Dubai: You may be doing it to save money, you may be doing it out of love, or blindly and unknowingly… whatever the reason, sharing a roof with an unrelated person of the opposite sex can spell disaster in the UAE.
With a Sharia law that strictly punishes unmarried people living in the same house, and an international population used to living as per the rules in their own countries, the blend of different traditions and cultures often leads to uninformed decisions, some of which end in tears and tribulation.
Take the case of Toby Caroll, a 32-year-old New Zealander whose ex-girlfriend Priscilla Ferreira, a 25-year-old Brazilian, caught him in bed with Briton Danielle Spencer, 31, just after their break-up. The racy love triangle landed all three lovebirds in jail, and highlighted the dangers individuals expose themselves to when sharing their living space with a romantic interest.
On June 22, the trio will appear in court again to present the defence's closing statement. Following this will be a final verdict on whether or not the trio is guilty of consensual sex.
But this case or earlier ones have had little or no impact on expats who knowingly or unknowingly flout the law.
For example, a British couple was arrested and jailed last year for living together in a hotel room in Dubai, following a complaint from the woman that she had been raped by a member of the hotel staff. The couple was only released from jail after providing a marriage certificate. In 2010, Marnie Pearce, a 40-year-old British mother faced jail after being found guilty of adultery after the relationship with her husband broke down.
Amer Syed, an advocate from Al Suwaidi & Company, talks about the case of a 34-year-old German male who got into trouble for living with an unrelated woman. "When the man made a complaint against a maid that stole from him, police investigated his apartment and discovered a woman living with him. Upon being questioned on his relationship, the German admitted to having consensual sex with her, unaware that it was against the law. A month of jail later, the couple was deported."
The Sharia law, which is applied in the UAE, under the Al Khilwa Al Muharama clause, prohibits two unmarried and unrelated persons from the opposite sex living together.
Under Article 356 of the UAE Penal Code, related to consensual sex, anyone who engages in consensual sex will be given a minimum jail term of one year.
Syed says, "Although these are the outcomes the law states, in reality, the judges decide their verdict on a case to case basis, often handing out a lenient sentence.
"In my experience, people are charged with living together unlawfully only if they've broken another law. Rarely are there cases of people hunted down for living with a member of the opposite sex, unless a tip or complaint is lodged," says Syed.
Despite the rules, many expatriate couples continue to flout the law.
Canadian couple Tracey and Adam met six months ago at a dinner party in Dubai. "We've barely started our relationship," says Tracey. "It's way too early for us to even consider a commitment such as marriage. We're still at the stage where we want to sample the goods before making the purchase, so to speak," she smiles. "Living together is our only option at the moment. Could you imagine getting married and divorced within three months because we jumped into it too soon?"
When it comes to following the law, Tracey isn't fazed. "It's like hiring domestic help illegally… everyone knows it's legally illegal, but at the same time it's illegally legal too. The authorities are happy to turn a blind eye to what we do as expats as long as it doesn't harm anyone else."
Although there are no moral police knocking on doors to see whether men and women live together outside of marriage or familial relationships, if a complaint is filed against the couple, then the police are obliged to investigate.
"Under Sharia law, a jail term and deportation is usually the punishment. In relation to the cases I've encountered, the punishment is a jail term of anything between one and six months, although actual time served rarely exceeds 20 days. However, the judge is obligated to deport the non-Emirati defendants if found guilty," says Syed.
"I came to Dubai with my partner of three years so what am I expected to do now?" says 36-year-old Sergio, an Italian interior designer.
Mariam, a Jordanian freelancer, and Ihab, an Egyptian architect, met in Dubai in 2008. Within days the couple was in love and sharing a home. "When we started living together it was mostly because of financial reasons. Soon, we got so used to each other that we didn't want to be apart. We're testing our relationship to see if we can eventually be married," says Mariam. "Although I am a proud Jordanian, my mother is French, and in her country, it's the norm to first live with each other before even considering marriage. It's a natural first step for most couples."
