A human rights organization is calling on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to stop persecuting trans and gender-nonconforming people under a law prohibiting cross-dressing.
The arrest of two Singaporean nationals in August sparked international outcry after they were detained and sentenced to a year in prison without legal representation. Muhammed Fadli Abdul Rahman and Nur Qistina Fitriah Ibrahim, who had traveled to the Arab country for a photoshoot, were reportedly apprehended by police for “looking feminine.” Rahman, 27, is a fashion photographer, and Ibrahim, 37, works as a model.
Rahman’s family has challenged authorities’ claim that he violated the local law against men dressing as women. They told media that he was wearing a white shirt, a tie, and earrings at the time of his arrest. Ibrahim, a transgender woman, is identified as a male in her identification.
Human Rights Watch, who condemned their treatment in a Thursday press release, argues that their arrest was a misapplication of the decade-old cross-dressing law.
“It’s bad enough that the UAE is arresting people solely on the basis of hairstyles and accessories, which the police rely on to make wild guesses about people’s gender identities,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization’s Middle East and North Africa director, in a statement. “Worse, the authorities are going far beyond the letter of the law, which only applies to spaces designated for womennot shopping malls.”
As written, Article 359 of the country’s penal code would prohibit a man wearing a burka in order to gain access to a women’s-only park. That incident actually happened in the town of Sharjah in 2012. The peeping tom was exposed when women gathered in the segregated space spotted his mustache.
But the issue of trans and gender nonconforming people being targeted under the cross-dressing code is an old one.
Just days after the UAE banned cross-dressing in July 2008, 40 tourists were reportedly arrested in Dubai after locals complained about the presence of “transvestites” in shopping centers. General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim claimed at the time that their appearance was “against the UAE’s traditions and social values.”
Two tourists were fined the equivalent of $2,700 U.S. dollars for wearing dresses to a nightclub in 2014. Although the defendants were identified as “men” in local reports, media state that the pair were taking feminizing hormones.
Rahman and Ibrahim personally attest to the routine persecution of LGBTQ people. Following their imprisonment, the two were detained in a cell for “effeminate” inmates. Their fellow prisoners included a transgender woman who was arrested while wearing men’s clothing; police claimed that the problem was her “long hair.” Two detainees were waiting in line at a movie theater while they were accosted by police due to their gender presentation.
After their case gained media attention around the world, friends and family for the defendants raised more than $18,000 to fund their successful appeal. Rahman and Ibrahim’s sentence was lowered to a fine and deportation back to Singapore, which took place on August 28. Many others won’t be as lucky.
Despite its cosmopolitan image, homosexuality and premarital sex are illegal in Dubai. There have also been several arrests in recent years for kissing in public.