A 94-page Human Rights Watch report compiled 73 interviews, 50 of which were women affected by the system. Doha News sat down with leading Qatari feminist and Founding Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Dr Amal Almalki, to get her response.
Over the past years, women in Qatar have made their mark in various fields, from breaking barriers in extreme air sports to dominating the academic and political fields.
However, despite the presence of laws in place to protect women in Qatar, the looming and ancient shadow of male guardianship still stands in the way of progress, hindering all reform brought about by the country’s legal system.
A recent Human Rights Watch Report [HRW] titled “’Everything I Have to Do is Tied to a Man’: Women and Qatar’s Male Guardianship Rules” unveils the many layers of this male guardianship tradition as well as perceived “discriminatory” laws in the Gulf state.
The report, published on Monday, complies 50 interviews of women affected by a patriarchal cultural system that restrains women from excelling by treating them as minors. This includes the right to travel, obtain college degrees as well as access to adequate gynaecological care.
“The findings show that, in many aspects of their lives, adult women are treated as legal minors in Qatar,” said the report.
Weighing in on the testimonies of the women, Dr. Al Malki believes that cultural norms create a large obstacle to progress for women in the country.
“There are things in our culture that are not legal in any way. These were created hundreds of years ago and are still valid and powerful in our society. For example the whole issue of the license and guardianship,” the Qatari academic told Doha News.
This was echoed by the Government Communications Office [GCO] which said the report “inaccurately portrays Qatar’s laws, policies and practices related to women” and assured authorities will launch an investigation into the reported cases to prosecute those who may have broken any laws.
Struggle for independence
Women interviewed in the report say they have been denied permission to drive, travel abroad, study, work, or even marry a person of their own choice—all of which have pushed women’s mental wellbeing to the edge, with some living with suicide ideation.
“Just think about Covid-19 and what it has done to all of us. It has impacted our mobility. So of course when you restrict someone’s mobility and treat them like second class humans and when you take away their freedom of mobility, of course it’s going to affect their mental health,” said Dr. Al Malki.
In 21-year-old Noof Al Maadeed’s case, she says she was forced to go through her father’s mobile phone before exiting the country, giving herself approval to travel out of Qatar via the government’s Metrash app. Noof says she suffered with years of domestic abuse and extreme restrictions on movement.
“[I was] only allowed to go to school and back. Anything else [and I] can expect a beating,” she told HRW.
Other women say they resorted to getting married in order to escape the control of their male guardians at home, only to end up at the mercy of another. The 40-year-old Asma says found herself enduring 15 years of abuse that first started at the age of 17.
“Nobody forced me. But they made it so tight for me in the house that marriage was the out,” she said.
The cases reported also revealed that no clear laws legitimised the ongoing discrimination and treatment of women as second-class citizens, but rather actions derived from a male-dominated society.
The leading Qatari feminist and academic said she also needed her father’s permission to travel to London while she was a student, but noted that women aged 25 no longer need to obtain their male guardian’s approval to travel.
“I cannot imagine someone stopping me from traveling and asking for my husband’s permission, I would go crazy. I would report it on the spot and ask them to see the law,” she said, commenting on the stories of the women interviewed by HRW.
Dr Al Malki urged women to be more vocal about such incidents as the law is there to protect them. This was backed by the GCO which went on to say independent passports in Qatar can even be granted to children under the age of 18 with the approval of either a male or a female guardian.
Marriage and divorce
Several women told HRW that they are unable to find freedom in their marriages, leaving many stuck in abusive relationships with their husbands or facing the threat of losing custody of their children.
Um Qahtan, a 44-year-old woman, said that her husband threatened to prevent her four children from traveling with her if she left him. He also warned he would transfer them from international schools to public schools. Despite the threats, Um Qahtan mustered up the courage to leave but soon found her husband’s threats were not, in fact, empty.
“In a February 2021 hearing, she said a judge rejected her petition to transfer her son to a different school on the basis that he could not interfere with the father’s “God-given right to decide where his child goes to school,” read the report.
As a mother, Dr. Al Malki said she believes the law is more lenient towards mothers, but this does not mean women and mothers don’t struggle with court-related matters.
“I will not undermine the fact that I hear ridiculous stories coming from court where there is a discrepancy between family law and the judge,” she said, suggesting there are individual judges that don’t consider the circumstances of women.
Until now, Qatari women are still unable to grant their children their citizenship and its related benefits, which HRW believes “can further encourage a male guardian to prohibit a female relative from marrying a foreign national”.
Commenting on the matter, the GCO said “a woman may apply for the personal identification of her children without any additional approval required,” though it failed to elaborate on the ability to grant Qatari citizenships.
The HRW report also stated the use of religion to justify male control over women, often misinterpreting Quranic verses, including “men are qawammun [protectors and maintainers] in relation to women”.
