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After #WhereisNoof, Qatari women question how safe they really are

If a Qatari woman with a public profile can disappear for three months, what happens for those without one?

For nearly three months, Qatari women watched and waited: Where, they asked, was Noof al-Maadeed?

“The rumours came out that she was killed, murdered by her parents. Just the fact that that could happen in our day and age really scared me, and scared a lot of girls,” said Najla*, a 22-year-old recent Qatar University graduate.

“This is my basic right as a citizen - to be assured safety.”

Noof had become a household name in the Gulf country after she secretly took her father's iPhone, accessed a government app and gave herself permission to travel abroad in late 2019. By law, Qatari women under the age of 25 cannot travel without their male guardian's permission.

From the UK where she sought asylum, Noof used social media to speak out about her life under the country’s male guardianship rules and the years of domestic abuse and restrictions she faced, and she offered advice to other Qatari women about how to escape. 

Then, in September 2021, the 23-year-old announced she was returning home after she received assurances from Qatari authorities she would be protected. 

Soon after arriving in Qatar, she tweeted that she had received threats from her family and had told the police. On 13 October, she tweeted she was "a bit more ok". And then she vanished. No tweets, no insta, no tik tok - and she had warned that if she stopped posting on social media, people should worry. 

'Nobody paid attention to her because they said ‘You’re not a professional. You have no right to label your parents'

- Wadha, therapist

Two months later, with Noof still missing from the public eye, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, a Beirut-based nonprofit protecting human rights defenders, said she had been murdered, setting off a feeding frenzy - and alarming Qatari women who had been watching her situation closely, like Wadha*, a therapist in Qatar.

Wadha regularly sees young girls and women, depressed from the control exerted by a husband or a parent, arriving at the psychiatric ward of a hospital where she works. Aside from Noof's supporters, said Wadha, most Qataris hadn’t taken Noof’s call for help seriously until she disappeared.

“She had been telling us multiple times, online, that her parents are mentally ill. Nobody paid attention to her because they said ‘You’re not a professional. You have no right to label your parents,’” she said.

“Now people were concerned suddenly, and I had that in my mind because she kept saying her parents were not stable so she wanted protection.”

Seeing Noof disappear for many Qatari women was a nightmare. Week in, week out, the Qatari government has remained silent as questions piled up. Was Noof in a safe house? Was she in a psychiatric hospital? Where was Noof?

Opaque system

When Human Rights Watch's Rothna Begum first set out to research Qatar’s guardianship system in 2019, she wasn’t sure it would be possible. 

“We've always struggled to find Qataris who would be willing to speak to us. It's a very closed community and it’s not easy to reach out to people,” said the women’s rights researcher.

But one of her motivations was to figure out exactly what the rules were because, even to Qatari women, they remained unclear. This is, she said, by design.

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“It means you can take away a woman's right at any time because it's not set down in the law,” Begum told MEE. “Instead, they, the authorities, grant themselves that discretion to do so at will.” 

Begum spent over a year conducting her research, eventually speaking to 35 Qatari women and chasing down the legal basis of rules that appeared to wield power through rumoured parameters as much as explicit guidance.

“You talk to women and someone will say, ‘No, the law says this or we have a right to do blah blah.’ I’m like, ‘Well, how do you know?’” she said.

The system isn’t a single clear, articulated set of rules, but rather a labyrinth of law, policies and practices which require women to get the permission of a male guardian for activities including having authority over their own children, marrying, travelling abroad, renting apartments and working in certain places. 

The rules are discriminatory, and fuel domestic violence, Begum's report concluded, calling on Qatari authorities to amend laws, rules and practices to reflect that women have an equal legal capacity to men and issue an anti-discrimination law, among other recommendations.

The Qatari government said when the report was published in March 2021 that it was inaccurate in its portrayal of the country's laws and practices related to women. "The accounts mentioned in the report are not aligned with our constitution, laws or policies," a statement said.

