The latest Human Rights Watch report proves that limiting women’s rights strongly affects their mental health. The research concerned Qatar – a country where women are constantly monitored by the so-called male guardian. Their everyday life is often confusingly similar to the reality of the “Handmaid’s Tale”.
Women in Qatar cannot decide on their own about their education, work, health, travel or marriage. Many of them admitted that they experience various mental problems – from depression and self-destructive behavior to suicidal thoughts.
What is “Guardianship Law” in Qatar?
Guardianship law in Qatar is a rich set of laws, rules and generally accepted customs. A woman up to the age of 18 is fully subordinate to the male guardian, while after reaching the age of majority, the control concerns “some” areas of life. These areas are primarily work and education, marriage and divorce, travel and health. In practice, this means that a woman cannot decide on her own fate in certain matters.
“For girls – you are [constantly] in quarantine. What the whole world experiences now, this is the normal life for girls [in Qatar].” – says 40-year-old Asma.
Who can become a guardian of an adult woman? The basic condition is the age of 18 and full legal rights. Usually this is the woman’s father. The father may be replaced by another family member – brother, uncle or grandfather. If the woman marries (with the guardian’s prior consent, of course), the custody is transferred to the husband. In the event of divorce, custody returns to the male family member.
Where are the limits of control?
“The government in Qatar don’t want women to know the rules. They want men to have power and control. So if laws are changed, the government don’t inform women and when they introduce restrictions they don’t tell them that clearly, either. These laws exist in a nefarious way and women have to base decisions on an assumption that they must be obedient to men.” – tells Rothna Begum, an HRW expert.
One of the biggest problems with guardianship law in Qatar is that no one really knows where guardianship ends. The law is imprecise, which easily leads to discrimination. The authors of the HRW report tried to find appropriate legal regulations that would justify far-reaching control of male caregivers in various cases. It has often turned out that such regulations simply do not exist. It is also not clear what the adulthood really is in Qatar, which easily leads to abuse and over-interpretation.
“I don’t know what the legal age is [for a woman]. There is a legal age for traveling and driving and booking a hotel room… There is no actual written law of what the legal age is.” – says Fatima, 22.
Love, relationships and family
HRW experts interviewed dozens of women. For many of them it was the first opportunity to talk about how difficult it can be to stand up for even the most basic rights.
“[My friend] wanted to marry someone that her parents didn’t approve of. She kept trying to look for loopholes to do it without her dad’s approval, but she wasn’t able to. She had to forget about it and move on. She was Qatari and he was also Qatari. It was essentially an issue of racism because he had Black ancestors.” – says Maha, who does not understand why a husband cannot be chosen by women themselves.
Some women have tried to marry abroad. Such practices are often ostracized and punished by the male guardian in the country of origin.
“They have rules that if you do it [marry] abroad, then they might not give you land, and kids won’t get passports. They can use the [government-provided citizen] benefits against the Qataris.” – explains Zainab.
Fulfilled love in Qatar is still something abstract for many women. Meanwhile, men can decide for themselves who they marry. Qatar can have 4 wives.
Discrimination against women also concerns parental rights. As you can guess – it is the man who always has priority to care for children, and after the divorce the woman loses them completely. Many Katarians chose to remain in violent relationships for years because they feared losing their children. Often, difficulties also arise with consent to divorce.
“She put up with it [violence] because of kids but it got so bad she couldn’t take it…. She went to her family [parents’] home when it was too much. Her husband said that she is disobedient, as she left the home. He put beit al-ta’a and everyone found it crazy because he was beating her. She went back to him for a while. Then separated and went back to her parents. Her father and his uncles went and spoke to him that it has to stop, and they divorced.” – Zainab tells about her friend. It is worth noting that there was also male intervention here.
Work, education and travel
Katarians suffer from a lack of independence. Like many other women, they dream of traveling, fulfilling themselves in various professions, taking up various fields of study or gaining experience abroad. And sometimes – they just want to break away and know another life. However, this is not always their decision.
“For marine science, you need to go on the boats and stay overnight to get samples from coral. That’s why they don’t offer it, as they don’t want girls to go on trips or think their parents won’t want them to. I wanted to do marine science, but I could only do biotechnology.” – says 26-year-old Khadija.
There are also problems with studying abroad.
