What can and can’t women do in Qatar?

Gulf State’s record on women’s rights is under scrutiny in the run-up to the 2022 Fifa World Cup

Lusail Stadium
Lusail Stadium, which will host the final of the 2022 World Cup football tournament in Qatar
(Image credit: Kyodo News via Getty Images)

Lawyers for a group of women who were forcibly removed from a flight in Doha at gunpoint are calling for Qatar to guarantee the safety of female football fans travelling to the World Cup.

Five Australian women are suing Qatar Airways and the state-run Qatar Civil Aviation Authority after they were removed from their Sydney-bound flight “at gunpoint” and subjected to invasive gynaecological examinations without their consent in 2020, said The Guardian.

“This group of brave women have been forced to go to court to send a message to Qatar that what happened was wrong and should not be allowed to take place again,” said a lawyer for the women, Damian Sturzaker, speaking to AFP.

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“With the World Cup less than a month away female travellers are entitled to an assurance from Qatar that their human rights will be respected,” he said.

What should female football fans be aware of when travelling to Qatar?

The court case against Qatar Airways and its civil aviation authority comes ahead of the World Cup next month, with the Gulf nation facing increased scrutiny over its record on human rights and particularly womens rights.

In response to the growing concerns, the UK government has released guidance detailing how to respect local laws and customs in Qatar, which travelling supporters have been “strongly advised” to familiarise themselves with.

The government has advised that all visitors to the Islamic nation should “dress modestly when in public, including while driving” but that women “must cover their shoulders and avoid wearing short skirts”. Both men and women are advised not to wear shorts or sleeveless tops when going into government buildings, healthcare facilities or shopping centres or they risk being denied entry.

National World said that while these rules are expected to be “somewhat relaxed” during the World Cup, they are nevertheless “expected to remain generally the same”.

The government has also warned against intimacy in public, which it warns “can lead to arrest”. The government site advises that living together while unmarried is illegal in Qatar, and that sex outside marriage, regardless of whether it is between same-sex or different-sex couples, is also illegal and can lead to “arrest and a potential court case where the judgement can include a fine, a custodial sentence and deportation once the sentence is complete”.

Due to the laws on sex outside marriage, if a visitor to the country becomes pregnant while they are unmarried, “both you and your partner could face imprisonment and/or deportation” as well as experiencing considerable difficulties during ante-natal or health checks.

What about reports of sexual violence?

Qatar’s strict laws can also lead to difficulties when reporting instances of sexual violence, with The Athletic reporting that several human-rights groups have “expressed concerns” that female football fans could be prosecuted and subjected to harsh punishments if they report sexual assault while in the country.

The website reported that “several recent cases have seen the victim of a sexual or physical assault accused of extra-marital sex instead of receiving physical and emotional support” with the crime carrying a prison sentence, or even flogging if the victim is Muslim.

Survivors of sexual violence “could also find themselves unable to access basic health services, such as emergency contraception or specialist antibiotics, without a marriage certificate”, said The Athletic.

But Qatar’s Supreme Committee, which is responsible for delivering the entire World Cup 2022 project in the Gulf nation, has argued that “Qatar protects and promotes the rights of women, and this extends to all women visiting for the World Cup”. Fifa has said that “any fan who reports a sexual assault will have access to Qatar’s high-quality healthcare system irrespective of marital status”.

What’s it like for Qatari women?

A Human Rights Watch report in 2021 found that women in Qatar are living under a system of “deep discrimination” through a system of government that means women are often dependent on men for permission to marry, travel, pursue higher education or make decisions about their own children.

The Qatari government rejected the accounts in the report as “inaccurate”, saying they do not truly represent the country’s “constitution laws or policies”.

But Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher, told The Guardian that: “Women are often asked to have permission from a male guardian even if it’s not written in the regulations. So, the government told us that women don’t need male permission to work, yet in many government jobs HR [human resources departments] were saying: ‘Show us a letter from a man.’

“There are no anti-discrimination laws in Qatar, no agency you can go to if you want to complain. There are no functioning women’s rights organisations who can monitor how women are treated or hold the government to account.”

What about the Qatar Airways court case?

On 2 October 2020, women on 10 flights on the ground at Doha airport were subjected to intrusive examinations as authorities searched for the mother of a newborn baby who had been found “abandoned in a plastic bag in the departures lounge at Hamad international airport”, said The Guardian.

The child survived and the mother, who is not a Qatari national, has since been identified but could face up to 15 years in jail.

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