Qatari authorities - who declined to comment on the record for this story - would contend that they have made ongoing efforts to tackle domestic abuse, including appointing just weeks after Noof's return Mariam al-Misnad, a new minister of social development and family. Misnad formerly led the Protection & Social Rehabilitation Center (AMAN), a state-run organisation offering abused girls and women support and temporary lodging, and was known to be very active in that role and someone liked by local women during her short tenure.

Women who spoke to MEE acknowledged that AMAN was a place where, on paper, it seems that those trying to escape abuse could go, but that it did not provide substantial enough help to keep those truly vulnerable safe. The therapist said one AMAN advisor told one of her clients who wanted a divorce to try to repair her relationship with her husband and others have said it is difficult to be referred for lodging.

'It means you can take away a woman's right at any time because it's not set down in the law. Instead, they, the authorities, grant themselves that discretion to do so at will'

-  Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch

Broadly, Begum said - and Qatari women MEE spoke to agreed - that the lack of clarity around the system has meant that women often don’t try certain things - say, renting a hotel room to host a party for their girlfriends - because they assume, based on stories they’d heard, that they can’t. 

Other rights are assumed, for instance that it’s possible to take a job at a particular ministry without a father’s permission. But without actually trying, no one knows for sure.

“Not knowing these things means that you can only really know if you actually have that experience. You try something and then you are denied it. Only then do you know,” said Begum.

But even then, grey areas remain. “Is this person just not being nice to you? Or is it the actual law or the rule?” as Begum puts it.

Changes to Qatar’s guardianship laws, too, are also made very quietly. 

Take for example allowing women to drive. In September 2017, Saudi Arabia announced it would permit women to drive without a male relative’s permission on state TV - and with a media event in Washington, DC.

When Qatar lifted the same restriction nearly three years later - and under pressure from Qatari women who pointed to quicker-paced reforms next door - only one article in Arabic covered the change, and it wasn’t mentioned in Qatar’s state news agency.

“They don't want to be seen to be conceding to reforms, whether by Qatari women's demands, or by the international community,” Begum said. “Their main priority is to make sure that their own society is happy with them, first and foremost.”

Baby steps

That society, as described by Qatari women who spoke to MEE, is still very traditional, one in which many believe a woman should be under the protection of her father and then her husband. 

It’s also a very small one: there are an estimated 335,000 Qatari nationals. And it’s a society that talks, compelling fathers, husbands, wives and daughters to continue following those strictly conservative traditions.

'Why are women in their 20s running away? They are seeking refuge in other countries. Why is that? Because they’re not provided safety here in Doha'

- Qatari woman

“People know about everyone and everything,” said Najla, the college graduate.

Meanwhile, some Qataris, particularly those who have studied with foreigners in local international schools or abroad and who are on social media, are increasingly questioning the status quo, even openly online. 

Walking between the conservative and liberal elements of the society is the ruling Al-Thani family which has, until now, maintained its power by largely leaving domestic concerns to be dealt with by families. 

Najla said she sees some positive changes with regard to the guardianship laws, but the pace of reform is slow.

“It's really like baby steps, but it is happening. But if you are not in Qatar and you're not living in it, you don't see that,” she said. “They don’t really want to shock the society. They want to implement change at a really slow pace, but it is happening.”

The rules have impacted Najla's life. She drove for a long time without a licence because her father wouldn’t give her his permission - and then obtained a licence behind his back the minute the requirement for a guardian’s permission was dropped in 2020. She would like to study abroad, but her father also won’t allow it.

She tweeted about Noof’s case and, despite messages from other Qatari women asking if she was scared to be so public with her views, she continued and there haven’t been any consequences so far.

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Some women, she said, don’t seem to mind the guardianship rules. Like a cousin, who seems to be happy enough only allowed to visit family or go to public places with her mother. 

Others, she said, have made implicit deals with their parents in which they are given whatever money can buy in exchange for their willingness to live under restrictions. 

But she said she worries about the lack of choice in all of this, and in particular, for Qatari girls and women who are stuck in abusive situations with nowhere to turn.

