The Bay of Doha at dusk is one of the favorite meeting points for the multiple cultures that live together this month during the World Cup in Qatar.
When the thermometers mark 30°C in the “winter” of Qatar, families, fans and onlookers gather walking along Al Corniche Avenue, which stretches for seven kilometers on the seafront of the capital.
It is here that the contrast between western visitors and several local families is best appreciated, who observe with some astonishment what is being set up in their country.
There are only 350,000 Qataris in this Muslim state of 3 million people and, among them, a whole spectrum of interpretations of Islamic principles.
There are conservative and traditional families, but also progressive and liberal ones.
The role of women is at the center of this reality full of gray areas.
Along the Corniche, some walk completely covered in black and others simply wear a colorful hijab (veil that covers the head and neck).
But the problems that affect them go far beyond clothing.
In Qatar, there is a system known as female male guarding, which opponents describe as “being underage your whole life”. This system is the basis of many demands for better rights.
In the United Kingdom, the BBC spoke with “Zainab”, a Qatari woman who prefers not to reveal her name despite already living outside the country.
Zainab says certain conservative religious elements within Qatari law have impacted her mental health to the point where she has contemplated suicide.
“For every major decision in life, you need explicit written permission from a male guardian. If you don’t get it, you can’t make that decision, whether it’s enrolling in college, studying abroad, traveling, getting married, or getting divorced” , she says.
However, not all families strictly follow this complex system.
Qatari Shaima Sheriff is the co-founder of Embrace Doha, a cultural association whose aim is to help the country’s large expatriate community and growing number of tourists better understand the country’s culture.
She tells BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language news service, that the guardianship request does not respond to a law in itself, but is based on family norms that depend on how conservative the family is. Sheriff represents the other side of the coin, Qatar’s liberal environment, where women are empowered.
What, then, is the guardianship system?
Eleni Polymenopoulou, professor of law at Bin Khalifa University in Doha, explains to BBC News Mundo that the Constitution of Qatar, as a Muslim country, is guided by Islamic law – or sharia.
“But sharia is a very diverse body of rules, with many schools of thought, some more strict and others more liberal, modern and reformist”, he says.
Article 35, for example, states that all people are equal before the law and that they cannot be discriminated against based on sex, race, language or religion.
In 2019, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an extensive report where it collected dozens of testimonies similar to those of Zainab.
In the same document, the organization describes that male guardianship is not a clear legal system.
“It’s a mix of laws, policies and practices where adult women must obtain permission from their male guardian for specific activities,” says HRW.
That system is a challenge for those who suffer from it because there is no clarity or information about the scope of “these discriminatory laws and administrative requirements”.
The male guardian can be a father, brother, uncle, godfather or husband.
Qatar’s government called HRW’s report inaccurate and said the testimonies described were not in accordance with its laws, but it also promised to investigate the cases and prosecute offenders.
As a teacher of several Qatari law students, Polymenopoulou says, “A lot of women from liberal families can do a lot more things, but then there are others who need their guardian’s permission to go out, for example, and that’s one of the biggest problems. It depends. much of the family.”
“Many of my students always discuss how to change the law, questioning why it works that way, why they are censored and what should be changed. Others are more conservative”, he adds.
BBC News Mundo asked to interview some Polymenopoulou students, but they didn’t get in touch. Interviewing local Qataris is one of the challenges for the press that comes to cover the World Cup.
“A Western Idea”
Having a conservative father meant that Zainab did not lead the life she wanted.
She says that Qatari women whose liberal families don’t restrict them don’t realize how harmful the guardianship system is.
Zainab says this system leaves women to suffer at the hands of controlling family members and that Qatari laws often align with conservative tribal families to keep them content.
“Conservatives believe that women’s rights are a Western idea and that they clash with Islamic values, tradition and culture,” she says.
Zainab asked the BBC not to detail her experience if identified, as this could spell trouble for her family.
World Cup officials say the criticism Qatar receives over this and other issues is not well founded.
A view shared by student Moselle, from Education City in Doha: “We don’t need Western organizations to come and tell us what we can and cannot do.”
“It is our country. We have the opportunity to develop ourselves in the way we believe and not in the way that is dictated to us”, he adds.
The view that there are conservative women who follow and believe in those norms that Westerners see as restrictive is also another facet of this reality.
A Colombian woman who has lived in the country for more than a decade tells BBC Mundo about situations in which conservative Qataris called her attention or restricted her access to certain places because they considered that her clothes were not appropriate.
“The authorities tend to side with them. Conservatives see this as an offense to their values,” she says, asking that her identity not be revealed: “As residents, we shouldn’t talk about this too much.”
When the Qatari government responded to HRW’s report, it said “female empowerment is critical to its vision and success”.
“In Qatar, women occupy prominent roles in all aspects of life, including political and economic decision-making. Qatar leads the region in almost every indicator of gender equality, including the highest force participation rate work for women, equal pay in the government sector, and the highest percentage of women enrolled in university programs”.
It’s the kind of achievement that Shaima Sheriff, who represents a more empowered female constituency, prefers to focus on.
“I think many people have misconceptions that change when they get here. The statistics on women speak for themselves. There are many women with master’s and doctorate degrees even at Ivy League universities (group of the eight best universities in the United States),” she says. she told BBC News Mundo.
“There are incredibly smart women here, and a lot has changed in the last five years. A lot is being done in Qatar to close the gender gap and be more supportive of women. We also have a lot of support for being mothers, which is not always the case in western countries. “, he adds.
Sheriff, who has a degree in archaeology, urges the foreign press and the outside world to look into this too when discussing women’s rights and freedoms in Qatar.
“Of course, not everything here is perfect and we have many things to improve. But we have many empowered women in leadership positions who are putting these issues on the table”, he concludes.
This article was originally published here