With reporting from Riham Sheble
A number of Qatar residents, mostly locals, have set up a support program for the seven Qatari youth who are currently rebuilding a school in Brazil as part of a charity effort.
The volunteers have come under fire over the past week, as many members of the local community engage in a debate about Qatari identity and cultural norms.
At issue is whether it is appropriate for Qataris to go on a mixed-gender trip without parental supervision, and for women to remove their headscarves and/or abayas while abroad.
In response to the criticism, Vodafone Qatar this week pulled its name from the “Qatar Firsts” initiative, which it had started and is continuing to fund under contractual obligation.
The team is expected to return to Doha on Aug. 28, and relatives of the adventurers – particularly the four females ones – have said that the women are shocked and upset about the backlash.
To show their support for the volunteers, some Qatar residents have set up a coed support group that advocates against cyber-bullying and gender inequality. The position is in response to tweets about the Brazil trip, Islamic values and westernization:
Translation: There has to be a serious movement against this westernization wave. We do not want the young generation to grow up alienated from their religion and all that is good in our traditions.
استنتجت من وسم #فودافون_تسيء_لأهل_قطر
إن هناك من قومي من يضع الحرية الشخصية
قبل القرآن وسنةﷺ
أهو استهانةبالقرآن أم تعظيما للغرب
— أم الفضل الكعبي (@bntaljazera) August 18, 2014
Translation: The hashtag has proven that some of my people put personal freedom above Quran the Prophetic tradition. Is is a trivialization of Quranic teachings or veneration of the West?
In an email, the female Qatari founder of the support group urged people to contribute to society with their perspectives, and complaint to Vodafone’s main headquarters about what has happened.
Members are encouraging residents to use the hashtags to let the female trekkers know that they have support back home.
Some of the tweets so far include:
Don't let cyber-bullies take you down. Shame on those who hide behind their screens #isupportqatarfirsts
— Paul Gerhard (@pgerhard) August 18, 2014
Connectivity in the Amazon has been limited, but volunteers do have access to the internet. While they are aware of the backlash, family members have told Doha News that the group is fully occupied with their endeavor and rarely check social media sites.
After Vodafone pulled out of the Amazon adventure trip, it took down a website that was supposed to regularly update readers with photos, videos and posts about the trip.
This means friends and family are no longer able to track their loved one’s moves or see what they’re up to.
However, Mediadante is apparently sending regular photographs and updates to parents’ emails, and families have also said they’re still in touch on a daily basis.
Medidante has also said that they will continue to post updates on their website, but no footage will be shared with the public until the trip is over.
A telephone is also being carried along by the group, and families have been provided with the number.
With the seven adventurers thousands of miles away, many of their loved ones have been dealing with the fallout at home.
Fahad Al Tamimi, a brother of one of the female volunteers, told Doha News that he has chosen to ignore critics and support his sister.
“None of them were well-informed. When I explained everything to my sister, she was shocked and didn’t know what to do. She asked if she should continue with the trip and I told her she definitely should and should forget about the minority of people expressing their extremism. It’s only their opinion.
She was unsure how to react at first because she didn’t want to cause any more commotion. She told me she won’t be wearing the abaya or veil because she’s in the middle of the Amazon and it’s far too hot. She did say that she would ensure she wore long sleeves and trousers though, and ensure she was respectful.”
Al Tamimi added that he had anticipated criticism from the local community, but didn’t expect it to get so nasty.
He also confirmed that his sister Leila, along with the three other women, are now determined to complete the trip for both themselves and the villagers who are relying on a new school for their children.
The women have become their own firm support network and are helping each other pull through, Al Tamimi said.
Other family members of the adventurers have expressed anger at the community reaction.
Nasser Al Naama has two sisters partaking in the excursion, and said he was disappointed with the actions of the public and Vodafone. Speaking to Doha News, he said:
“These innocent girls have been used as scapegoats for something that has nothing to do with them. People have made it a personal victory to see my family defamed and Vodafone has also abandon them.”
Al Naama’s parents also said that they fully support their daughters Aisha and Maqdeem, and have urged them to continue with their journey.
Al Naama’s mother told Doha News:
“Some people are only focusing on the hijab. I don’t understand why. It’s a personal choice. I wear a hijab and have done since I was 19 but they don’t want to. I don’t judge them because of it, and neither should anyone else.
People should focus on the girls’ education, ways of thinking and maturity rather than whether they cover their hair or not. If people don’t want to progress and change then what to do.”
The girls’ father expressed similar emotions, saying:
“We are very proud of our girls. They are not doing anything wrong. They are benefitting the country and society by taking on this humanitarian act.
There are a number of mix-gender groups that travel together. They’re certainly not the first Qataris to travel in male company without their male family members. It happens all the time with university trips, studying abroad and in the workforce.”
One family is so angered by both the cyber attacks and Vodafone’s actions that they are currently seeking legal recourse, telling Doha News:
“We have a consultation (this week), so we will see what action will be taken exactly. We will get two lawyers if we need to. We don’t care about the money. We will pay whatever is needed to protect our daughter. We won’t stop until justice is served.”