There are women who flee Qatar like Noof that we never hear from because they don't go public, she said. Six Qatari women and two girls were granted asylum in the UK last year, according to Home Office records.

“They [Qatari authorities] have to think about this: Why are women in their 20s running away? They are seeking refuge in other countries. Why is that? Because they’re not provided safety here in Doha,” said Najla.

“What can I do if I’m abused? Where can I go? What can I do? You feel like the only thing they can do is actually leave the country which is so sad. It is so disheartening.”

'Their last resort'

That also concerns Wadha, the Qatari therapist, who helps women and young girls when they end up in the psychiatric ward of the hospital, trying to escape. 

“That’s their last resort. Either harming themselves or they just walk into the hospital and they say, ‘I don’t feel good. I don’t like my parents. Can you just admit me?’” she said.

Many have needs that go far beyond therapy. But without long-stay shelters and other resources to help women leave their abusers permanently, the power of therapists and social workers is limited.

'I'm not in a bubble anymore. I'm seeing a lot of things. My parents didn't know, too, and I'm telling my parents: "Look, this is happening in our land. Guys, open your eyes"'

- Qatari therapist

“We can’t really help them, that's the thing. And then they end up in the ward because they want to be next to us, they want to be in the hospital, they want to be away from them,” she said.

“So they end up either trying to run away or they try and do a [suicide] attempt so they can escape from their toxic environment.”

In her outpatient practice, every woman the therapist sees tells her some version of a story about being controlled. One coping mechanism she recommends is setting up a routine.

“Once they know they are controlled, they just stop doing the things they actually like. And they just watch TV, and sit at home,” she said.

Before working as a therapist, Wadha said she never would have believed that this was happening in the country. It’s not covered by the local media and people like Noof, who speak out about their experiences, are considered ill or crazy.

“I'm not in a bubble anymore. I'm seeing a lot of things. My parents didn't know, too, and I'm telling my parents: ‘Look, this is happening in our land. Guys, open your eyes.’ I tell my parents all the time,” she said.

The more she has seen, the more she has felt compelled to speak out. But unlike the graduate student who has tweeted recently without consequence, Wadha said she was interrogated by the country’s Cyber Crime Police after tweets she made about rights issues.

“I didn’t even mention the word Qatar, so I don’t understand what they were trying to do,” she said. The police made her delete the tweets in front of them.

She’s not the only Qatari woman called in by the Cyber Crime Police over tweets. In August 2019, after Saudi Arabia started reforming its guardianship system following pressure from Saudi women’s rights activists, several Qatari women started tweeting from an anonymous account, calling out the state for continuing to impose its guardianship rules.

According to Begum, who noted the incident in her report, the women shut down the account within 24 hours after the Cyber Crime Police called one of them in for interrogation.

The therapist said one of her friends was hauled in over the same account and held for four days in detention.

“I don't see any progress in that,” she said. “Any comment we make, we have to rethink what we tweet now. I have to rethink, ‘Should I post this or should I not post this? Should I put it in my drafts’?”

Stiffled in Doha

Yousra Imran is now free to say what she wants about Qatar, with her byline. In 2020, she published Hijab and Red Lipstick, a young adult novel based on her time living in Qatar between 2003 and 2018.

Imran, who is British and Egyptian, was born and grew up in London, but moved to Qatar when she was 14 and was under the tight control of her father, who was empowered by the country’s guardianship system.

“At home,” Imran wrote last year, “I was constantly threatened by my father who said he would withhold permission for me to go to university or - later on - to work.”

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He cut Imran off from the phone or the internet if she didn’t behave the way he wanted. “And there was nothing I could do about it.”

Like the women the therapist described, Imran said she spent her late teens and most of her 20s “depressed, chronically anxious and feeling incredibly stifled”.

At 22, when Imran wanted to marry a man who her father rejected, he feared that she would leave the country to marry him. So her father took her mental health diagnoses to a Qatari court and used them as justification to have a travel ban imposed on her.

