DUBAI, April 22, 2010 -- Police in the city of Sharjah, part of the United Arab Emirates, are going door-to-door to catch and penalize unmarried couples living under the same roof.
Cohabitation out of wedlock is illegal throughout the country, but earlier this week authorities in the conservative city-state launched a campaign stepping up enforcement of what has been an often overlooked rule. Officers arrested one couple with young children, age 2 and age 4.
"This campaign is continuing throughout Sharjah because women and men having children outside wedlock is not allowed in the UAE, as well as being against Islam," Brigadier Musa al Naqbi, a Sharjah police official, told The National newspaper.
Sharjah is more conservative than its sister-states of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, keeping a stricter dress code and a total ban on alcohol. Across the U.A.E., legal codes draw on elements of Shariah, or Islamic law, which specifies that an unmarried couple living together could be sentenced to 100 lashes. A Dubai lawyer quoted in The National said the penalty today would more likely be jail time, followed by deportation.
"From our society's point of view, it's something that's not accepted," said Mishaal Al Gergawi, a writer and social commentator from Dubai.
"The majority of residents in Sharjah probably support the government's move," he said, citing the fact that the emirate follows the more strict Hanbali school of Sunni Islam.
As for why the nationwide ban on living together out of wedlock isn't as strictly enforced in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, Al Gergawi says "it's the same as asking why Nevada has casinos and California doesn't. It's federalism, there's no centralized control."
Ali Al Saloom, a consultant in Abu Dhabi who writes a cultural advice column for expats, says the rule is enforced widely, but only with less fanfare.
"Sharjah is known for being the one who will say it out loud, and very clearly. Abu Dhabi and Dubai will catch people and prosecute them, but they won't say it so that they don't get international backlash, or a hit in tourism."
UAE's Adultery Crackdown
The rule has been jarring to Western observers, including those who live in the UAE.
"House-to-house searches by police to enforce religious laws? I thought this kind of action is more likely in places like Somalia or North Korean, not in an Emirate with aspirations to integrate with the democratic world," Marcus Stattenburg of Cambridge, UK wrote on a local message board.
Through recent crackdowns on adultery and public displays of affection, the UAE has built a record of upholding local sensibilities and morality codes over the objections of its guest residents.
"Cohabitation is just wrong. It's encouraging sexual encounters that are against the law," said Al Saloom.
"We don't have the concept of boyfriend and girlfriend. So it cannot be accepted."