Gulf state’s male guardian rules deny ladies right to wed, travel, work or to form selections regarding their kids, report says
Women in Qatar are living under a system of “deep discrimination” – dependent on men for permission to marry, travel, pursue higher education or make decisions about their own children, according to a new report.
Opaque rules on male guardianship leave women without basic freedoms, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has analysed for the first time the way the system works in practice.
Researchers looked at 27 laws covering work, accommodation and status and found that women must get permission from male “guardians” – fathers, brothers, uncles and husbands – to exercise many basic rights. They cannot be primary carers of their children, even if they are divorced or the children’s father has died. If the child has no male relative to act as guardian, the government takes on this role.
The Qatari government said the accounts in the report are “inaccurate” and do not truly represent the country’s “constitution laws or policies”. In a statement they promised to investigate all the cases mentioned and prosecute anyone who has broken the law.
Women interviewed for the report described how their guardians denied them permission to drive, travel, study, work or marry someone of their own choosing. Some spoke of how this had affected their mental health, contributing to self-harm, depression, stress and suicidal thoughts.
“Girls are [constantly] in quarantine,” said one woman. “What the whole world experiences now, this is normal life for girls in Qatar.”
Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher at HRW, said the study was driven in part by the need to clarify legislation.
“The government in Qatar don’t want women to know the rules,” she said. “They want men to have power and control. So if laws are changed, the government don’t inform women and when they introduce restrictions they don’t tell them that clearly, either. These laws exist in a nefarious way and women have to base decisions on an assumption that they must be obedient to men.
“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.’
“Or, passport law says a woman can get her own passport but there have been instances where officials say a father must approve the application,” said Begum.
“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.”
Women reported being asked for proof of marriage to access some sexual and reproductive healthcare, antenatal care, vaginal ultrasounds and smear tests.
Even where they led “privileged” lives, guardianship rules leave women treated “as children”, said “Lolwa”, 44, whose father agreed to let her drive when she was 33. “When I am working in my job, I’m the one signing contracts. I am treated like an adult on one side but on the other side, I’m not an adult.”
Human rights in the Gulf state have been the subject of sustained international attention since Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup.
Last month, a Guardian investigation reported that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since the World Cup decision was announced in 2010.
There has been some backlash against gender discrimination, but women find it hard to speak out.
Noof al-Maadeed decided to leave Qatar after years of domestic abuse and restrictions: “[I was] only allowed to go to school and back. Anything else [and I could] expect a beating,” she said. But Qatari government rules prohibit unmarried women under 25 from travelling abroad without the permission of their male guardian.
So in November 2019, then aged 21, Maadeed took her father’s phone and used the government’s Metrash app to process an exit permit. She then climbed out her bedroom window to go to the airport. With her permit, she flew first to Ukraine and then to the UK, where she claimed asylum.
After Saudi Arabia reformed its own system of male guardianship, some women in Qatar tried to protest against theirs by using an anonymous social media account. Within 24 hours the authorities had shut it down.
When Maadeed went public about her escape, discussions began again on social media about women’s rights. In January 2020, Qatar responded by lifting the requirement on women to have a guardian’s permission to obtain driving licences.
Begum said she believed change would come through international pressure, as well as changing attitudes within Qatar.
“I am optimistic because women have been vocal. Women are sick of it, younger women are very frustrated and this is a modern country, women are highly educated in many cases. With the World Cup coming, there will be a lot of focus on rights there, exposure will help.”
The Qatari government told the Guardian it wanted to build on progress made in incorporating women into the highest levels of politics and other professional fields, and said Qatari women held senior posts in many areas and achieved the highest levels of education.
A spokesperson for the Qatari government said: “Gender equality and female empowerment are central to Qatar’s success and vision. Qatar is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights at home and abroad. The Human Rights Watch report inaccurately portrays Qatar’s laws, policies and practices related to women. The accounts mentioned in the report are not aligned with our constitution, laws or policies. The government will investigate these cases and prosecute anyone who has broken the law.”
In a written response to HRW, the government disputed the claims and said that women could act as guardians to obtain passports or ID cards for their children, that women did not need permission to accept a scholarship or to work at ministries, government institutions or schools and that guardian approval was also not required for educational field trips at Qatar University.