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Earlier this year, Filipina journalist Ana P. Santos visited Qatar to report on how laws that criminalize sexual activity affect the country’s workforce. Here, she examines how expat men are using dating apps to approach women for casual sex, and the price many women pay for accepting their advances.

It was a hot Friday evening in Doha when I downloaded the MeetMe app and created a profile.

One of the men I had interviewed in a labor camp told me that this is where “his colleagues” met women.

On MeetMe, I pretended to be a 26-year-old Filipina who had just moved to Doha and was looking to make new friends.

Immediately, messages from men living in the city flooded my feed. Some were perfunctory greetings with a smiley emoji, but others were more direct.

A lot more direct.

Paying for sex

Instead of asking how I was doing, I was asked, “How much?”

I attempted to “flirt” with one man who was aggressive and persistent.

I coyly asked him what kind of women he liked, did he do this often, and did he always pay. I threw in a line about how I wanted to be the only one.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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He said I was asking too many questions. “I only want sex. Not asking 4 marriage,” he replied.

Others were more subtle with their overtures, with one inviting me to join him for “dinner and music in his accommodation.”

His invitation came with a promise. For the pleasure of my company, he would “gift” me QR2,000 since it would be my first time visiting him.

‘Zina’ laws

It had been a while since I had been on a dating app, but I was taken aback by the blatant offers of money for sex.

Unmarried sex may be a crime in Qatar, but that certainly does not stop people from finding it, having it and paying for it, if needed.

Ana P. Santos

Screenshot from conversation on MeetMe

Prostitution is illegal in Qatar and punishable through jail time.

The country also has “zina” laws – the Arabic term for laws that criminalize sex outside of marriage – punish pregnancy out of wedlock, unmarried sex and adultery with imprisonment of up to one year.

However, it has become difficult to monitor how often people in Qatar are tried under these laws because media reporting on the subject has dwindled.

This does not surprise one lawyer in Doha who I spoke to on condition of anonymity.

The lawyer said that he had noticed deliberate efforts within the court system not to call attention to Qatar’s human rights violations – including so-called “love cases” – since being awarded hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup.

In his experience, the courts want to sentence zina offenders and deport them as quickly as possible.

“Qatar does not want to be seen as the country that sends pregnant women to jail,” he told me.

Poor and vulnerable

But the truth is that Qatar does send pregnant women to jail.

Specifically, low-skilled migrant women.

Though they certainly don’t have the monopoly on unmarried sex, they are pretty much the only ones being jailed for it in Qatar because they are easiest to catch.

Many of these women are the target of the men using MeetMe and similar apps.

Often, they are both lonely and make a very low income. This is a dangerous combination when zina laws are applied.

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These women are often persuaded to get a “boyfriend” to help supplement their salaries and provide comfort and friendship.

But if they discover they are pregnant as a result, these woman are often trapped.

While the more wealthy women can afford a trip abroad for an abortion, those on lower incomes cannot, and they can pay a heavy personal price.

Jail visits

In May, I visited two jails, one women’s shelter and one deportation center in Qatar.

Almost all of the women I spoke to who were jailed or being deported for “love cases” were low-skilled migrant women.

This includes Wazilfa, who I first met in Capital Security in Najma. She came out carrying her baby in her arms, wrapped in a blanket and the folds of her sari.

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She eyed us with suspicion, but as soon as my translator explained that we were looking for pregnant women in jail who needed some kind of assistance, her story came tumbling out in a rush of broken Arabic.

Wazilfa, a divorced mother, had met a Bangladeshi man online and he became her boyfriend. They carried on a relationship for almost one year.

Many steamy Friday afternoons ensued, and she got pregnant.

“He told me he loved me,” she said. But he disappeared when she told him she was pregnant.

When Wazilfa began to show, her employer turned her over to the authorities.

She held up a hand and told us to wait while she found a piece of paper and a pen.

When she came back, she held up the paper to the glass wall the separated us. It had a phone number scribbled on it.

“Please call him. Tell him that I will marry him. Just please get me and my baby out of jail,” she begged.

There were many other women like Wazilfa.

Marriage the only way out

Jo, for example, had been dressed in an abaya and taken out of jail for a wedding ceremony that involved nothing more than signing papers.

She did not even speak or look at the man who was the father of her child.

