A Protector of Abused Women (Extract)

One woman's fight for human rights in Dubai angers the authorities

18sharla224 (photo credit: www.7days.ae)
(photo credit: www.7days.ae)
Extract from article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Liar. Cheat. Manipulator. Abuser. These are just some of the accusations that have been leveled at Sharla Musabih, the American-born founder of the City of Hope, the first shelter for abused women in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and a unique initiative in the traditionally conservative confines of the Gulf region. Such allegations have been commonplace since Musabih established the Dubai-based organization in 2001, but after seven years of shining a spotlight on the darker side of the city's rich and glamorous exterior and helping countless women escape abusive homes, today she finds herself forced into self-imposed exile, she says, by a "campaign of injustice." "This is really hard for my [Emeriti] husband, and I don't know how much longer he can cope," says mother-of-six Musabih, speaking to The Jerusalem Report from her childhood home of Bainbridge Island, Washington state, where she has resided for the last six months. Musabih (née Oakley) who met her husband, Hassan, at a Seattle community college, where he was studying for a degree in economics, moved to the Emirates some 24 years ago. Swapping her life on West coast America, where she grew up in the rural surroundings of Eagle Harbor in the 1970s, for the cultural obscurities of the UAE - then a remote backwater and yet to become the oil-rich powerhouse that it is today - Musabih soon settled down, eventually finding work in a kindergarten, gaining Emeriti citizenship and converting to Islam. Neither, however, were enough to save her from the indignity of being arrested at Dubai International Airport in June this year as she was about to leave for the comparative safety of the United States. It was, says Musabih, a trumped up charge - lodged by the angry abusive husband of a woman she had helped - that would be just one in a long line of spurious allegations. It was also the final straw. "A husband had launched a kidnapping charge against me because I took his wife and daughter into the shelter," says Musabih, whose present period in the States is the longest such stay in her country of birth for over two decades. "I managed to get the charges dropped and then I caught the next available flight out that night. But during the summer, case after case has been filed against me - ridiculous baseless cases… if I go back now, I'm sure to be arrested again. But I'm so scared for my husband - I'm really scared that they'll target him… and I'm worried for my children, too." Musabih's campaigns for human rights - most notably, those of abused women - began long before the formation of the City of Hope in 2001. Indeed, her first introduction to domestic abuse in the UAE came some ten years earlier, when an American-born co-worker at the kindergarten confessed to Musabih that her Yemeni husband had been beating her with a television cable. "I just lost it," recalled Musabih, in an article in the Bainbridge Island Review in July. "I said, 'No, no, no, this isn't happening, you are not going home, you are not going home tonight.'" Soon, Musabih's co-worker was followed by other women, and before long the Musabih family residence was doubling as a refuge, which it did for no less than 10 years. For Musabih's family, sharing their home with women in need, and having extra mouths to feed, became the norm - as did dealing with the wrath of angry husbands. Over the next decade, and as she opened her door to more and more women looking to escape violent homes, the girl from America's Pacific coast quickly found herself on the frontline of the UAE's response to domestic violence. Two years ago, when I interviewed her in Dubai, Musabih ascribed much of the problem to the consequences of rapid immigration. "The development of the UAE is really amazing," she said. "But what I saw happening was the development of a lot of social problems, which, as a result of the sudden influx of over 100 different nationalities, were being overlooked." The social and political structures of the UAE - a country now host to nearly 3.5 million expatriates in a population of some 4.2 million - took time to adapt to this change in population dynamic, itself comprising a rich mix of Europeans, North Americans and Asians, including those from surrounding Arab states. As the police and other social agencies felt the strain of this influx, so too did the local inhabitants. "The local population instantly lost their heritage and identity," said Musabih. "And it was very hard for them to deal with everything that came with the bigger population and the rise and use of bigger and better technology." Violence against women was just one consequence of the UAE's rapidly growing population - joining other social ills, such as prostitution - and though it is difficult to gauge the prevalence of domestic violence before this influx, Musabih maintains that such abuse is no more widespread in Arab culture than Western culture. By 2001, Musabih had secured premises in which to house the women. And with that, the City of Hope was born. With a fully functional, though sparsely equipped, shelter - funded by both private and corporate donations - Musabih and her team of volunteers stepped up their campaign, taking in not only battered wives and housemaids abused by their employers, but also those who were the victims of human trafficking. At one point, as many as 70 women sought refuge at the shelter - a figure many times its capacity. But what it lacked in expensive and state of the art amenities akin to some of Dubai's other charities, it more than made up for in discretion and dedication, allowing women - many joined by their children - to safely escape the violence that had driven them to the City of Hope in the first place. Once in her care, Musabih would pursue their cases with vigor and, if necessary, buy plane tickets, often with her own money, to allow the women to return to their home countries. Musabih's assertive and direct style in dealing with such matters earned her respect and revulsion in equal measure. Receiving the UAE International Women's Day award in March 2007 gave Musabih some much-craved recognition, but despite gaining Emeriti citizenship, converting to Islam and adopting the hijab, she was still seen by some as a loudmouth American whose boisterous ways were inappropriate in an Arab male-dominated society. She incurred the wrath of prominent Muslim clerics, many of whom accused Musabih of going against Emeriti traditions and deliberately turning wives against their husbands. However, rather than backing off from confrontation, Musabih positively embraced it, marching into police stations if she felt they were not protecting women in danger. "Abuse victims were often sent back home after the police asked the husband to sign a statement promising not to harm his wife again," she says. Musabih's work took on an extra dimension when, in 2003, she spearheaded efforts to ban the use of child-jockeys in the popular sport of camel racing in the UAE. Bolstering her status as one of the most prominent human rights campaigners in the Middle East, Musabih uncovered the harsh realities of the sport - not least the spinal injuries and septic saddle sores which afflicted many of the young jockeys - and identified children, some as young as 4, who had been brought into the country illegally. Extract from article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.