The Quran does not specifically mention lesbians, but only condemns women who “commit indecency”. The intersection of religion and law limits the sexual freedom of those who reside in the UAE and prevents members of the LGBTQ community from fully and safely expressing their gender and sexual identities, for fear of persecution and ostracization.

This can be exemplified by the case of Alexandre Robert, a young French boy who was raped by three Emirati men in Dubai in 2007. Alexandre was in a vehicle with the men, who drove him past his house, before threatening him with a knife and club and warning him that they would kill his family members if he ever reported them to the authorities. Then, the men ripped off Alexandre’s pants, sodomized him, and later dumped him on the side of the road. When Alexandre sought the assistance of authorities, he was discouraged from pressing charges and told that he could be punished for engaging in homosexual activities. Additionally, officials neglected to inform Alexandre and his parents that one of his assailants tested HIV-positive.

The doctor who evaluated Alexandre assumed that he was a “young gay man” and consequently stated in his report that there was “no evidence of forced penetration”, implying that if Alexandre were gay he would have consented to his own sexual assault. Although the perpetrators were eventually summoned to court, they all pleaded not guilty. Alexandre ultimately had to flee the country after facing multiple threats of imprisonment due to his supposed “participation” in a homosexual act. The rigidity and bigotry with which this case was reviewed had devastating consequences for Alexandre, a survivor of sexual assault. Alexandre’s sexuality should not have been relevant to the investigation. The law should have acted in his best interest, rather than regarding him as a criminal.

Alexandre’s case offers a glimpse of the fears and anxieties suffered by men who are perceived to be gay in the UAE. Members of the LGBTQ community face the constant risk of police surveillance and struggle to find spaces where they can feel safe. Despite the existence of secret gay clubs in Dubai, LGBTQ people fear police raids and attacks and most do not feel safe in public. Police surveillance is not limited to nightlife venues, but also extends to common public spaces, such as malls, where authorities patrol and search for “obvious” signs of homosexuality. Due to censorship, it is impossible to know just how many LGBTQ people in the UAE have been victims of such treatment. The marriage of religion and law in the UAE and perversion of the text of the Quran have allowed for the continued abuse of the LGBTQ community in the country.

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