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Qatar: Male guardianship severely restricts women's rights

(Beirut, March 29, 2021) - The discriminatory system of male guardianship in Qatar denies women the right to make numerous important decisions about their lives, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 94-page report, "Everything I Have to Do is Tied to a Man": Women and Qatar’s Male Guardianship Rules analyzes the official rules on male guardianship and how they are implemented in practice. Human Rights Watch found that Qatar women must obtain permission from their male guardians to marry, study abroad on government scholarships, work in many public jobs, travel abroad up to a certain age, and some forms of to receive reproductive health care. The discriminatory system also denies women the right to act as the primary guardian of their children, even if they are divorced and have custody of the children. These restrictions violate the Constitution of Qatar and international law.

"Women in Qatar have overcome some hurdles and made significant advances in areas such as education, but they still have to grapple with state rules on male guardianship that restrict them from living full, productive and independent lives," said Rothna Begum, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Male guardianship strengthens the power and control men have over women's lives and decisions. It can promote or stir up violence and leaves women with few opportunities to escape abuse by their own families and husbands. "

Human Rights Watch's findings are based on a review of 27 laws, as well as various ordinances, guidelines, forms, written communications with the government and 73 interviews, including 50 in-depth interviews with women affected by the guardianship system. Government officials confirmed many of the findings in written communications sent in February and March 2021. Others have been denied by the government, despite clear evidence from Human Rights Watch.

Qatar's laws require women to get permission from a male guardian to marry, regardless of their age or previous marital status. Once a woman is married, she may be considered “disobedient” if she does not seek permission from her husband before starting work, traveling, or leaving the house, or if she refuses to have sex with him without doing so to name a "legitimate" reason. Men can be married to up to four women at the same time without the permission of a guardian or their current wives.

Women cannot act as the primary guardian of their own children at any time. They have no power to make independent decisions about their children's documents, finances, travel, and sometimes schooling and medical care. This also applies if the woman concerned is divorced and a court has awarded her custody of the children, or if the biological father has died. If the child does not have a male relative to act as a guardian, the state assumes this role.

Legal discrimination in relation to divorce and decisions regarding children leaves many women trapped in relationships with violent partners, often waiting years for a divorce. If a woman divorces, she may not be able to remarry for fear of losing custody of her children. She is still dependent on her ex-husband, who remains the legal guardian of the children.

The women surveyed said that their male guardians have banned them from studying abroad or attending mixed-sex universities in Qatar, which limits their study opportunities and future careers. Women indirectly require male guardian permission to receive government grants for higher education. Women reported facing restrictions at the state-run, gender-segregated university of Qatar. Among other things, they needed the permission of their guardian to take a taxi to or from the campus, to live in the dormitory and to take part in excursions as part of their studies.

The government stated in its written response to Human Rights Watch that women can act as guardians to obtain passports or ID cards for their children, and that women do not need permission from their guardians to accept a scholarship or to work in ministries, government institutions, or schools . Nor is a guardian's permission required to take part in the University of Qatar excursions that are part of the academic program. However, Human Rights Watch's research, including interviews and screening of documents, such as requests from schools and employers for guardian permission, contradicts these government claims.

Women in Qatar told Human Rights Watch that they need male guardian permission to work in many government agencies, including government departments and government schools. While there is no law that requires women to have permission from their guardians to work, there is no law that prohibits discrimination against women when they are employed.

Human Rights Watch found that unmarried Qatari women under the age of 25 require permission from their guardians to travel abroad, and that women of any age can be banned from traveling by their husbands or fathers. A lack of transparency about the rules and possible changes for women regarding travel and other issues makes them difficult to contest. In 2020, airport officials stopped several women traveling without a male relative and insisted on calling their male guardians. The women were supposed to prove that they were not “on the run”. The authorities detained both unmarried Qatari women under the age of 25 with valid exit permits and women over the age of 25 for whom no such permits are officially provided.

