Here’s a question I’m struggling with lately: Is everywhere really worthy of our tourism?
That question preoccupied me this weekend after reading about Marte Deborah Dalelv’s ordeal in Dubai. The short account of her tragedy is that the Norwegian expat was sentenced to sixteen months in prison for the crime of being raped. Officially Ms. Dalelv was charged with “having sexual relations outside of marriage.” That she never consented to those sexual relations is of small consequence.
In a show of evenhandedness the state did levy similar charges against the perpetrator. His lesser thirteen month prison sentence, however, leaves little doubt about where Dubai’s criminal justice system places primary blame for sexual assault; squarely on the victim, or more precisely, on the woman.
This isn’t necessarily unique to Dubai or the Middle East. In India, for example, a man was sentenced earlier this year to 5 whacks with a shoe for raping his niece. It’s hard not to think that such permissiveness played a role in the country’s recent rash of high-profile gang rapes. Or that the ensuing international backlash and fears about its impact on tourism didn’t encourage a much different legal outcome in that instance.
And fears of dwindling tourism were justified. The question we heard most often on travel message boards following these events was whether it is safe to travel there. Our question is whether we really want to.
One of the reasons we travel is to experience new cultures. To meet people whose world view is different from our own. But what happens when you find elements of a culture abhorrent? Do we look the other way and pretend customs of oppression and discrimination don’t exist? Excuse them because that’s the way it has been for thousands of years? Do we close our eyes and travel there anyway? Or should we withhold our tourism dollars in protest?
Increasingly we’re thinking along the lines of protest.
We know the issues are more complex than a single news report can illuminate. For its part, Dubai has made strides toward liberalization and leads its region in advancing religious, ethnic, and women’s rights. We should encourage such progress. But Ms. Dalelv’s story isn’t a new one, which just goes to show how far Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and the wider region still have to go.
One way to encourage positive change is to link our commerce to it. If places like Dubai want our tourism dollars they need to offer us more than just the world’s tallest building. They also need to assure us that we’re not supporting a country that condones systematic oppression.
Update: This morning the ruler of Dubai, bending to international outrage, pardoned Marte Deborah Dalelv. Welcome news. But what of other women who don’t receive Ms. Dalelv’s media attention?