âUntil the law catches up, all we have is our storiesâ: my year-long fight to hold my attacker to account
T his time last year, the world watched as Harvey Weinstein was led out of a New York courtroom, having finally been convicted of sexual assault. For many of us, it signified a hopeful shift in the lawâs blemished record of allowing rich men to get away with treating womenâs bodies as a perk of power.
I watched this historic ruling on TV alone, at a beach resort in Oman. The sun had set over the Indian Ocean and I could hear honeymooning couples clinking glasses at the poolside bar below. As the coverage rolled, I scrolled through Instagram watching the man who had sexually assaulted me the week before, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, be applauded on to a platform I had worked hard to build.
I texted my boss: âI know you have an insane amount on today, but watching the Weinstein verdict on the news and with Nahyan playing the good guy at the launch, I canât hack staying quiet about what he did, but I also donât want to mess up anything for you and the team.â
âI donât want to mess up anything for you and the teamâ had been my default in life, until now. That moment marked the start of a year-long journey to hold my attacker to account, and to do it loudly and clearly because others cannot. In the process, I would come up against varying attempts to silence me, sometimes by those who knew and loved me best. I would also find new allies, experience a media storm and gain a visceral, first-hand understanding of why rape convictions in England and Wales are at an all-time low, of less than 3%.
We hear a lot about these failures â the abandoned prosecutions, the cases the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) deems unwinnable â but less about what happens next: the shame-heavy aftermath of rape and the limits of justice, especially when it comes to the rich and the powerful. I was about to find out.
S ix months earlier, I had been approached by the founder of Hay festival, Peter Florence, to relocate from London to Abu Dhabi, to start an Arabic edition of the Welsh book event. I was hesitant. I had only recently returned to London after almost a decade abroad and life was good: I loved my cycle commute to work at the BBC, weekends out with my friends, being able to easily jump on a train back to Wales to see my gran. The hypocrisy of collaborating with a repressive regime on a platform of free expression wasnât lost on me, either.
But I had been involved in the festival since I was a teenager, having grown up in the town where it is based. I had also specialised in cultural diplomacy since studying politics at university, and collaborated with arts and media organisations across the Arab world. I had no desire to be a pawn in an Emirati PR stunt, but agreed a British cultural organisation crying boycott over engaging with a country that actually invests in its arts sector would be a wasted opportunity. I took the job.
On arrival in Abu Dhabi in September 2019, I was told my Hay contract was invalid; instead I would be working for the festivalâs Emirati partner, the ministry of tolerance. The English translation makes this sound more Orwellian than its Arabic original; even so, working for the UAE government was not what I had signed up for. But I had already left my job in London and rented out my flat. I told myself it was just six months and decided to make the best of it.
Put up in a Moroccan-style five-star palatial hotel overlooking the Arabian Sea, with an office inside the ministry, I worked long and lonely days walking a diplomatic tightrope: trying to build enough of a glittering showcase to keep the ministry happy, while also preserving Hay festivalâs integrity. Yet with these challenges came unparalleled perks. I had the creative freedom and budget to turn ideas into reality. I travelled the UAE to find new writers and publishers; persuaded artists such as Bernardine Evaristo and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka to host free workshops for migrant workers and local students; collaborated with BBC Arabic to screen films by female directors; and fought for Mashrouâ Leila, a Lebanese band that champions Arab gay rights, to perform in a country where same-sex relationships are still illegal.I was trapped, and repeatedly, violently assaulted. Unspoken between us was the power he had over my job, my exit visa
Working inside the ministry also embedded me in a warm and wickedly funny Emirati community, alongside a Hay festival team, working remotely in Wales, who felt like family. There was the kind of winter heat that steamed up my sunglasses when I stepped out of my chauffeured car. It was a million miles from my life in London, and I couldnât put my finger on whether I loved or hated it. By the skin of our teeth, we built an event to be proud of: 80 internationally acclaimed writers, thinkers and artists over four days, who would reach 3,900 pupils from 81 UAE schools.
Like many other arts institutions, Hay festival had attracted criticism over its decision to launch in a country that regularly locks up prisoners of conscience. The Emirati engineer and poet Ahmed Mansoor was (and remains) in solitary confinement several miles from the festival site, for his peaceful activism around free speech. Peter and I had been quietly working with international human rights groups to find out how we could help, and had approached our partners at the ministry about exploring how they could leverage the festivalâs platform to practise the tolerance they preach.
