Opaque rules on male guardianship in Qatar leave women without basic freedoms and dependent on men for permission to marry, travel, pursue higher education or make decisions about their own children, according to a new report.
The report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has analysed for the first time the way the system works in practice stated that women in Qatar are living under a system of “deep discrimination”.
Researchers looked at 27 laws covering work, accommodation and status and found that women must get permission from male “guardians” – fathers, brothers, uncles and husbands – to exercise many basic rights.
Qatari women also cannot be primary carers of their children, even if they are divorced or the children’s father has died. If the child has no male relative to act as guardian, the government takes on this role.
The Qatari government said the accounts in the report are “inaccurate” and do not truly represent the country’s “constitution laws or policies”. In a statement they promised to investigate all the cases mentioned and prosecute anyone who has broken the law.
Women interviewed for the report described how their guardians denied them permission to drive, travel, study, work or marry someone of their own choosing.
Some spoke of how this had affected their mental health, contributing to self-harm, depression, stress and suicidal thoughts.
“Girls are [constantly]in quarantine,” said one woman. “What the whole world experiences now, this is normal life for girls in Qatar.”
Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher at HRW, said the study was driven in part by the need to clarify legislation.
“The government in Qatar don’t want women to know the rules,” she said. “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.”
Even where they led “privileged” lives, guardianship rules leave women treated “as children”, said “Lolwa”, 44, whose father agreed to let her drive when she was 33. “When I am working in my job, I’m the one signing contracts. I am treated like an adult on one side but on the other side, I’m not an adult.”
Human rights in the Gulf state have been the subject of sustained international attention since Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup.
There has been some backlash against gender discrimination, but women find it hard to speak out.
Noof al-Maadeed decided to leave Qatar after years of domestic abuse and restrictions: “[I was] only allowed to go to school and back. Anything else [and I could]expect a beating,” she said.
After Saudi Arabia reformed its own system of male guardianship, some women in Qatar tried to protest against theirs by using an anonymous social media account. Within 24 hours the authorities had shut it down.
Begum said she believed change would come through international pressure, as well as changing attitudes within Qatar.
“I am optimistic because women have been vocal. Women are sick of it, younger women are very frustrated and this is a modern country, women are highly educated in many cases. With the World Cup coming, there will be a lot of focus on rights there, exposure will help.”
In a written response to HRW, the Qatari government disputed the claims and said that women could act as guardians to obtain passports or ID cards for their children, that women did not need permission to accept a scholarship or to work at ministries, government institutions or schools and that guardian approval was also not required for educational field trips at Qatar University. (Source: The Guardian)