Browsing 'women' News

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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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Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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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Nawaal Akram

Qatar-born 18-year-old Nawaal Akram has been included in the BBC’s list of the world’s most inspirational women.

The Pakistani expat is one of only three women from the Middle East region to make the BBC 100 Women 2017 list.

Diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy as a child, Akram has worked to battle discrimination and societal stereotypes toward disability in Qatar.

Despite being denied a secondary school education, she is now a comedian and a model.

She is also the founder of a regional support group, Muscular Dystrophy Middle East.

Inspiring line-up

Akram was nominated to the list by a journalist from the BBC Urdu service, who had interviewed her recently.

Maria Ovsyannikova

Nawaal Akram

After being told she was a finalist, Akram said she “honestly thought” she would not make the final cut.

“The day before the final list came out I couldn’t sleep,” she told Doha News. “But in the morning I got a phone call saying, congratulations, you made it. It was a shock.”

Akram said that she was “particularly amazed” to be on the list because it featured so many accomplished people.

The list includes data scientists, Olympic athletes and many other leaders, including Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She is the first elected female head of state in Africa.

“Seeing myself in the same list as these amazing women who have changed lives and changed history – it is a big moment as me. You know, with me not having an education – it shows I can make a change, I cannot let my past define me,” she said.

Changing perceptions of disability

Now regarded as a social media influencer in Qatar, Akram is seeking to use her following to help change attitudes toward disability in the country – especially schools.

“I hope that in the future, more educational places around Qatar and in the wider region will start giving people with disabilities more chances. They have a right to an education,” she said.

One of her projects is a new YouTube channel on which she plans to showcase restaurants, beauty salons and other venues in Qatar that are accessible to disabled people and their families and friends.

“I do a lot of things that people don’t consider normal for me to be doing. I am really hoping that people will watch them and be inspired by it,” she said.

She is also working with photographer Maria Ovsyannikova and make-up artist Debi Mendez on the Nawarti Dreams project, which aims to show disability through conceptual photography.

What can you see …? #arabart #disability #society #art #fineart #photography #doha #qatar

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“It is showcasing strength and beauty and showing that disability is in the culture, and that it is everywhere,” Akram said.

If you have Muscular Dystrophy and would like to join Muscular Dystrophy Middle East, you can fill in a form to do so here.

Thoughts?

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Women in Saudi Arabia will finally be able to drive starting next year, officials have announced.

The news is being celebrated around the world, including in Qatar, where women can legally drive but some local females are sometimes discouraged from doing so.

Saudi’s King Salman signed a royal decree yesterday. It said traffic laws would be amended so that driver’s licenses could be issued “to men and women alike.”

According to the Saudi Press Agency, the decree added:

“We refer to the negative consequences of not allowing women to drive vehicles and the positive aspects of allowing it to do so, taking into consideration the application of the necessary legal controls and adherence to them.”

Who’s eligible

The new policy will apply to Saudi residents, as well as any female visitors who have a driver’s license from another Gulf nation, Arab News reports.

The publication quoted Saudi’s ambassador to the US, Prince Khaled bin Salman, as adding that women will not need to get permission from legal guardians to get a license.

Gulf Driving School

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However, there is still much work to be done before the policy takes effect.

For example, police will need to be trained to interact with female motorists. New drivers would also need to attend school before getting behind the wheel.

A committee is being set up to study such issues and will provide recommendations in 30 days. The prohibition will be lifted on June 24, 2018.

The policy shift comes amid several social and economic changes led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It is expected to go over well with young people in the kingdom, as well as give Saudi a PR boost internationally amid the Gulf crisis and Yemen war.

Qatar reaction

Despite the ongoing Gulf dispute, which has raised tensions between people in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, many in Doha hailed the good news.

Some, including Maha Al-Ansari, cracked jokes on Twitter:

But speaking to Doha News, Al-Ansari added:

“We (Qataris) are obviously very happy for Saudi. Jokes aside, it’s a win for women’s rights on a global level so thats a positive thing regardless of which country we’re talking about.”

She also noted that even though women can drive in Qatar, some families still consider it to be a taboo issue.

According to Arab News, the current driving ban is seen as a “social issue in the Kingdom, as there is no actual law or religious edict that prohibits it.”

But many women who have tried to drive in the country have faced scorn and even jail time.

In conservative societies like Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent Qatar, some worry that allowing a woman to drive could put them in danger, or lead to promiscuity.

Thoughts?