The United Arab Emirates announced on Saturday a major overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosening alcohol restrictions and criminalizing so-called “honor killings.”
The broadening of personal freedoms reflects the changing profile of a country that has sought to bill itself as a Westernized destination for tourists, fortune-seekers and businesses despite its Islamic legal code that has previously triggered court cases against foreigners and outrage in their home countries.
The changes, which The National said would take immediate effect, also reflect the efforts of the Emirates’ rulers to keep pace with a rapidly changing society at home.
Changes include scrapping penalties for alcohol consumption, sales and possession for those 21 and over. The new rule would apparently allow Muslims who have been barred from obtaining licenses to drink alcoholic beverages freely.
Another amendment allows for “cohabitation of unmarried couples,” which has long been a crime in the UAE. Authorities, especially in the more freewheeling financial hub of Dubai, often looked the other way when it came to foreigners, but the threat of punishment still lingered. Attempted suicide, forbidden in Islamic law, would also be decriminalized, The National reported.
In a move to better “protect women’s rights,” the government said it also decided to get rid of laws defending “honor crimes,” a widely criticized tribal custom in which a male relative may evade prosecution for assaulting a woman seen as dishonoring a family. The punishment for a crime committed to eradicate a woman’s “shame,” for promiscuity or disobeying religious and cultural strictures, will now be the same for any other kind of assault.
In a country where expatriates outnumber citizens nearly nine to one, the amendments will permit foreigners to avoid Islamic Shariah courts on issues like marriage, divorce and inheritance.
The announcement said nothing of other behavior deemed insulting to local customs that has landed foreigners in jail in the past, such as acts of homosexuality, cross-dressing and public displays of affection.