Women to sue Qatar for invasive airport body searches, a case highlighting rights concerns ahead of 2022 World Cup

Seven women based in Australia plan to sue the Qatari government and state airline over invasive gynecological searches they were subject to before boarding a flight from Doha — an incident which Qatar apologized for but which their lawyer says highlights ongoing rights concerns ahead of the country hosting the 2022 World Cup.

The lawsuit is intended to “send a message to Qatari authorities that you can’t treat women … in this manner,” the group’s lawyer, Damian Sturzaker from a Sydney-based law firm, said Monday, according to AFP.

Travelers to Qatar “should be aware that, whilst there is a guise of a highly developed, highly modernized airport and national carrier, these events have happened, and there’s nothing preventing them from happening again,” he added.

Qatari authorities said the gynecological searches were triggered by the discovery of a newborn in a trash can in a bathroom. Qatar has made it illegal for women to have sex with each other and give birth without a marriage.

The seven female plaintiffs were among at least 13 women on a Qatar Airlines flight to Sydney that was delayed Oct. 2, 2020, at Hamad International Airport in Doha. Despite the fact that ten flights were held at the airport on the same day, no other passengers initiated legal action.

The women taking legal action, who ranged in age from their early 30s to late 50s, said they were forcibly taken off the plane, strip-searched and invasively examined to determine whether they had recently given birth.

Qatar’s restrictions on female reproductive rights affects citizens, tourists and foreign residents, many of whom are female migrant workers from Asia. If they are found pregnant, they could be imprisoned or lose their work visa. Many of these women often travel to other countries to have children. There are also cases where newborns have been abandoned in the country.

Human rights groups have repeatedly documented how women brought into the country to work in Qatari households through what is known as the region’s kafala, or sponsorship, system frequently fall victim to institutionalized violence, including being forbidden to leave their employer’s home and having no recourse when subject to verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

Rights groups have similarly raised alarms about working conditions for migrant male workers, also largely from Asia, building the venues and other infrastructure for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup soccer competition.

An investigation by the Guardian published in February found that at least 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since December 2010, when Qatar was chosen to host the global sports competition.

Qatari authorities apologized for subjecting female passengers to gynecological searches after the 2020 incident, which sparked global outrage.

At the time, Qatar issued a statement saying that “those responsible for these violations and illegal actions” would be investigated.

Sturzaker said one airport police officer had been fined and sentenced to a six-month suspended prison sentence for overseeing the forced examinations.

State-owned Qatar Airways has denied liability.

But Sturzaker said the women were seeking an unspecified financial compensation from the government, the airline and the airport for the distress and trauma they have endured.

“What they want is first of all compensation for the fact that they were effected at the time and continue to suffer,” Sturzaker said, according to the Associated Press. “They have problems dealing with what was a very traumatic episode.”

The women also want assurances that the airport had entirely banned the practice.

“What they want and have been asking for for quite a long time is that procedures are put in place so that this won’t happen again,” Sturzaker added.

The lawyer said the women are planning to initiate legal action in the New South Wales state Supreme Court within a few weeks.

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