The 2015 World Championships of Beach Ultimate are here! Get ready for plenty of sand and sunshine, set against the gleaming skyline of fabulously wealthy Dubai. To those of us in the northern latitudes, the live-stream will be a much-needed reminder that this winter, too, shall pass.
But Dubai is also a place where human rights issues should give us pause. In this article, I want to highlight two areas of special concern: LGBT rights and women’s rights. My ultimate friends discuss these issues a lot, but for some reason no one I know is talking about them in relation to Dubai or this tournament.
I’m disturbed by official language on these issues, especially the player-guide to Local Customs and Laws on the WCBU 2015 website. [footnote number=”1”]WCBU 2015 organizers have just released as similar version of this guide, within their for-print Player’s Handbook. The language about homosexuality is maintained, while, curiously, the section on women has been deleted.[/footnote] Today, I focus on two key passages: “Homosexuality and General Public Behavior,” and “Women in Dubai.” I compare these passages to the US State Department’s most recent Human Rights Report on the United Arab Emirates. [footnote number=”2″]All parenthetical references to (State) refer to this report on 2013 conditions. The 2014 report should be available online soon.[/footnote] The resulting picture is troubling.
Before I continue, I want to make clear that I don’t believe in any fundamental difference or hierarchy between an “us” and a “them.” Such thinking is ugly and profoundly counterproductive. I also don’t think that my own country has all the answers. I am deeply proud of and grateful for the rights that my country’s people have achieved though toil, trial, and war, but we have neither a perfect record, nor yet a perfect balance. LGBT rights and women’s rights are issues that all countries need to work on, including my own (looking at you, Alabama). But if we should dare to hope for better protection of rights in our own countries, then why should we fall silent when we also see a need for change elsewhere in the world?
Rather than condescendingly seek to dictate a way of life, I hope to encourage the ultimate community to actively consider and discuss these rights issues as part of the complex backdrop to WCBU 2015.
As we celebrate and enjoy the tournament, we should also feel a sense of discomfort with the underlying social problems of the chosen location. When the ultimate community, BULA, and WFDF choose to send our players, fans, publicity, and money to Dubai, we must do so with an ongoing conversation about the serious rights issues in the region.
WCBU 2015 on “Homosexuality and General Public Behavior”
“Public displays of affection are considered offensive. Sex outside of marriage and homosexuality are also illegal, though prosecution of these offenses is very rare, especially among tourists and western expatriates.”
–WCBU 2015, Local Customs and Laws
This paragraph needs a little context.
In the United Arab Emirates, homosexuality is a criminal offense, punishable by arrest, fine, deportation, compulsory psychological therapy, lengthy imprisonment, and theoretically (though not in practice) even death. As the State Department notes, “both civil law and sharia criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity. Under sharia, individuals who engage in consensual same-sex sexual conduct are subject to the death penalty.”[footnote number=”3″]Sharia (Islamic religious law) and civil law are both in effect in the UAE, including Dubai. Sharia courts primarily handle cases amongst Muslims who live in the UAE, while civil courts generally handle the rest (subject to prosecutorial discretion). Either way, interpretation of sharia sets precedent for punishment maintained under federal and local civil codes. UAE Federal Penal Code, Article 354 contains ambiguous language that is understood by some to authorize the death penalty for homosexuality, and the subject is not settled (most legal experts appear to interpret Article 354 to mean that the death penalty is only for nonconsensual sodomy). The matter is primarily theoretical—a question of principle—since actual executions for any crime are exceedingly uncommon in the UAE. Death sentences in the UAE are usually used as a legal threat and intimidation before the convicted person is eventually granted a lesser penalty. So the theoretical death penalty as a punishment for homosexuality is mostly symbolic and never actually pursued, though it remains a remote possibility for judicial interpretation in sentencing. [Note: I’m synthesizing this from about a dozen different online articles and various NGO PDFs, but here’s one page that gives a decent legal overview].[/footnote]
Let me restate that in case you missed it: in the UAE a person can be legally deported, imprisoned, or, under some interpretations of the law, even executed for homosexuality.
Of course, Dubai itself is a bit of a special case, since the local penal code explicitly addresses homosexuality. Again according to the State Department, a person prosecuted for homosexuality under Dubai’s local code, Article 177, faces up to ten years in jail for consensual sex.
This is the law at WCBU 2015.
So, even though the death penalty is not actually practiced for homosexuality, I hardly think that the mere absence of dead bodies should be read as the standard for fair treatment. Even in its capacity as a debated symbol, the idea of execution as a punishment for homosexuality is a terrifying reminder of the other severe and damaging punishments that really do face the UAE’s LGBT citizens, residents, and foreign tourists.
