Last updated: 26 march, 2009 - 15:49 GMT

Sexual abuse in Abu Dhabi

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Fatima is 26 years old, born and raised within a strict Islamic family in the United Arab Emirates. When she was 15 years old, she was raped by her stepfather. The sexual abuse continued for the next four years.

It was not until Fatima made friends online, with a girl based in the United States, that she finally told someone what had happened to her.

Her online friend, Pearl, encouraged her to tell someone geographically close to her. Fatima told her aunt who, to Fatima's surprise, was supportive and took her to see a religious cleric.

Fatima was told by the UAE-based religious cleric that under sharia law, it was unlikely she would get a favourable outcome from any legal action against her stepfather.

At 15, she was told that she was classed as an adult and could herself be punished and subjected to lashes for committing adultery.

Panic attacks

Eventually, Fatima found the courage to tell her mother about the abuse. She needed emotional support from both her friend Pearl and her aunt to do it, but even with that backing, she says she suffered two panic attacks beforehand.

There followed three days of angry confrontation between Fatima's mother and stepfather. Fatima's mother got her stepfather to confess. But he still proclaimed his innocence saying he did it to make Fatima feel better and that it was all out of love.

Fatima's mother proceeded to divorce him.

However, after a few weeks, Fatima says that her mother began to change her tone and moved closer again to her stepfather. Fatima says she realised that what mattered most, in the eyes of society, was family honour and what other people would think of them.

At this point, and after the death of her aunt who had cancer, Fatima says she began to lose hope.

It was under these circumstances, that Fatima decided to leave everything she had ever known in UAE and she took her first trip to the United States.

In the US, Fatima applied for political asylum. She has recently won her immigration case, which her lawyer says is rare in these circumstances.

Fatima says that she thought that her Muslim country would protect her as a woman, but that in the end, they protected her rapist.

Child Abuse conference

Fatima's story raises important questions about the culture within some Islamic societies when it comes to dealing with child abuse.

To talk about these issues, Matthew Bannister spoke to Dr Fadheela Al Mahroos.

She is President of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Arab Professional Network, based in Bahrain.

Her group co-sponsored the recent conference on the issue in Saudi Arabia. She says that it is difficult to convict people in the region of child abuse, as often people are concerned with protecting their family's honour.

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