The women also said that they had to provide proof of marriage in order to have access to various sexual and reproductive health services, such as: B. prenatal care, vaginal ultrasound exams, Pap test and other gynecological checkups. They also needed their husband's approval for some forms of reproductive health care such as sterilization or abortion.

Some hotels do not allow unmarried Qatari women under the age of 30 to stay in their rooms unless they are accompanied by a male relative. In addition, Qatari women are prohibited from participating in various events and from entering places where alcohol is served.

Foreign women in Qatar whose visa depends on their husband or father are also subject to controls similar to male guardianship. Women need permission from the respective man to get their driver's license, work or receive a government scholarship to study in Qatar.

Most of the women surveyed said that the rules severely restrict them from leading an independent life. Some said the system is damaging to their mental health, including self-harm, depression, stress, and suicidal ideation.

Women in Qatar are advocating their rights more and more, especially on the Internet. But laws that restrict freedom of expression and assembly, government intimidation, and online harassment remain a major problem, Human Rights Watch found. There are also no independent women's rights organizations in the country.

The male guardianship rules contradict some of Qatar's own laws that put the end of guardianship at 18 years. In addition, these rules violate the country's constitution and obligations under international human rights law. They also make it difficult for Qatar to achieve its National Vision 2030, which sets the country's long-term goals, including a diversified working population with career opportunities for Qatari women.

"By implementing male guardianship rules, Qatar is abandoning women and falling behind its neighbors, even though it was once a pioneer in some aspects," said Begum. "Qatar should repeal all rules that discriminate against women, make those changes public, pass anti-discrimination law and ensure that women have the opportunity to claim their rights."

Individual descriptions from the report

"Nawal", a 32-year-old Qatari woman said she, a Qatari citizen, had applied to the state marriage committee to marry a foreigner under Qatari law. However, her brother, as her guardian, refused to give his permission. “I needed his written consent and his signature. He felt kind of powerful and refused, ”she said. "We had an argument and he said, 'I'm not going to help you." "

To Qahtan, a 44-year-old Qatar woman said her husband threatened to prevent her four children from traveling with her and to move the children from international schools to state schools if she separated. After leaving him, she said "he did both".

At a hearing in February 2021, she said a judge denied her request to move her son to another school. His reasoning was that he could not interfere with the "God-given right of the father to decide where his child goes to school."

Sanaa ", A 31-year-old woman from Qatar said, “To get a scholarship to study abroad, you need your guardian's permission ... Even at the University of Qatar, as a teaching assistant, you need your guardian's permission, which says he won't do anything opposed to going abroad and continuing your studies there. "

Nayla ", A 24-year-old Qatari teacher described part of her hiring process in 2019 as follows: "I had to get my father's ID and a declaration of consent that he wouldn't mind my accepting this job and working there ... for the Ministry of Education."

Muna ", a 32-year-old woman from Qatar said authorities stopped her at the airport in 2020, saying, "There are new internal government regulations." She said she initially refused to give her father's number and argued, "What you doing is illegal, the law allows me to travel if I am over 25. But they said it was in the best interests of Qatar Domestic Security and in the best interests of Qatar families ... Then I gave them the number and hoped my father would be up, it was midnight and he is 67 ... . We are citizens of this country and we have the right to know what laws are holding us up. "

Dana ", a 20-year-old woman from Qatar said she was forced to lie when she was 18 years old. She said she was married to her boyfriend and left his name and number as this was the only way to get urgent medical care, even though it wasn't about sexual activity. "Once an emergency doctor referred me to the women's clinic for an ultrasound," she said. “I was in so much pain that he thought my ovary had burst. But without a marriage certificate, they didn't want to do a vaginal ultrasound on me. They even refused to examine me regularly because I wasn't married. "

"Nadine", a 33-year-old British woman residing in Qatar said she had had endometriosis since she was 13 but was not diagnosed in Qatar until a few years after she was married. She said health workers would not have allowed her to undergo certain exams, such as a vaginal ultrasound, Pap test, or uterine biopsy, without a marriage certificate. She said, “One suffers in silence. I was in terrible pain. "