The WCBU 2015 guide page reassures players that “prosecution of these offenses is very rare, especially among tourists and western expatriates.” Rare is a debatable characterization, and numbers are hard to come by here since people charged via such laws are disincentivized by social stigma to admit so publicly.
But let’s stipulate for a moment that it’s valid. Rare would still not mean nonexistent. The State Department report found that “there were prosecutions for consensual same-sex activity during the year . At times the government subjected persons against their will to psychological treatment and counseling for consensual same-sex activity.”
Did rare matter to those defendants? People in the United Arab Emirates do face punishment and/or harassment via these laws.[footnote number=”4″]Just for the sake of a momentary comparison, consider that laws criminalizing homosexual sex (via sodomy laws) were still in force in the US in until 2003. These laws, too, were ‘rarely’ enforced, but ‘rarely’ did not mean ‘never.’ Enforcement was not without personal consequence, and the mere presence of these laws in the books was often cited as justification for the denial of other protections. For good reason, Lawrence v. Texas is considered a significant victory for civil rights in this country. And if Texas somehow criminalized same-sex relations again, I suspect USAU would give Sarasota a call about getting some fields.[/footnote] Even if foreign tourists aren’t the primary targets of such prosecutions, we are not impervious, nor should we be indifferent to the more regular subjection of others to these laws.
A Note for Straight Couples: You should also be careful in Dubai. The WCBU 2015 guide tells us that Dubai legally prohibits premarital sex of any kind and that public display of affection is “considered offensive,” even between straight couples. Actually, the guide page may be under-selling this point. Public display of affection, including kissing, is not just offensive—it’s also illegal and can get you arrested and deported.[footnote number=”5″]This is according to the government-operated newspaper The National. Since the paper is owned by the people who would be imprisoning or deporting you, it might be worth reading.[/footnote] Enforcement varies, and perhaps the WCBU page is right; maybe it’s rare. But the law remains in effect for everyone, regardless of nationality, sex or gender.
Remembering the T in ‘LGBT’
The WCBU guide page totally ignores gender identity issues. Transgender individuals have no legal protections in the UAE. Consider, as just one symptom of this, that wearing clothing that does not conform to one’s assigned gender is illegal in the UAE, under an umbrella prohibition against so-called “cross-dressing.”
According to the State Department report, “the government [in 2013] deported cross-dressing foreign residents and referred citizens to public prosecutors” as part of reported actions against trans people. The government does not recognize the protection of gender identity or expression, and gendered clothing regulations are just one aspect of that broader refusal. The WCBU guide mentions dress code but completely ignores how legally assigned gender dictates which clothes are permissible.[footnote number=”6″]Again, this is all just one symptom, as gender identity, obviously, goes far beyond clothing; this is an example based on what I can find in the State Department report.[/footnote]
Sadly, none of this is likely to change soon, since “due to social conventions and potential persecution, LGBT organizations did not operate openly, nor were gay pride marches or gay rights advocacy events held…there were no government efforts to address potential discrimination” (State).[footnote number=”7″]I don’t know if UAE LGBT Rights counts here, but their activity seems to be limited (they also have some videos on YouTube, but again their activity is limited and I’m not sure where they’re based or whether they can operate openly).[/footnote] As the State Department report reminds us, the UAE government censors online access to “materials deemed inconsistent with the country’s values,” such as “sites deemed indecent, including those that dealt with…lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.”
This pattern of discrimination against and legal disenfranchisement of LGBT individuals is the unsettlingly real atmosphere surrounding our chasing plastic on the beaches of Dubai.
We should not let ourselves pretend otherwise.
WCBU 2015 on “Women in Dubai”
“Unlike other countries in the region, women hold significant positions in the government, on the boards of local businesses and can be found working in nearly every profession. Women make up more than 70 percent of the students enrolled in UAE universities and wearing the traditional local dress – called an abaya and shayla – is not a requirement.”
–WCBU 2015, Local Customs and Laws
To WCBU’s credit (and more importantly to Dubai’s), all of that is true. Women in Dubai have better access to education, employment, and government than they do in many other places in the Middle East. Nonetheless, that paragraph overlooks the other serious issues that confront women in Dubai.
For instance: although rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence (which disproportionately affect women) are all considered crimes in the United Arab Emirates, the State Department report found that, “the government did not enforce such laws effectively,” particularly in sharia courts, where “the extremely high burden of proof contributed to a low conviction rate.”[footnote number=”8″]To be clear, however, what does not constitute criminal abuse by a husband is unsettling, especially in light of a 2010 UAE Federal Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed a husband’s right to physically punish his wife.[/footnote]
Further, because of the laws forbidding extramarital sex, “female victims of rape or other sexual crimes faced the possibility of prosecution” if their assailants were not convicted (State). These problems persist despite popular and governmental efforts to prevent and address domestic violence and sexual assault.