The Emirati elite are among the worldâs 1%: educated at Ivy League and Russell Group universities, they spend their summers in London, their winters in the Bahamas. They also include some of the most pluralist and progressive people I have met, people I felt confident politely asking direct questions. Ahmedâs family says he doesnât have a mattress in his cell â is this true? Can I take some books to him in prison? Are our writers safe to read his poetry onstage in solidarity? But the following morning, Peter was told we had gone too far, and I received a meeting request from the minister of tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan.
I had met Nayhan and other Emirati royals several times during my stay, always in groups at official events. On the rare occasion that he came into his ministry, I might be asked to join the line of staff heâd shake hands with as he swept by with his entourage. Once, I was put on a bus of visiting Chinese academics and taken to a palace where we were shown a prized falcon and fed camel biryani. One day I stood in a room full of khanjars, Arabian daggers, to ask for Nahyanâs assistance in getting a tricky visa for Iranian Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. In these instances, I would have exchanged a traditional Arabic greeting with him, or thanked him for his patronage of the festival. I am no royalist but I am a respectful guest.
As anyone who spends a significant amount of time in the UAE will know, impromptu meeting requests and getting into official cars with no idea where youâre heading is par for the course. I had every reason to believe the meeting was about Mansoor, and expected an attempt to get the festival to drop the conversation. I moaned to my parents in Wales about having to work late, and texted Peter, joking, âI feel like Iâm being called into the headteacherâs office for disrupting class. If not back in 24 hours, send help.â
The facts of what happened next have been extensively reported. I said no, many ways, many times. It began with an offer of a (prohibited) glass of wine and a tour of his villa as I desperately tried to keep the conversation professional, after which I was repeatedly and increasingly violently assaulted. The violence wasnât just physical. I was trapped, reliant on his driver to get me through the checkpoints that led back to safety, never knowing what the next minute would hold or how it would end. Unspoken between us was the power Nahyan had to make or break the festival, as well as over my job, my accommodation, my exit visa.
Four hours later, I was deposited into the back of a car. I had managed to text Peter, saying I needed to get out, and my phone showed missed calls and worried messages from him. âIâm OK, managed to leave his house â¦ of course he didnât want to talk to me about human rights, so stupid of me,â I quickly typed, holding back tears to stay alert to where the driver was taking me.
I went to that meeting as a professional, but it didnât take long for me to realise I was just a plaything to him. I knew the drill; rather than addressing menâs behaviour, women are told itâs our responsibility to avoid sending out the wrong message. So we choose armchairs over sofas, long sleeves over short skirts, we avoid eye contact. Weâre told to be meek but not in a flirty way, pretty but not in a sexy way, pleasant until it makes us sick. If none of this works, we fix a carefully neutral expression and gently, politely, steer ourselves to safety. If life has taught me anything, itâs that William Congreve referenced the wrong gender in his paraphrased line, âHell hath no fury like a woman scorned.âSheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan. Photograph: Kamran Jebreili/AP
Today, after recounting the details endlessly â to diplomats and doctors, police and lawyers â I feel little raw emotion saying out loud what happened. But immediately after the assault, as those I turned to danced awkwardly around the critical questions, I couldnât yet call what had happened to me what it was: ârapeâ, under the UK Sexual Offences Act 2003, later argued by my lawyers as âtortureâ under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and United Nations convention against torture and other cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment or punishment.
Instead, I desperately tried to think of ways to reframe it. A version that would be just another funny story from my surreal trip; that would make me feel less of a victim; that wouldnât disrupt the festival and would get me out of an uncomfortable conversation with my boss. Over the phone that night, Peter asked me whether what had happened was Weinstein-esque. Yes, I replied. He gave me his credit card details and told me to book a flight home immediately.
But I couldnât: I was the main point of contact for a festival due to start in a week; I had colleagues, employees and artists relying on me; I would also face legal and financial consequences as a result of breaking UAE labour laws. So I left Abu Dhabi and hid out in a Dubai hotel under a fake name, while reporting what had happened to the British consulate. Peter flew out to join me and the advice from everyone was to leave the country. I felt deep anger â that I had been hurt; that I was being asked to leave, because of the whims of a powerful man. I crossed the border into Oman, and from there flew back to the UK. The festival went ahead without me.
I never wanted to have to tell this story. I am a deeply private person. I grew up as one of five sisters in a village on the Welsh borders and, as anyone with a big family in a small place knows, you learn to cherish any privacy you can get. As kids, we carved individual tents from our corners of the shared duvet to read in seclusion, our legs reassuringly entwined in the middle of the bed.
