How are women treated in Qatar?

In a country in which only 15% of inhabitants are citizens, Qatari women are a double minority. All females in the Gulf monarchy – be they residents or tourists – are subject to Islamic law

A group of women watch a World Cup game on a giant screen in the Fan Zone of Doha, Qatar, circa 2022.
A group of women watch a World Cup game on a giant screen in the Fan Zone of Doha, Qatar, circa 2022.Jaime Villanueva
Natalia Junquera

“Why does the West pressure us with LGBT flags and bracelets? And how is it possible that they allow people to change their sex? We cannot understand it,” says E.A.M, a 43-year-old Qatari, in an elegant Doha cafe.

Both women believe that there is a campaign being waged against their country. With all eyes on Qatar for the FIFA World Cup, she and her friend, F.H., 45, have agreed to speak with EL PAÍS about their lives in Qatar, on the condition that their names and faces be concealed.

The oil-rich Gulf state is ruled by a monarchy and governed by Islamic law. Of the three million residents, only 15% are actually citizens. Qatari women require the authorization of their fathers or husbands for almost everything important. A man’s testimony is worth double that of a woman’s in court – a son inherits double what his sister does. Unlike a man, if a Qatari woman marries a foreign national, she cannot pass her nationality on to her children. And, if a marriage doesn’t work out, a Qatari man can get divorced instantly, while his chances of gaining full custody of his children are much higher than his ex-wife’s.

Three women strolling along Doha Bay, shortly before the start of the World Cup.
Three women strolling along Doha Bay, shortly before the start of the World Cup.Jaime Villanueva

This system is known as the male guardianship regime. F.H., who owns a wedding shop, explains: “We can make our own decisions, but first we need approval [from our male relatives] because we don’t want to embarrass them. We want them to be happy and proud of us. Our fathers and our husbands want the best for us.”

E.A.M adds: “We ask for approval because we want to. Everything is discussed and there is mutual trust. For example, it is very difficult for us to understand that, in Europe, if a girl has a boyfriend, she just leaves her family.”

Under the sharia, or Islamic law, sex outside of marriage is prohibited in Qatar. When Mexican national Paola Schietekat went to the Qatari police in June 2021 to report that she had been attacked by a man in her hotel room while sleeping, she ended up being accused of having an extramarital relationship. The assailant – who was released from police custody – had lied and said that he and Paola were dating. Officials had no trouble believing him.

During her three-hour interrogation, the lawyer assigned to her recommended that she marry her rapist to avoid problems. She was also asked to take a virginity test. Thankfully, Paola managed to leave the country.

“I have never breathed with more relief than when my passport was stamped,” she tells EL PAÍS. While she managed to escape, the case against the rapist was eventually closed.

In a phone interview from Mexico, she explains that she had arrived in Qatar in 2020, full of excitement to work as an economist as part of the FIFA World Cup organizing committee.

“It was my dream job. I speak Arabic and I love soccer. I thought I could help change things from within.” The dream turned into a nightmare.

Paola wanted to denounce her attacker in Qatar because, when her first boyfriend raped her when she was 16-years-old, she was too scared to file a report.

Today, at the age of 28, she is still suffering from the consequences of that terrible crime.

“I’ve worked very hard to recover. I go to therapy, but I still have to take medication to sleep. All of this has affected my ability to trust others.”

This was not the first time such a thing has happened in Qatar. In 2016, a tourist from the Netherlands was sentenced to one year in jail and a fine after being raped. The Dutch government intervened and managed to get the punishment reduced to three months.

Such a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam means that, in the Qatari justice system, it’s almost impossible to conceive that a female victim of rape is indeed a victim. While the Criminal Code of Qatar establishes 15-year-long prison sentences for anyone who forces a woman “to commit adultery,” rapists often go unpunished, while their victims can face the situation of being treated like criminals

F.H. and E.A.M., however, aren’t afraid of sharia law.

“Religion is like a big umbrella that protects you… in our country, it’s the law. From a young age, we are taught how we should behave. We’re very grateful for that,” says F.H.

E.A.M concurs. “Islam makes our lives easier. It’s a relief to know that everyone around you is governed by the same values. And, depending on what you do, there is a reward or a punishment. Why is a man’s testimony worth more in court? Because men do not have our sensitivity and hormones. It’s not a matter of equality, but of justice. And why do they inherit more money? Because they have to attend to all the women in their lives. Everything has a reason.”

Both women are concerned about the new generations. “The world is open, thanks to the internet. Parents are finding it increasingly difficult to control what their children think. They must be aware of that danger,” F.H. warns.