Four years later, when she wanted to attend a fitness training course in Dubai, her father agreed to lift the ban, so a court hearing was held where Imran’s father had to be present to confirm he was on board. And then something unexpected happened: the judge criticised Imran for not wearing a headscarf - “something that had absolutely nothing to do with my case”.

Eventually, at 26, she said she had had enough and moved out of her family’s home, something Imran said would have been inconceivable for her Qatari female friends. She couldn’t rent a room without her father’s permission, so she lived in a friend’s spare room and, with distance, her relationship with her father improved.

Now living in England’s Yorkshire and in her 30s, Imran said she’s tried to put herself in her father’s shoes to understand why he was so controlling. 

“I believe it was the other Arab men he mixed with, and the desire to conform to the social norms and rules in Qatar when it came to family,” she told MEE. “He was doing what was socially preferable and acceptable there.”

For her, watching Noof return to Qatar in October was “absolutely terrifying”. “I’d heard enough stories while at university about young women in the Gulf running away and, upon being found by their families, being killed.”

MEE heard concerns over the killing of women in Qatar several times over the course of reporting this story and asked Begum whether she had found evidence of this during her research. 

She noted two recent killings - a Yemeni woman, Arwa al-Sanea, who was reportedly shot dead in January 2021 by her former husband outside a Doha court after winning custody of her son after a four-year legal battle; and a Qatari woman and her Sudanese husband who were killed in 2018 by her brothers because they married against the family’s wishes.

But she said it was unclear how many had been killed as the cases are not regularly covered by the local media and the incidents that do come to light on social media are ones that happen in public.

'Noof is here'

As it turned out, Noof was not dead. On 9 January, she resurfaced in several videos posted on Twitter. “Noof is here. Noof is alive. Noof did not die,” she said. 

Ten days later, she said she returned to Carnegie Mellon University in Doha where it appears she excelled academically before she fled.

The media frenzy has ended, but many of the questions remain. Where had Noof been? Was she really free? Qatari officials declined to answer questions related to Noof's case, citing privacy concerns.

Najla said she and her relative were seriously considering public actions they could take, offline, before Noof reappeared, and she doesn’t think they would have been alone. 

'I feel like she’s forced to show the country is saving her and protecting her which is all bullshit' 

- Qatari therapist

“If she was actually murdered and that came out to our society, I think that would have actually happened,” she said.

And that’s why, she believes, the government intervened to help Noof. “They knew if something happened to her, it would cause something in public,” she said. “They wanted to keep us calm.”

Overall, she thought it was a good sign that the government encouraged Noof to come home. “They could have just said ‘Stay there’ because that would be easier for them. They wouldn’t have issues with her family.”

The therapist, however, believes that, in the drama around Noof’s disappearance and reappearance, what is forgotten is the system that drove her to escape in the first place.

“I feel like she’s forced to show the country is saving her and protecting her which is all bullshit,” she said. “We all know what trauma she faced. People are trying to polish the trauma that she feels: ‘Oh no, she’s fine now. She has no trouble.’”

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MEE asked the Qatari government specifically to comment on how it responds to the concern that Qatari girls and women experiencing domestic abuse have nowhere to turn for meaningful help in the country. As with MEE's other questions, officials declined to comment on the record.

HRW's Begum said that while Noof’s case was unique and garnered significant online support, her reappearance has ushered in a return to calm over the guardianship system that she has seen before in Qatar; and it will eventually be followed by another uproar - and another calm.

“You will see every now and again women coming out and talking about why they’re being banned from events or why is it that they couldn’t travel,” she said. 

“And then you’ll have other people telling them off…and then trolls will attack them online or they will be reported to cyber security. And some women wouldn’t be reported at all, but just hearing another woman being attacked is enough to scare them.”

Offline and out of the public gaze, however, women in Qatar struggling to escape restrictions and abuse will be asking themselves a new question in the wake of Noof's reappearance: “If this is someone who is so public and she can be disappeared in this way, what protections could any of the rest of us have who are not public?”

*Names of Qatari women interviewed in this story have been changed for their protection.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.