As a western woman living in Dubai, there are a lot of rules and laws which are difficult to adjust to, to put it mildly. For example, I have to get written permission from my husband, called a “No Objection Certificate”, to get things like a job, a driver’s license, a liquor license, and birth control. And certain things — birth control, for example — are illegal for single women, since pre-marital sex is also illegal. A doctor at my clinic told me about a story of a foreign girl working here who made the mistake of going into a pharmacy and asking for the morning after pill, and the pharmacist reported her to the authorities. Just the other day my mother forwarded me a link to a news story of a woman and her lover who got deported after the woman’s husband found out she was having an affair (adultery also being illegal). These cases do pop up quite frequently and of course to any westerner they seem absurd.
But, change seems to be coming, slowly but surely. Today the King of Saudi Arabia made the surprising announcement that women would be allowed to both vote and run in municipal elections next year. This is huge because just a few months ago women were fighting just for their right to be able to drive a car (a right they still have not quite gotten yet). The move towards women’s suffrage, and away from women’s ‘sufferage’, is very encouraging.
Recently I have been thinking about laws in other countries, and trying to put things in perspective. We modern women take our right to decide how we live our lives for granted because we’ve been raised with these rights. Of course women can go to school, and vote, and drive, and buy property, and marry whoever we want to, or not get married at all, or get married and leave your husband for a woman, or whatever you want to do. Of course women can get hysterectomies and abortions and divorces and birth control and tie their tubes if they want to (at least in some countries).
But we should not forget how recently these changes took place and how long it took to get these rights, and the fact that many women do not have these rights yet. In the past few decades there have been some tremendous strides in women’s rights, and human rights in general, in many parts of the world. But what is thirty or forty years? Less than a generation. That means some of the things we take for granted today were not even around when our grandmothers were going about their lives. And obviously we still have a long, long way to go.
I dug a little deeper to find some concrete dates on when these changes actually took place, and found some surprising information on how recently some of these progressive laws were passed, and how many very backwards laws are still on our books, Trinidad and Tobago being no exception. Here are some examples that may surprise you:
- In the US, birth control was illegal in a number of states until 1965.
- Interracial marriages were illegal in a number of states until 1967.
- Consensual gay sex was illegal in the 1950s and some states did not decriminalise it until the late 60s.
- Up until 1973, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness in the US.
- Women didn’t vote in France until 1945, 1971 in Switzerland, and 1976 in Spain
- Homosexuality is still illegal in Barbados, Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago. In Trinidad gay men can be sentenced to 25 years for consensual sex.
- The Immigration Act of T&T states: “residence is prohibited, namely to prostitutes, homosexuals or persons living on the earnings of prostitutes or homosexuals, or person reasonably suspected as coming to Trinidad and Tobago for these or any other immoral purposes”
As usual, most of the repressive laws come down to race, gender and sexuality. Why governments are so obsessed with sex, I will never know. Perhaps it is just the easiest way to control 50% of your population.
This is why Saudi Arabia’s decision to give women more political freedom is such a huge thing. Change comes slowly, but surely. Voting is of course a huge step in this process.
In the meantime, as long as I’m in Dubai, it looks like I’m going to have to learn how to grin and bear it and get my husband’s ‘permission’ to do certain things. Either that, or learn how to forge his signature!