“The trip to the Egyptian Embassy was longer than the wedding ceremony,” she said.

The father had denied paternity, but he could not deny the results of a court-mandated DNA test.

Jo had agreed to marry him to get out of jail.

Then there was Ann, who gave birth in the bathroom of her employer’s home. And a woman who asked to be called V, who was turned in by hospital staff for allegedly trying to have an abortion.

Most men avoid detention

There was a common thread among these women.

They were all domestic workers, they all met their boyfriends online and all of the men had abandoned them once they were told they were going to be fathers.

These men usually avoid detention.

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Jo is unsure, but she thinks her husband was able to avoid jail by marrying her. She no longer speaks to him.

Ann’s boyfriend, meanwhile, had apparently given her a fake name. With the help of her sponsor, she was able to avoid jail. The police traced his real identity through his phone number.

He was in jail for a few days and avoided longer detention time when he married her.

Birth control options

While it seems that sex is easy enough to find in Doha, birth control and other interventions are not, if you are a female domestic worker.

Birth control pills are obtainable over the counter at pharmacies in Qatar,  but these are both relatively expensive and hard to hide from a sponsor.

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Domestic workers would also need permission from their employer to go shopping in a mall alone to buy them – which not all are granted.

Additionally, many of the women I spoke to generally knew little about contraception.

Those who did know about contraceptive pills, for example, did not know where to get them from or which ones to ask for.

Condoms, meanwhile, are bought easily from local stores, but women were iffy about using them and were also worried about these being found by their employers.

As a labor rights advocate I spoke to wryly said, “I’d be amused to find even the most liberal of madames not alarmed by the sight of condoms in her nanny’s drawer.”

Illegal abortions

Because prevention is difficult, many women must instead focus on trying to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Abortions are illegal in Qatar, but this doesn’t stop people from seeking them out.

On my behalf, my interpreter asked her obstetrician where she would direct a woman who had encountered “a delicate situation” like this.

“Lebanon, for a short ‘holiday,’ ” replied her doctor.

This option is however out of reach for most domestic workers for reasons of cost, and also because they would need to obtain an exit permit from their sponsor.

Ana P. Santos

A Whatsapp chat between Ana and a provider of “abortion pills” to Qatar residents

However, pills that induce medical abortion are sold online specifically to residents of the Gulf.

For $240 paid through Western Union, companies promise to deliver the pills directly to you. The seller promises to walk you through the procedure.

However, that’s more than half the average monthly salary of a domestic worker. Additionally, there is no medical guarantee that the pills are safe to use.

‘Invisible women’

It’s clear that low-paid domestic workers are the real victims of zina laws.

However, calls for their repeal have always been ignored by the Qatari government.

That’s not entirely surprising considering that until recently, domestic workers were not even protected in the Labor Law.

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They are, in many ways, invisible.

Sadly, their invisibility seems to be ingrained in the women themselves, too.

Many seemed resigned to their fate. The idea of questioning the injustice of the zina law and demanding better treatment for themselves seemed like an alien concept.

I asked Ann, the woman who gave birth in her employer’s bathroom, whether she wished something could change about the Qatari system.

I posed the same question to Jo, the woman who wore black for a wedding that took a few minutes and a few signatures.

She said she planned to take her baby back to the Philippines and then hoped to leave and work somewhere in the Gulf.

I prodded a little bit more and asked, “But what about changing this law that makes it a crime to be pregnant and not married?”

Jo didn’t answer.

And Ann simply shrugged her shoulders. “What can we do? That’s just the way things are.”

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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By Rose Herrera

Filipina expat Rose Herrera has worked in Qatari and expat households in Doha for 24 years. She is about to leave her existing sponsor, who is moving back to their home country.

Here, she explains the trials facing some domestic workers looking for fair employment, and calls on employers to treat her colleagues with respect and dignity.

I am a housemaid and nanny, working here in Qatar for more than two decades. I’m currently working with a family who I’ve been with for more than five years.

I have been lucky to have them because they treated me nicely, as a member of their family. But now they are leaving Qatar for good and the time will come for me to move on. I’m gonna miss them.

I have had good conditions with them, not like other housemaids and nannies that I sometimes meet.

Long days

Many maids work long hours – more than 10 hours a day. Some of them have no day off a week – even on a Friday, they are still working.