Although both Mariam and Ihab know the law, neither one allows it to come in the way of their decision. "We're very aware of the law, and respectful never to draw attention to ourselves for that reason. I've never heard of any arrests being made for co-habitation," says Mariam, "but you never know. It is because we respect the sensitivities of this country that we never cross the line. For example, there was one time I was extremely ill and needed medical assistance, but due to the fear of being found out, we never called the ambulance to the house. Instead I had to wait in agonising pain for a taxi to take me to the hospital."
Although most couples are well aware of breaking the law when living together, few are aware of what the law really is. Marie, a Filipino assistant, shares a three-bedroom apartment with five others, including two males. "Neither one is my boyfriend, nor do we share the room with each other," she says. "And yet I'm always so scared because at the end of the day it's men and women living together under one roof. No one I have spoken to knows what is the law about this."
On the other end of the scale is Rainn, also from Italy. When moving into her villa in Mirdif, she made it a point to let the landlord know that she would soon be joined by her husband. "I'm not married, nor am I dating anyone at the moment," she says. "However, when I do fall in love and ask someone to move in with me, I don't want the hassle of having to make excuses to the landlord or be questioned by others. This way, everyone thinks I have a husband who will some day move to Dubai. As and when a man moves in with me, I'll be covered."
Haroon Tahlak, an advocate from Dubai Advocates and Legal consultants, explains the importance of finding proof of consensual sex before a man or woman can be convicted. "If a man and a woman are spotted together in a car late at night, a police officer may pull them over and ask about their relationship. In some cases, the couple may even be taken to the police station, but rarely will such a case make it to court if no solid proof is found, suggesting the suspects had consensual sex. The most common cases where suspects were convicted or charged with unlawfully living together is if they break another law, such as drug possession, consensual sex, abortion, etc… If there isn't a complaint lodged against the suspects, no charges will be filed. However even if a complaint is lodged but police investigators find no laws have been broken, they will not be punished," he says.
However, Tahlak warns that, "It is prohibited for an unmarried man and woman to live together, or share a close space [apartment or room] under the UAE law. The clause is called Tahseen Al Ma'asiya. The punishment under the law is a jail term of between one and six months to be followed by deportation."
In a city of mixed nationalities and cultures, the concept of cohabitation is fairly common. "Back home, it's a non-issue when two people move in together," says Markus, a 25-year-old Brazilian. "And whether we talk about Dubai or Rio, the reasons will remain the same. Most couples want to see what living with each other feels like before they commit to spending a lifetime together. In my case, I remember being madly in love with a girl for four months before we moved in together. At that point, I was already planning a lifetime of togetherness. Fortunately for me, we didn't legalise our relationship. From the day she moved in, I went crazy. Her personal hygiene was disgusting, her attitude towards money was shocking, and worst of all, as soon as she moved in with me, she thought she owned me and didn't have to try any longer to look good for me, or make things exciting. Needless to say, within a month, she had moved back out."
Testing the waters, however, isn't the only reason some couples choose to cohabit. In a city of high rents and constantly changing lifestyles, some couples believe it often makes economical sense to live together. "When I first came to Dubai to find work, I could barely afford a studio in International City," says Mariam. "When Ihab and I fell in love, it made sense for us to pool our resources and upgrade from a studio lifestyle to a beachfront one in JBR."
Mariam isn't alone in her decision. Couples across the city are ticking finance as high on their list of reasons for living together.
According to Yale University sociologist Neil Bennett, cohabiting women were 80 per cent more likely to separate or divorce than were women who had not lived with their spouses before marriage.
Law on living in
The Sharia law which is applied in the UAE, under the Al Khilwa Al Muharama clause, prohibits two unmarried and unrelated persons from the opposite sex living together. The application of the law may vary from emirate to emirate but when it comes to consensual sex, Article 356 of UAE Penal Code will apply. This Article stipulates a minimum jail term of one year followed by deportation.
Why is Sharia law applied to non-Muslims
It is the basis of the law in the UAE regardless of religion or nationality, says Mohammad Ridah of Ridah and Associates. Similar views are expressed by Yasser Shehatta, legal consultant at Rashed Bin Arab Advocates: "We are in a country that operates and practises Sharia law. What is important to understand is Sharia is also a code of conduct in the country. It's the UAE Penal Code which decides the punishment."
With additional input from Lubna Bagsair, Staff Reporter