As a teenager, I kidded myself that hitchhiking to pubs along country roads with friends was the height of grownup anonymity, not realising that everyone who gave us a lift knew I was one of the McNamara girls: they knew my parents, they knew our dogâs name. This desire for anonymity bled into my adult life, holding adventures, love, work and friends close to my heart and far from the internet. In seeking justice, I have allowed my face and intimate details of my body to become public property online.
Arriving home, as the UK shuttered into its first lockdown, I scrambled to share what had happened. Some ignored me. Some downplayed it. Many were sympathetic, but soon moved the conversation on. It was the fear and quiet concern of those who love me that revealed just how pervasive is societyâs conditioning around keeping sexual violence silenced. Heâs too powerful to be held accountable, love; weâre scared heâll come after you; the lawyers will rinse you; youâll be dragged through the mud and no one will employ you again; weâll help you put it behind you and just move on. Challenging people you trust is more heartbreaking than pushing back against your adversaries, so I turned my cross-examination inwards: was I not speaking loudly enough? Was the assault really that bad?
I found myself waking alone in my flat as the world plunged deeper into the pandemic: unemployed and increasingly unwell. Forever an early riser, I started struggling to get out of bed. I stopped eating and started picking at my skin. A now familiar nightmare of Nahyan woke me panicked in the night. This feels excruciating to write, and I am not doing it for sympathy or attention, but because I am desperate to make you understand how incredibly scary it feels to be met by silence after getting hurt. I knew I was unwell (I was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder); but, isolated by Covid, I unravelled.
I was eventually able to access the help I needed. Peter introduced me to Helena Kennedy QC and, as lockdown lifted, I cycled across London to meet her. While her grandchildren ran around the garden, she stopped her world to listen. Soon I had one of the UKâs best law firms to represent me pro bono in a criminal action. Last summer Kennedy accompanied me to Scotland Yard; after I gave my statement, the police installed panic alarms in my flat. I upped my runs; started playing the piano again; began meditation and medication. This, plus NHS care and support from Hay festival and my family, meant I was able to shake off the fear and shame, and slowly crawl out of the chasm.
I still pinch myself at how lucky I was to receive help, but it feels wrong that this was thanks to my privilege and private connections, rather than a basic right. Immediately after the assault, when I was attempting to fight this alone, the furthest I had got was a closed waiting list for an underfunded rape crisis centre and a lawyer who asked for more money than I earn in a year.Harvey Weinstein leaving court last year. Photograph: Scott Heins/Getty Images
I have never wanted a public shaming for Nahyan. We coexist in a messy world where boys are too often trained to believe the way to become a man is to objectify and conquer women. Itâs not impossible to imagine he exists in such a bubble of unelected power and financial privilege that he never got the memo that this is a setup. This does not come from a place of generosity: I just want him, and those around him, to think twice before hurting other women.
But by October last year, I had still heard nothing from the CPS. With every month that passed, I felt the prospect of criminal justice slipping away. So I gave an interview to the Sunday Times, which was sent by them to Nahyan for comment. His lawyersâ responded, âOur client is surprised and saddened by this allegation, which arrives eight months after the alleged incident and via a national newspaperâ, despite the fact that Peter and another Hay festival director had told the ministry about the assault the day before the festival ended.
I prayed for a quick, calm passage of the news cycle. In one of those intuitive acts of kindness that sticks with you, a friend drove me out to the countryside for a walk as I waited for the story to break. We were driving back into London when my phone began the ringing and pinging that has barely stopped since.
Nothing can prepare you for being thrown into a media spotlight on such a sensitive issue. TV stations doorstepped my parentsâ home; tabloids printed photos of my little sisters, stolen from their social media; I was advised to relocate for my safety; across the internet, I was called a liar, naive, an attention-seeking snowflake. Sheâll be dead in a week. Sheâs not beautiful enough to have the attention of a man who can get whoever he wants. Sheâs stupid to have been alone in the Middle East. And a particular favourite: It was Valentineâs Day. They need to make 14 February a paid holiday for women if showing up for work on this day is considered misleading; no means no 365 days of the year.