Again, just so we’re clear on this point: “authorities arrested and prosecuted…victims of sexual assault for engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage” (State).
This, too, is the law at WCBU 2015.
As before, foreign tourists are not the people worst affected by these legal challenges, but they are by no means immune.[footnote number=”9″]I don’t have the space to go into specific cases here, but if you’re curious, do some online searching. Multiple foreign tourists (in addition to UAE residents), have been charged in recent years under premarital sex laws after reporting rapes or assaults that did not ultimately result in convictions.[/footnote] Nor would such immunity, if it were real, entitle us to disregard or forget that many do live under the possibility of such prosecution.
Other women’s rights issues also continue to shape Dubai and the UAE. Despite the commendable levels of access to education, the State Department report still found that “women faced legal and economic discrimination,” including unequal inheritance rights, and only partial freedom of marriage and divorce. While “no law prohibits women from working or owning businesses,” women still face professional discrimination in hiring, promotion, and compensation. Women are a relatively small percentage of Dubai’s workforce and are often limited in what jobs they are able to access.
Discrimination against women may not be as visible or severe in Dubai as it is elsewhere in the Middle East, but we must not allow ourselves the false comfort of simply pretending it doesn’t exist. Many of us feel outrage at workplace inequality or at sexual and domestic violence rates in our own countries—and we have rightly demanded that our governments enact reforms in both policy and prosecution. We should not abandon that hope for fairness and justice when we turn our attention to Dubai next week.
How do I feel about all of this?
None of this means that we should not support every athlete participating in Beach Worlds. On the contrary, we should cheer for athletes in all divisions, from all countries—especially the athletes of our host nation, the United Arab Emirates. We should rejoice in athletes’ successes, and we should sympathize with them in moments of failure. We should enjoy the tournament for the great showcase that it can be.
But we should also be aware of these ongoing concerns. We should acknowledge the uncomfortable realities of the WCBU location and of the systems we may be implicitly supporting if we choose not to speak up. We should make sure that all players and fans attending Dubai are aware of these legal concerns. We should think about the members of our community who might not feel welcome or safe at a tournament in Dubai. We should ask ourselves how we want WFDF and BULA organizers to choose future tournament locations. We should research and learn about rights issues in the region. We should engage in meaningful discussion about the issues in Dubai, rather than remaining silent due to discomfort or ignorance.
I’m not trying to swoop in from some lofty vantage point and ‘save’ anyone from anyone else. People in Dubai have worked, written, and spoken for themselves, and they will continue to do so. Their ongoing efforts have produced change, especially in domestic violence response. We should learn about and admire and voice our support for those local efforts. I also welcome corrections or alternative perspectives; I have never been to Dubai, and if possible, I would love to hear about these issues from ultimate players living in the UAE. The total picture of these rights issues is surely more nuanced than one person’s reading of State Department and online resources can capture.
But, while not all UAE residents or visitors feel the full brunt of these issues, some certainly do. The legal conditions outlined here feel to me—at some deep level—wrong and unjust, whether they affect 90 percent of the people, or ten percent, or one.
I’m not sure I have an easy answer for that heading. Look, the reality is that in all likelihood everyone at WCBU 2015 will be fine. They’ll keep a low profile, they’ll pretend like everything is okay, and nothing major will happen to any of our players or fans.
Nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that in this moment and in this context, silence seems a mark both of privilege and of convenient ignorance. I recognize and embrace the value of cultural exchange, and I am hopeful about the potential of this tournament to facilitate better understanding among players from many countries and cultures. But while we should certainly believe that conversation can be more productive than outright refusal to engage, we should also hope that conversation can be more productive than silence.
We can (and should) ask the uncomfortable questions about how WFDF and BULA choose our tournament venues. We can (and should) discuss how LGBT individuals and women are treated in Dubai. If we advocate for rights issues in our own countries, and if we critique our local, national, and professional ultimate leagues for a lack of inclusivity, then why should we abandon those principles now, on one of our sport’s biggest stages?
If you have ever felt frustrated with gender equity issues in ultimate, then don’t be silent in the coming week. If you think your LGBT friends or teammates should never have to worry about the legality of their identity at a WFDF tournament, then speak up. And if you see in what I’ve outlined here some small injustice—or perhaps a greater abridgement of those key rights that should be guaranteed to all people—then start a conversation on Monday, while the ultimate world celebrates on the stunning beaches in the shadow of skyscrapers in Dubai.
You won’t find an easy answer. But you may find something worth saying.
Editor’s note: This article’s original version said, in paragraph ten, that under certain interpretations of sharia, a person could be deported, imprisoned, or even executed under sharia law. It’s actually much more nuanced than that, so we decided to leave the discussion of sharia vs. Dubai’s civil law for the footnotes.