Charity endeavor in Brazil sparks cultural debate on Qatari identity

Vodafone Qatar

With reporting from Riham Sheble

A recently posted YouTube video of a young group of Qataris who are helping to rebuild a school in Brazil has drawn the ire of some nationals, in part because the female travelers were not dressed in the traditional abaya and headscarf while on their trip.

The seven Qataris – three men and four women – are spending 21 days in the South American country as part of a Vodafone Qatar-backed initiative to help people in the remote Amazonion village of Ararinha.

The adventure is part of Vodafone’s “global firsts” program, which urges societal contributions while helping to create unforgettable memories through the use of technology.

In addition to the attire issue, critics have targeted Vodafone for hosting a mixed-gender trip, and the women themselves for traveling abroad without their families, which detractors said was a violation of Qatar’s conservative Islamic principles.

However, other Qataris have rejected that perspective, calling it “backwards” and “hogwash.”

Criticism

Criticism began circulating this week after Vodafone posted a video of the volunteers’ first day in Brazil on its company Facebook page.

The brief clip, which has now been made private on Youtube, showed all seven trekkers walking through Doha’s airport and then Brazil’s, sharing how they felt about the journey. Most said that they were tired and that the flight was long, but they were happy to have reached Brazil safely.

On Facebook, many commenters zeroed in on the attire of the female Qatari volunteers in the video. While in earlier videos from Doha, the women were shown wearing traditional dress. Footage of them landing in Brazil, however, showed that they had removed their abayas and headscarfs.

The post went up on Tuesday, but was deleted on Thursday after sparking a number of surprisingly harsh rebukes, including:

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Translation: They neither represent Qatari youth nor Qatari tribes. May they not return (safely).

A number of commenters responded to the remarks by saying that attire is an individual choice, while others warned that the journey’s cause was being forgotten:

Facebook

Though the Facebook post has been taken down, Qataris have continued the conversation on Twitter, under the hashtag #فودافون_تسيء_لأهل_قطر  (Vodafone insults the people of Qatar).

Once again, there were many remarks critical of the trip itself and how the women were dressed:

Translation: This is undoubtedly a promotional program. To hell with marketing that is done at the expense of our values and the teachings of our religion.

Translation: Even if the women in the video are Qatari, they have parents who can set them straight. Leave people alone.

Translation: To organize such a gender-mixed trip that is not in keeping with our conservative society is indeed an insult to the people of Qatar.

But several people also disagreed with the critics:

Translation: I haven’t seen any insult to Qatar. As for the girls, I don’t consider any girl who incomprehensibly abandons her abaya Qatari.

Vodafone has also responded to the wave of criticism, telling Doha News in a statement:

“We fully respect our local culture and the seven Qatari youths, who we refer to as Adventurers, have been selected from a number of nominations.

They have travelled to Brazil with full parental consent and they are accompanied by senior expert trainers as they volunteered to be part of this journey. These senior experts are there to give all the necessary guidance to the group and ensure their full safety. They are challenging themselves to achieve something they never thought would be possible.”

Cultural differences

Vodafone is not the only company in Qatar that has unintentionally inflamed some local sensibilities in recent years.

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Shortly before National Day in 2012, Ooredoo (then Qtel) quietly removed a YouTube clip of a flash mob it organized at Landmark Mall.

It included Qatari men doing traditional dance, women lip-singing patriotic songs and expats breakdancing all at the same time as a huge crowd looked on.

It also showed locals and expats almost engaging in a kind of dance-off – a scene that a few nationals labeled “disgusting.”

Also that year, the talent show Arab Idol canceled auditions in Doha after criticism from the Qatari community, despite support from many residents.

Each time, there was mixed reaction in the local community, suggesting shifting perspectives on what it means to be Qatari amid a push for modernization and the prevalence of international influences in the country.

The trip

The seven Amazon Adventure volunteers, who are between 17 and 24 years old, are about a third into their trip, and will remain in Brazil until Aug. 28.

They will climb one of the nation’s highest mountains, SugarLoaf, hunt for meals and make their own fires and shelter at night. This week, they will arrive in Ararinha.

Vodafone Qatar

Here, the youth will fulfill the main purpose of their trip – to build a school from the ground up, with the help of the local community.

The school, which burned down six months ago, served as the sole educational facility for three remote communities. Some students would take a canoe for around an hour to attend classes.

The volunteers will help rebuild the school to accommodate some 300 students, as opposed to the previous 90. They will also work to construct a village center where locals can host celebrations and ideally attract tourism to their remote area.

Amazon Adventures trip

Vodafone Qatar

The names of the those taking part are: Mohammed Al Shammari, Leila Al Tamimi, Aisha Al Naama, Tameem Walid Al Hammadi, Noor Al Muhannadi, Maqdeem Al Naama and Mohammed Adel Al Naimi.

They are being led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Thani, who last year became the first Qatari to climb and raise Qatar’s flag at Mount Everest’s peak.

Al Thani has dedicated a number of physical challenges to charitable causes and is also leading 12 Qatari youths up Mount Kilimanjaro in October to raise funds for Gaza.

Vodafone Qatar is tracking and sharing the trekkers’ every experience with the public through social media. Since launching the project mainly on YouTube, Facebook and a dedicated website, the company said that videos have received a total of some 11,000 likes, 100,500 shares and one million views.

Commenting on the recent removal of the criticized video from Facebook, a Vodafone spokesperson simply said:

“We share a variety of content on different channels so it might differ depending on the channel.”

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