However, Dr. Al Malki said “family law in Qatar is based on Sharia law, which is not Quran.
“It’s the interpretation of four religious schools, so we cannot look at those laws in our present circumstances. You have to listen to each individual story,” she added, stressing the need to modernise laws.
Right to education and work
However, the women interviewed in the HRW report said they required their male guardian’s permission to study and attend mixed-gender institutions in Qatar or even study abroad.
The father of Noora was adamantly against the 20-year-old traveling abroad for her undergraduate studies as he was influenced by the stigma surrounding women pursuing their education in a foreign land, she said.
“Moreover, an unmarried Qatari woman under 25 is required to have a male guardian issue her an exit permit to travel abroad. Married women government employees also cannot obtain a post-graduate scholarship to study abroad unless their husbands are also required to be abroad,” revealed the report.
In response to the report, the GCO stated that academic scholarships are awarded based on academic achievement without regard to gender or to the consent of a guardian.
Dr. Al Malki said an honest conversation is necessary.
“The reality is not a general reality. There are women that are living in a wonderful reality and they are living with the support of the government, but there are also women who are subjected to practices by their family and by their society that stop them from studying in Doha or abroad,” she said.
Qatar engaged in sweeping reform when the Sheikha Moza bint Nasser herself established Qatar Foundation and Education City in 1997, encouraging equal access to quality education for both genders. In the past academic year alone, almost 75% of Qatari students registered at Qatar Foundation [QF] universities were women.
“The legal system does not represent all the progress that has happened in the country and here…I think it is time for us to reflect on our legal system and see the areas that need to be updated,” said Dr. Al Malki.
As for obtaining work permits, the women involved in the report told HRW they needed male guardian permission to carry out any tasks across several ministries, including education, defence, interior, municipality and environment, endowments [Awqaf] and Islamic affairs. This was also the case for governmental institutions like Qatar University, Qatar Foundation, the State Audit Bureau, as well as state-run schools.
Despite this, the GCO said Qatari legislation does not require women to obtain permission from a guardian.
Prior to January 2020, women required the approval of their male guardians to obtain a driver’s license until the law was finally abolished.
However, many women told HRW that they are still unable to get their permits without their male guardians.
Among the women is “Leyla,”, 20, who said her father does not allow her or her older sister to drive, telling her to get married in order to obtain her driver’s license.
According to the new law, no approval from a guardian is required for women to get their permits.
Access to gynaecological health
One of the key aspects of the report was addressing the discrimination in the health field, where women are required to be married in order to receive proper medical attention in cases relating to their reproductive organs.
For 20-year-old Dana, she had to lie about her marital status in order to receive treatment for endometriosis.
As for 24-year-old Dalal, she was required to present a marriage certificate in order to get her birth control pills prescription, which was already given to her eight years earlier to treat her polycystic ovarian syndrome, a condition common among many young women.
Dr. Al Malki said that the scenario was familiar to her.
“It’s really shameful. I remember I did an appointment and I received a message asking for my marriage certificate and I asked to speak to whoever sent me that message,” she said.
She urged women to address such issues to authorities instead.
“This is something that should not be endured and should be reported to the minister, who is a woman,” she added. “There’s no logic behind it. I don’t know which man placed this regulation a long time ago. Women need to fight these guidelines, I don’t think they’re laws.”
The GCO’s statement did not address this aspect of the report.
Existing laws hindered by patriarchal thought
While laws are in place, more needs to be done, especially to undo years of patriarchal thought.
“What’s equally important is to educate society. It’s extremely hard to change mindsets,” she said.
As a firm believer in education, Dr. Al Malki also thinks existing laws need to be revised and updated and authorities should also introduce new legislation created for women, including granting them protection from threats, including harassment.
She also called for having more women in legal positions in order to ensure change no gaps are left to avoid gender discrimination altogether.
“We need women to be able to make those decisions. Men are not aware of such practices, they are sometimes not aware of what women go through in society,” she said, also calling for the establishment of a ministry specifically dedicated to women’s issues.
“I believe that there should be a ministry for women affairs in Qatar monitoring different institutions…this entity will be looking at all issues concerning women. The problem is when one woman speaks on behalf of others, she gets attacked. I’ve been attacked myself,” she said.
This was also highlighted by HRW which said women who advocate for women’s rights often face “intimidation and harassment from government authorities or from society”, with many tip-toeing against being identified as activists to avoid being targeted.
“I would really hope that we, Qatari women, and people who are concerned about the health and sustainability of our society would come up with an action plan and start talking to officials in every area,” said Dr. Al Malki.
The leading Qatari academic said she is against “the attack approach” when it comes to such issues and encouraged working collectively with the government in order to achieve better results.
“I hope that authorities respond to the 73 cases in the report to give them the justice and acknowledgement they need instead of addressing the HRW as an organisation,” she said.