How safe are female students studying in Abu Dhabi?
The question is buried five paragraphs into The New York Observer’s front-page take-down of Western institutions opening satellites on Abu Dhabi’s Sa’adiyat (“Happiness”) Island. The article—which criticizes NYU, The Louvre, and the Guggenheim for developing in Abu Dhabi—raises the issue implicitly, the way a parent might when trying to dissuade a daughter from studying abroad: It cites alarming findings from the UAE’s 2013 Human Rights Watch report.
“Women’s rights are basically nonexistent,” The Observer writes. “Like many Islamic nations, the UAE applies Shariah law to women, meaning that women cannot seek adjudication pursuant to a civil code. Rape victims rarely seek justice, and if they do, they are prosecuted themselves.”
These concerns are more than valid, and deserving of attention on a global scale. The question is, why does The Observer choose to use women’s oppression as a scare tactic, rather than as motivation for young activists?
NYUAD students were quick to counter The Observer’s insinuations that the Abu Dhabi campus somehow presents an unsafe or oppressive environment for female students.
“[…]there is not some incredibly strict ‘dress code’ beyond our walls that we are exempt from (I wear a bikini at the public beach, and could wear skirts and short sleeves wherever I like except a mosque,” a female student commented on the article.
And despite The Observer’s claims that “there is no evidence that NYU or the Guggenheim ever insisted on anything like a free speech or women’s rights clause when they sold their brands,” NYUAD students enjoy the same liberties in the portal campus as they do on Washington Square.
Perhaps this discrepancy can be credited to some measure of Islamophobia—the chronic, cultural scare that runs rampant in American media. Years of conditioned mistrust, combined with our society’s overwrought urge to “protect our young women,” creates a backlash for female students looking to study in the Middle East. Rather than use study abroad as a dialogue between two societies, it attempts to justify a kind of intellectual quarantine.
But another reason we buy these overstatements of The Dangers Abroad may be that we’re afraid to acknowledge a greater threat: The danger of studying in America. Despite the insistence of Fox News hosts, rape and sexual harassment are widespread on college campuses. Infamously underreported and seldom resulting in justice for victims, rape cases at colleges bear a frightening resemblance to The Observer’s description of women’s rights in Abu Dhabi (“Rape victims rarely seek justice, and if they do, they are prosecuted themselves”).
It is worth noting that, while NYU’s Washington Square campus reported an average of seven “forcible sex offenses” during the years on record, NYU Abu Dhabi has had no reported sex offenses of any kind this year.
Our concern, then, when discussing women’s study in Abu Dhabi should not be “is it safe,” but rather “what can we learn from each other?” Because women in America and in the UAE know some brand of oppression. The task now is to learn how we work toward equal footing. Allowing conversation between Western and Middle Eastern ideas may be one way to start.