“To get a scholarship to study abroad you need guardian permission… Even at Qatar University, as a TA [teaching assistant], you need your legal guardian’s permission stating that they don’t mind you going and continuing your studies abroad.” – explains Sanaa.
Naturally, some of the women of Qatar are fortunate enough to receive such consent. But when it does not happen – some decide to run away. This was the case of 21-year-old Noof, who had to steal her father’s phone before leaving and grant herself permission to travel through a government application. Unfortunately – everything came out.
“[I was] only allowed to go to school and back. Anything else [and I] can expect a beating.”
Discrimination also applies to working life. Although the Qatari authorities boast that they have the most equal wages for men and women in the region. Practice proves that some professions are not available for women, and often the consent of the guardian is needed to take up a job for a woman. Even if it’s a prestigious job in the ministry.
“When [you] finished the interview, they give you the agreement letter and you need to get your father’s signature so the paperwork would go up with it. There is a specific point where you need his signature.” – says Lolwa, who was recruited in 2018 to the Ministry of the Environment.
Health – who does a woman’s body belong to?
Medical procedures and the treatment of women in Qatar also do not belong to the sphere of autonomous decisions. This is especially true of gynecological examinations. Medical personnel need the consent of a male caregiver to perform prenatal tests or vaginal ultrasound.
“One time, an ER doctor referred me to the [state] Women’s Hospital for an ultrasound. I was in so much pain he thought my ovary had burst. But they wouldn’t give me a vaginal ultrasound without a marriage license. They refused to actually do a physical on me because I wasn’t married.” says 20-year-old Dana.
Interestingly, the same treatment is also applied to unmarried women from other countries.
“I was having these contractions and blood clots come out the size of your palm. But because of all the obstacles you go through you kind of give up.” – reports 33-year-old Nadine, a British resident of Qatar.
Are married women better off? Not necessarily. Especially when the man is not around.
“I was in the emergency department [at the Women’s Hospital] and a Filipino woman in front of me, her water broke, they told her «You can’t come through, tell your husband to come here with documents».” – tells Nadine who witnessed the situation. She added that the Filipina did not have a phone with her, so she was sent to look for her husband in front of the hospital.
What about abortion then? It is only legal in two cases. The first is a direct threat to the mother’s life. The second – serious and incurable malformations of the fetus or mental retardation. In the second case, an abortion can only be performed if both parents give their consent. But this is not the end of the difficulties – a referral for an abortion has to be issued by a 3-person medical comission. Then abortion can be performed only in a government hospital.
What can we learn from the example of Qatar?
Almost all of the interviewed women admitted to having mental problems – depression, auto-aggression, and suicidal thoughts. Several of them told about their friends who had tried to kill themselves. It is a clear signal that depriving women of their basic rights does not increase their security – as they like to justify such actions.
However, something positive can be seen – Women of Qatar started talking about it. Their testimonies proved extremely inconvenient for the authorities, which of course criticized the report. However, the women are convinced that it is high time to break the silence. With the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, the world is increasingly looking at human rights in Qatar. This is an opportunity that women can seize to exert pressure. Establishing the first Qatar organizations to uphold women’s rights could also be a huge step forward.
Guardianship law in Qatar leads to family tragedies, undermines gender equality, forces women to remain in violent relationships and deprives them of the right to full medical care. This is a warning to other countries – the consequences of enslaving women are irreversible and severe. Fortunately, the silence of the victims does not last forever.
- Maya Oppenheim, The Independent, Women need permission from male guardians to marry ‘or get basic reproductive healthcare in Qatar’,
- Human Rights Watch, Report: “Everything I Have to Do is Tied to a Man”. Women and Qatar’s Male Guardianship Rules,
- UNICEF, QATAR. MENA Gender Equality Profile. Status of Girls and Women in the. Middle East and North Africa,
- Harrie Grant, The Guardian, ‘We’re treated as children,’ Qatari women tell rights group,
- Asmahan Qarjouli, Doha News, HRW women in Qatar report: Between laws and patriarchy,
- Areeb Ullah, Middle East Eye, Qatar: Discrimination suffered by women laid bare in new report,
- Middle East Monitor, Qatar rejects HRW report on women’s rights, freedom.
Anna Słania – national and international security expert, journalist. Interested in the issues of contemporary armed conflicts, terrorism and humanitarianism in international relations. Works in the field of peace journalism. Member of the Salam Lab team.