Two women wait for the inaugural game of the 2022 World Cup to end, outside the Al Bayt stadium in Doha. Mexico and Qatar played the first match.
Two women wait for the inaugural game of the 2022 World Cup to end, outside the Al Bayt stadium in Doha. Mexico and Qatar played the first match.Jaime Villanueva

Qatar ranks 137th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which measures inequality based on access to healthcare and education, as well as on economic and political indicators.

Ignacio Álvarez-Ossorio and Ignacio Gutiérrez de Terán – both Spaniards who teach Islamic Studies in Madrid – explain that, while compared to Western European standards the treatment of women “is certainly deficient,” they note that, compared to other petromonarchies – such as Saudi Arabia or Bahrain – the Qatari emirate would ascend “to first place.”

Some 51% of women have a job in Qatar, mostly in the public sector. They are also the majority in universities. However, they earn far less than men for doing the same jobs. Qatari women are able to study abroad, but they require their male guardian’s permission to do so. Amal Mohammed Al-Malki convinced her father. Today, she is dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Hamad Khalifa University.

“I am a mother, a woman, a Qatari, a Muslim, an Arab, a teacher and a feminist,” she says. After spending a few years training in London, she returned home, started a blog and currently runs a podcast – Middle Eastern Women – where she interviews other Arab feminists.

Al-Malki rejects the guardianship system and, in her lectures, repeats that such rules have nothing to do with religion, but with a “patriarchal” interpretation of Islam. She is convinced that education is “the great lever of change” and that activism must be done from within the system to change not only laws, but also minds and attitudes.

Culture, she explains, is never static. And it should not be the excuse to prevent women from developing their full potential.

In 2012 – alongside the head of the English Department – she published a book: Arab Women in Arab News: Old Stereotypes and New Media, which dives into how, while Arab women are stereotyped abroad, they are often invisibilized in their own countries’ official media.

In one of her latest podcasts, Al-Malki interviewed the Qatari singer Aisha – one of the voices behind the official World Cup soccer song.

“At the beginning of my career, I saw it impossible to follow this path because of all the difficulties I knew I would face. And, within my family, while there was a lot of love, it was difficult for them to process [that I wanted to be a singer]. It seemed very strange to them. I had to accept that I was going to lose people, comfort... I knew that, by being in the spotlight, I was going to receive comments, hate... that not everyone was going to approve of what I was doing. I had to make myself strong. It may seem like it’s just one song, but it’s really been five years in the making,” Aisha explained.

“The more I’m myself, the more I can help others be themselves, too.”

In 2021, after interviewing 50 women living in Qatar and analyzing 27 of its laws, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a comprehensive 103-page report on discrimination in the country.

“Everything I have to do it tied to a man,” explained Asma, 40. “When I was 17 years old, a cousin of mine [marriages between relatives are common in Qatar] asked for my hand and said that he will be living in the [United] States because of his work. For me it was my only chance to travel and live abroad and study. I didn’t look at it as a marriage but an opportunity to leave,” she recalled. She got married thinking that this would free her from paternal guardianship, but she fell under her husband’s authority. He mistreated her and further restricted her movements.

Dana, 20, explained to HRW investigators that she had to lie and say that she was married in order to get urgent treatment for endometriosis. “They refused to actually do a physical on me because I wasn’t married.”

Ghada, 48, said that, after her divorce, “I couldn’t marry twice, because I would lose [custody of] my daughter.” The report concluded with 50 recommendations that HRW sent by letter to the Qatari authorities. So far, few of these proposed changes to the country’s laws have been made.

Qatar is an absolute monarchy – political parties are forbidden. The executive power corresponds to the emir and the Council of Ministers, which includes 15 men, as well as three women who occupy the portfolios of Health, Education and Family. E.A.M. is quick to remind EL PAÍS about the three women who form part of the government.

“There are three women ruling. But we don’t have to work if we don’t want to. We have nothing to prove.” Both she and her friend have degrees in computer science.

Last Thursday, French citizen Stéphanie Frappart became the first woman in history to referee a World Cup match. Assisted by Neuza Back of Brazil and Karen Díaz of Mexico, it was also the first time that an all-female referee team had officiated at the World Cup. The historic moment happened in Al-Bayt: a Qatari stadium.

At the Doha Fan Zone, beneath the giant screen, it’s normal these days to see groups of Qatari girls watching the game. Some wear abayas, or perhaps the jersey of their favorite team. On the metro, while they (as Qatari citizens) are often obliged by family custom to wear heavier clothing than female permanent residents of the country, they sat alongside friends of different backgrounds, laughing at the fans with outrageous wigs and painted faces.

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