And it’s physically hard work. Usually I clean the bathrooms, tidy up around the house, dust and mop all the floors, vacuum, iron if I have time. Then I have lunch and a rest before the children come home from school.

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Some days I am very tired, especially if I’ve had a very busy day.

I know other maids who have curfews, so they can’t go out for an evening during the weekend.

And they have a small salary – some of them get QR1,500 or QR1,600 a month.

One recent report said this is the average now for a maid in Qatar. But in my experience, it is not enough to live on, especially as many maids need to buy their own toiletries and phone cards.

Supporting my family

I came to Qatar after my father died, and I supported my two sisters through high school and college, as well as my mother. At first, I sent almost all my money home every month and had nothing left to spend on myself.

People ask me why I’ve stayed here so long, but I have lots of family in the Philippines to look after.

I send home about QR1,200 each month normally.

That goes to food and electricity for my 12 year-old daughter and my mother, a small allowance to buy my daughter things she needs for school, medicine for my mom and of course school fees. I want my daughter to go to college and get a good job.

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I also support my 17-year-old niece, as her mother doesn’t have a job and her father is not around.

If it’s a special occasion, like birthdays, I’ll send more home for cakes and small presents.

For Christmas, all my salary goes home so my daughter and mother can each have a new dress.

Before I got married, I saved enough money to build a house, where my daughter and mother now live.

It still needs the kitchen to be finished and painted throughout, so I’m trying to save some money for that too.

Better future

Many housemaids in Qatar are in a similar position to me – some have more children, three or four.

They have to pay all those school fees and budget for their food. And many of them are single moms, so they are the only ones earning money for their family.

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I think the minimum a maid should earn here is QR2,000. That would give them money to buy what they need, and still a little to send home to their families.

The reason we are here is to make some money for our children and parents in our home countries.

We sacrifice our lives for them so they can get a good education, get a degree and have a better paying job.

Wages in the Philippines are very low. If I had stayed there, I don’t know if I could have sent my daughter to high school.

Locked in

Some nannies aren’t very lucky. I know maids who have been harassed and mistreated by their employers, or given little food.

Some employers don’t even give their housemaid or nanny a day off, or if they do, it’s a limited time and as soon as they reach their home, they still have work to do.

I know of at least one maid who was locked inside the house when the family went away for the summer vacation.

Other maids are not allowed to leave their compound without their sponsor, or even talk to other maids inside the compound.

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And some sponsors don’t give us Qatar holidays off, like Eid Al Adha, Eid Al Fitr, National Day or Sport Day.

Having a day off and away from the house is a big help for homesickness. I have family here, but others are very lonely.

Getting together with friends – going to church, having lunch, going to the Corniche or the park – it is the best medicine because you have someone to speak to and for a few hours, forget about work and the problems of the week, and just talk and laugh together.

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Some housemaids have worked in Qatar for five or 10 years, but when their sponsor leaves for good, they aren’t given any benefits like end of service.

Others still have their passports held by their employer, which is illegal. And some don’t have a (Hamad) health card, so they are obliged to pay for their own.

I saw the new law for maids (Domestic Workers Law, No. 15 of 2017, signed by the Emir last month) and I was happy to see holiday leave, flights home and other rights for housemaids and nannies.

We hope that we can all avail of these mandatory rules by the Emir to help us live a decent life in Qatar.

Thoughts?

Eid prayer

Ray Toh / Doha News

Standing in prayer

The ongoing blockade of Qatar by its neighbors has sparked an ugly war of words online and in the media. Among the worst consequences has been a recent increase in sectarian rhetoric in the region, argues Mohammed Al-Jufairi in this opinion piece.

Until recently, the Arabian Gulf was considered an area of relative stability and peace in the world.

However, the recent blockade of Qatar is now threatening the region’s social fabric, pitting families against families, and sect against sect.

This was brought home to me last week after the death of the legendary Kuwaiti King of Comedy Abdulhussain Abdulretha.

KUNA / Twitter

Abdulhussain Abdulredha

Abdulretha was hugely popular in Qatar.

A larger-than-life figure, he spent his life entertaining the masses while promoting religious unity and love.

Despite his hopes for unity, however, there are many in the region who have sought to use his death to reignite sectarian divisions.