On 30 October, two weeks after my interview was published, I received the CPS verdict. They would not be taking any action â not because they werenât satisfied that the assault would constitute rape had it happened on UK soil, but because the evidence had to fit the antiquated remit required to prosecute under international law. It met two of the three criteria, but not the third: that Nahyan was acting in the performance of his official duties at the time. Putting aside all the evidence that this was presented as a work meeting, why would his understanding of it be more important than mine? And why would either of our interpretations make the violence that occurred acceptable? I filed for a judicial review; at the end of December, the CPS decision was reconfirmed.If Weinsteinâs conviction looked like a hopeful moment, it hasnât panned out like that yet. Any optimism I felt is gone
I have always known how hard it will be to get criminal justice, because of Nahyanâs status. Four days before I received the December verdict, Prince Charles and Boris Johnson hosted three other Al Nahyans, including Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed, sponsor of Hay Festival Abu Dhabi. Afterwards, No 10 released a statement to say that Johnson is looking forward to Dubai Expo later this year. The man who assaulted me is its commissioner-general.
At moments like these, it has been challenging not to feel like collateral damage. Last year, exports from the UK to the Gulf totalled Â£14bn and, post-Brexit, we are more reliant on this trading partner than ever. The al-Nahyan family own Manchester City football club. The president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, owns Â£5.5bn of real estate in London alone. The Foreign Office and the CPS have reassured me that there is no connection, but looking at the governmentâs inaction over the disappeared Dubai princesses, Iâd be a fool not to wonder. The Foreign Office has offered to support me were I to return to Abu Dhabi and report what happened locally; but my lawyers have advised that no one there could pursue a case against a royal and a minister in an independent way. (When contacted by the Guardian last week, a Foreign Office spokesperson said: âWe take any reports of sexual assault abroad extremely seriously. Our staff remain in contact with Ms McNamara and we will continue to do everything we can to support her. Our consular support is always designed to meet the best interests of the people we are helping. No other factors in our decision-making are involved.â Nahyan did not respond to requests for comment.)
The only legal route left now would be to mount a civil case, or join a class action. When the civil route was first suggested, I was adamant I did not want to sue. I felt sick at the thought of a financial price being put on my pain. I was also acutely aware of Nahyanâs wealth, and how this might be perceived.
But after a long year of learning from campaigners, legal experts and other survivors, I think differently. What happened to me may legally be defined as âsexualâ, but feels as intimate as a car crash. Had Nahyan driven his car into mine, I would think nothing of claiming damages. So why, because the violence involves my body, do I fear being called a gold-digger? I have had my life forever upended by his crime; that matters, thatâs worth something.
I am only beginning to understand the consequences of having an experience like mine published across the internet. I have been fortunate: I have a professional reputation already rooted in the ground; Iâm in a new relationship, and have the unwavering support of family and friends. I am safe to free myself from the hold he has over me by speaking out; but for many other survivors, this would only create a different set of stresses and risks. What about the woman just starting her career? Or the one looking for love on a dating app? They have to live with the eternal worry of âWhat if they Google me?â and being defined by all that entails.
But I still believe that the alternative â staying silent â would be worse. Many well-meaning people have called me brave for speaking up, but it shouldnât be brave to say what happened. If I hadnât, that toxic load of fear and fury would have destroyed me. Real bravery belongs to those who are forced to stay silent.
So many women do. Since last October, I have received message after message, day after day, giving me a glimpse into the staggering commonalities around this issue. Itâs not just #MeToo: itâs my mother-too, my sister-too, my girlfriend-too. One in five women in the UK, and one in three globally, suffer sexual assault during their lifetime. Yet silence is too often the recommended solution â giving perpetrators precisely what they count on, and loading victims with a secondary trauma of shame and isolation. Thatâs before we even begin to consider the extra stigma that confronts survivors of other genders and identities.
In the end, this is not a story of individual wrongdoing; it is universal and ongoing. Powerful men remain the gatekeepers of almost all sectors of society, too often abusing their status and wealth to do whatever they like to women and girls with impunity.
One year ago, in that Oman hotel room, I watched prosecuting lawyer Gloria Allred address reporters outside the Manhattan courthouse after the Weinstein verdict. âThis is the age of empowerment of women,â she said, âand you cannot intimidate them any more.â But it hasnât panned out like that, or not yet anyway. If Weinsteinâs conviction looked like a hopeful moment, any optimism I felt is long gone.
While we continue to fight for the law to catch up with womenâs realities, all we have is our stories. Perhaps our job isnât to âmove onâ, but to speak up. Speak up to shake off our shame. Speak up to eradicate the humiliation of those who have felt the same. Itâs these stories that will move the law forward. The more we share and stand with each other, the less we can be ignored.
Donate to the End Violence Against Women Coalitionâs campaign to challenge the CPSâs failure to prosecute rape at endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk
Caitlin McNamara will be appearing on the Today in Focus podcast next week.