DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A senior Emirati judicial official stressed Wednesday that the UAE does not condone domestic abuse even though the country's highest court ruled that a man can physically "discipline" his wife and young children provided he leaves no marks.
The official's statement was strong without contradicting the court – highlighting tensions in this Gulf state between interpretations of traditional Islamic law and the country's desire to forge a modern society that is home to far more foreigners than locals.
"Our courts adhere to (a) strict policy not to tolerate any degree of family violence, whether verbal or physical," Humaid al-Muhairi, director of the Justice Ministry's judicial inspection department, said in a statement carried by state news agency WAM.
Muhairi's comments follow a report this week that the Federal Supreme Court found a man guilty of beating his wife and daughter while noting that Islamic codes allow for "discipline" if it leaves no marks.
The ruling found that the man had exceeded the "right to discipline" his family members because his wife suffered lip and teeth injuries, the state-owned daily The National reported this week.
The court also ruled that his 23-year-old daughter, who suffered bruises on her hand and knee, was too old to be disciplined by her father.
Under some interpretations of Shariah, hitting or beating is an acceptable form of domestic discipline.
The decision upheld a lower court ruling that found the man guilty of abuse and fined him 500 dirhams ($136), the paper said.
"If the husband abuses this right to discipline, he cannot be exempted from punishment," Chief Justice Falah al-Hajeri wrote in his ruling.
In Wednesday's statement, al-Muhairi defended the ruling, saying the man "was convicted of an excessive degree of chastisement of his wife" and that he had no right under Islamic Shariah law to beat his adult daughter.
He said the ruling was in line with previous judgments and that there is no evidence of widespread domestic violence in the Emirates.
"The issue remains one of concern to (the) government and the full force of the law will continue to be brought against those who may exercise chastisement of any kind, verbal or otherwise, beyond acceptable bounds," he said.
The UAE legal system, like that in other Gulf states, combines aspects of traditional Shariah law with secular civil codes. The influence of Shariah tends to be strongest in family law relating to marriage, divorce and sexual relations.
A leading human rights watchdog condemned the high court's decision, saying it upholds a discriminatory law that violates women's and children's rights to liberty, security and equality.
"This ruling ... is evidence that the authorities consider violence against women and children to be completely acceptable," Nadya Khalife of the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday.
"Domestic violence should never be tolerated under any circumstances. These provisions are blatantly demeaning to women and pose serious risks to their well-being," she said.
Emirati society has undergone dramatic changes in recent years as hundreds of thousands of foreign residents have poured in, challenging long-held values while raising the country's international profile.
The UAE is playing an increasing role in business and international relations. Its rulers are eager to safeguard the country's Islamic traditions as the country rapidly modernizes and builds cutting-edge skyscrapers and lavish, cosmopolitan hotels.
Roughly four out of every five people living in the country are temporary foreign residents.