Sharla Musabih, center, with two trafficked women.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (WOMENSENEWS)–Sharla Musabih, an operator of a women’s shelter here, can’t even take a coffee break. Sitting outside a Starbucks kiosk on the ground floor of one of Dubai’s smaller shopping malls, Musabih holds the phone that just doesn’t stop ringing.

The first government-run shelter for women opened last August and on Feb. 27 the United Arab Emirates announced plans to establish more shelters for victims of human trafficking, to be run by the UAE Red Crescent Authority.

But Musabih says her phone is still the only reliable hotline for victims of domestic abuse and trafficking in the country.

"It’s on at all hours," says Musabih, who in 2001 established City of Hope, the first and only independently run women’s shelter in the Gulf region.

She shows a text she received the day before from a Lithuanian who was being abused by her boyfriend after refusing his marriage proposal: "help me im locked in the bathroom, he doesn’t know i have the phone."

Musabih contacted police officers who rescued the young woman and brought her to City of Hope, a rented villa that currently shelters 30 women.

Between bites of a muffin, the phone rings. This time it’s a South African woman, who ran away to her friend’s house after being beaten by her employers. Musabih arranges to meet her and bring her to the shelter.

‘It’s Called Assault’

"Anytime someone lays a hand on someone, that’s a choice. And it’s called assault," Musabih says, citing the law. But enforcement is the problem.

Courts in the United Arab Emirates, she says, allow men to sign papers swearing they won’t hit their wives again and then dismiss the charges.

"I’ve seen cases where men have been allowed to sign that paper eight different times. He just goes back and continues to hit."

Women’s eNews was unable to reach a court official for comment.

Trafficking is also illegal in the United Arab Emirates but it has only recently started making headlines. In 2007, the U.S. Department listed the nation, and most of its Gulf allies, as among the most lax in combating the sale of people into sex and servitude.

Last November, the United Arab Emirates executive branch passed a law making human trafficking punishable by life imprisonment.

Its application now faces a major test in the aftermath of the recent arrest of 190 Asian women and 10 Bangladeshi nationals in one of the largest prostitution busts in the nation’s history. The 200 accused foreign nationals are detained and now waiting for a trial date.

Musabih, who grew up on Bainbridge Island, Wash., has lived in Dubai since 1984 when she moved here with her Emirati husband. She converted to Islam before their marriage and is adamant that Islam does not allow domestic abuse.

As a member of the public she followed a trial of a man accused of beating his wife in 1991, which opened her eyes to the problem of court laxity and triggered her concern over women’s safety.

Like the women she helps, Musabih views the United Arab Emirates as a sort of victim of its own success. As the economy has boomed here in recent years, foreign workers have been drawn into the work force. In the population of 5.6 million fewer than 1 million are native Emirati.

Laws and customs, she says, have not been able to keep pace, although the passage of the trafficking law in November is one of a few signs of adaptation.

Promising Signs of Change

The phone rings again.

The Uzbek consul says it has just picked up two young Uzbekis who had escaped trafficking kidnappers and had camped out at the airport.

Musabih says, "Of course, they’ll stay with me," and instructs the Uzbek officer to meet her at the mall where, as Women’s eNews shadows her, she leads the frightened young women to City of Hope. She expects to provide them refuge until at least their case against the captors goes to trial.

In the last six months, Musabih has helped repatriate over 400 women from Dubai to their native countries. Often she works with the International Organization for Migration in Uzbekistan.

Musabih says girls and women from Uzbekistan and Ethiopia are among those most trafficked because of the high poverty rates in those countries. The trafficking of Iraqi women is increasing sharply.

On March 7, Musabih went to Addis Ababa to inaugurate City of Hope-UAE, a sister shelter in the Ethiopian capital. It will help to repatriate victims of abuse or trafficking and will also provide training to women planning to come to Dubai to work as domestic helpers. Musabih says it is the first shelter of this kind in Ethiopia.


After they reach City of Hope the two young Uzbeki women start removing some of the clothes and accessories they say they were forced to wear at the night club. Neither one speaks much English, but "disco" is one word they do know.

"Disco!" Aysha, 25, says disdainfully, pointing to her knee-high, gold-colored high-heeled boots. Then she unzips them and wiggles her toes. Her name has been changed pending her trial.

"Disco!" Aysha repeats, pointing to the palm-sized sparkly earring pulling on her earlobe.

"Disco!" Aysha says, pulling away the black cloak, known in Arabic as an "abaya," worn by her fellow trafficked Uzbek companion, Fatima, 20, to reveal a tight leopard print halter-top.

Aysha also points to their eyebrows, which have been tweezed to near nonexistence. Some conservative Muslims believe it is "haram," or forbidden, to pluck their brows.

Aysha and Fatima say they were approached in their village by an Uzbek woman who offered them work in a beauty salon in Turkey. Instead they wound up in a windowless room here for two days. They say they only managed to escape when their "boss" turned to type on his computer and they dashed through the door.

Given her limited English Aysha pantomimes the story, while a Russian woman who is staying at the shelter and speaks a little Uzbek provides some translation.

Aysha sticks two fingers to her mouth and whistles like the best of New Yorkers and yells "taxi!" to show how she hailed the cab that brought her to the airport.

Musabih calls their mothers in Uzbekistan, who had already been told by the smuggling ring they were missing and possibly dead.

That was in late January.

When Women’s eNews called on March 6 to see how the trial was going, Musabih said someone had intervened and turned the girls against her, possibly in hopes of preventing their case ever being brought to court. Even though they had been calling her "mama," she says the day before they fled to a government-run shelter.

Musabih says that local police, who could not be reached for comment, tell her the investigation is ongoing.

Iman Azzi is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East. The reporting for this story was conducted during a trip to Dubai in late January 2008.

This series is supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.