That’s because he was a Shia Muslim.

Since he died, there has been a huge increase in anti-Shia rhetoric on social-media.

I believe that much of it has been effectively “sponsored” by the countries currently carrying out the blockade of Qatar – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.

Online backlash

Following his death, for example, the infamous Saudi cleric Dr. Ali Al Rabieei sent out a tweet that people should stop praying to God for Abdulretha because he was “an Iranian Shia, and died in darkness and in vain.”

He deleted the tweet following an online backlash, but many agreed with him, too.

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Additionally, prominent Saudi newspaper Riyadh published several articles of “condolences” for the late actor.

But it deleted the prefix Abdul from the comedian’s name, instead calling him Hussein.

Abdul means “servant of,” so the name literally translates into “servant of Hussein.”

Saudi newspapers opted not to recognize that Hussein, a Muslim who Shias extol, could have such ardent followers.

This action is of course an insult to the late singer’s vision for religious unity.

But sadly, this sort of thing is not a new or strange coming from the Saudi government.

Discrimination against Shias

The backlash against the memory of a man known simply for making people laugh may seem baffling to outsiders.

But for those of us who’ve grown up in this region, it is unfortunately not surprising.

Shias are a minority religious population in Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and the majority Muslim population in Bahrain (although Bahrain’s rulers are Sunni).

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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And while Shias are not widely discriminated against in Qatar and the UAE, the same cannot be said about Saudi and Bahrain.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a recent rise in the persecution of Shias in the country is likely to only continue under the new Saudi leadership.

HRW condemned the Saudi regime for sentencing 14 young Shia men to death for protest-related crimes following what they deemed to be unfair trials.

These trials came just after Saudi forces had demolished the Shia-majority Saudi town of Awamiya.

Its citizens were forced to flee, and shops were either closed or burned.

Nashira Usef

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Meanwhile, Shiaa-majority Bahrain is now all-too familiar with sectarian violence.

In its recent Religious Freedoms report, the US State Department issued a stern condemnation of the (majority Sunni) Bahraini government.

It accused them of “questioning, detaining, and arresting Shia clerics, community members and opposition politicians.”

The Bahraini regime has repeatedly been accused of killing peaceful Shia protesters, raiding homes of clerics, and rescinding citizenship of Shia figures, including prominent Bahraini Cleric Sheikh Issa Qassim.

Acknowledging other faiths

And yet while Saudi Arabia and its allies continue to promote sectarianism, Qatar has chosen another path.

Qatar already houses the Middle East’s largest complex of churches, allowing the country’s hundreds of thousands of Christians to worship openly.

Navin Sam / Doha News

Qatar’s Catholic church, Our Lady of the Rosary

And recently, the US State Department noted Qatar’s apparent openness to build new places of worship for Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists.

In the same report, the US criticized Saudi Arabia and Bahrain for failing to protect religious freedoms.

In particular, it pointed to Saudi’s refusal to allow non-Muslims to practice their faiths in the country, leaving them open to possible persecution and deportation for their beliefs.

Divisive clerics

Even in the UAE, home to churches and temples belonging to a number of faiths, there are signs of sectarianism.

A recent resurfacing of a video of the Jordanian-born UAE naturalized cleric, Wasim Yousef, showed him expressing anti-Shia views.

Chantelle D'mello

Ramadan qiyaam at QFIS

In it, he called Muslims of the Shia community non-believers because “they worship a being in addition to Allah,” which is untrue.

Since the video was made, Yousef has been promoted to Imam of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the UAE’s largest Muslim place of worship.

Yousef has also recently used profanity and curses on UAE National Television and social media to take aim against Qatar’s rulers following the blockade.

For example, in this tweet he has a picture of Qatar’s Emir, Father Emir, and Hamad bin Jassim and tweets “May God kill you” and publicly advocates for a regime change in Qatar in his religious programs and sermons.

Call for tolerance

I believe that all of the countries currently blockading Qatar should follow its example.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

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Like Qatar, they should immediately put an end to all forms of religious prosecution, preference, and threats.

Instead, they should focus on unity, spread objectivity, and promote one strong, unified and safe GCC.

Which, incidentally, is very much the message Abdulhussain Abdulreza spent his life promoting.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Doha News’ editorial policy.