Sexism And Study Abroad: In Defense Of Abu Dhabi

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.

[image 1 via, 2 courtesy of the NYUAD Women's Leadership Network]


    Share Your Thoughts


  1. Grace Paras says

    I think this is a very well written article. I may be going to live in Abu Dhabi next year and you’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks for presenting many perspectives!

  2. Juan Jose Jorobado says

    Comparing the US and the UAE sex assault stats doesn’t make sense. In the UAE, women cannot report being the victim of rape because they will also be prosecuted, meaning, no reports. It is also important to acknowledge that NYUAD students live a rarefied lifestyle, even more so than other Westerners. What is open and free for a NYUAD student may not be the same for an Indonesian housemaid.

    You’re right to object to the Observer article. It is Islamophobic, but that does not mean that women’s rights aren’t a real issue in the UAE. There is room to criticize both problems.

  3. N Taya says

    As an Arab American woman who has spent a great deal of time in many Middle Eastern Countries (including the UAE), I found this article incredibly naive and insulting. It is one thing to be open-minded about other cultures and encourage cultural dialogue and activism, but it is another thing entirely to reduce someone’s criticism of another culture to “Islamophobia” and willfully ignore. Consider this paragraph from the Observer article:

    Women’s rights are basically nonexistent. 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. In December, a 28-year-old British woman who claimed she was gang raped by three men in Dubai (another UAE city-state) was prosecuted for drinking without a license. The Supreme Court has upheld men’s right to beat their wives and children. Emirati women can only obtain a divorce through khul’a, a no-fault divorce that requires them to forfeit all financial rights. Emirati females are legally allowed to inherit just one-third of assets while men are entitled to inherit two-thirds. Men, but not women, are allowed to have four spouses. Men can marry non-Muslims; women cannot.

    These are the facts of life for women in the Middle East, plain and simple. Things are by no means perfect in America but to invoke a likeness between incidents of rape on US campuses (which, to be clear, I acknowledge as a serious problem) and the blatantly institutionalized, legalized sexism in Middle Eastern countries is dishonest. I appreciate your call for activism and I don’t necessarily believe that studying at NYUAD would be dangerous for women. But I do think that the article in The Observer made a number of very legitimate points that you seem to have hastily dismissed in favor of trumpeting vague and blindly idealistic overtures.

  4. Sulayman F says

    I’m surprised people are still parroting false talking points. Yes, this comes from islamophobia.

    Women can certainly report rape and not risk being charged. Did the author of the original piece confuse the UAE with Saudi Arabia? Sheesh. Can someone name an example in Abu Dhabi where this happened? No they can’t.

  5. Juan Jose Jorobado says


    You’re engaged in classic circular reasoning. Women are afraid to report sexual attacks, because they will also be charged. That means that there are no reports, therefore no evidence online. If you want informal evidence, ask an NYUAD student about the work the students do with abused (mostly female) migrant workers at the Filipino and Indonesian embassies.

  6. Juan Jose Jorobado says

    Justin, we can pick and choose articles all day:–270178.html#.UT_PA1s5yp0–but-gets-fined-for-drinking-8390574.html

    Jim, your argument doesn’t make sense. Just because something bad happens in the United States does not mean it’s OK for a similar bad thing to happen elsewhere.