Women in Qatar, a lifetime spent asking for “permission” and the “male protection system”

Studying abroad, getting married, working in public positions, traveling: these are some of the areas in a woman’s life where a man’s approval is needed. Women cannot act as primarily responsible for their children, even when they obtain legal custody following a possible divorce. It is called the “male protection system” and is in force in most Muslim-culture-centered countries, including Qatar. 

So many duties for women, too many rights for men

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports: “Women in Qatar have overcome many barriers and made significant progress in many fields. However, they still have to suffer from an oppressive system that prevents them from living independent, full lives,” says Rothna Begum, a researcher on women’s rights at HRW. “The male guardianship system encourages violence and abuse and leaves women with very few opportunities to escape an oppressive family or husband.” 

According to the law, a woman in Qatar must have the permission of a male guardian to marry, regardless of age or previous marital situations. As a married woman, she can be accused of “disobedience” if she does not obtain her husband’s permission for activities such as travel, work or if she refuses to have sex without a “legitimate” reason. To access specific treatments, particularly related to reproductive health, such as pap tests, gynecological check-ups, and prenatal visits, women must certify that they are married. The husband’s consent is required for abortion and sterilization as well.

A woman cannot be primarily responsible for her children. She cannot decide on their papers, finances, or travel, and sometimes not even on the school they will attend or the medical treatment they will have to receive. Many women have reported severe abuses of power by their husbands. “If you leave me, I will prevent our four children from traveling with you and enroll them in a different school”- a 44-year-old woman reported her husband’s threats – “I left him, and he did it.” 

Many remain in abusive relationships or do not remarry to avoid blackmail. If there is no father or a male relative, the state decides for the minors – anyone but a woman.

The abuse of power towards women and their freedom is also reflected in the denial to travel. First, women under the age of 25 must obtain explicit permission from their male guardians. Sometimes, however, even women beyond this age run into prohibitions and difficulties. In 2020, reports HRW, some Qatar airport officers stopped women traveling unaccompanied and insisted they call their guardians to prove it was not an “escape.” Among these, there were also women over the age of 25. In some hotels, women under 30 cannot rent a room alone. They cannot even enter premises that serve alcohol.

“The male guardianship system encourages violence and abuse and leaves women with very few opportunities to escape an oppressive family or husband.”

The male guardianship system exerts pervasive control over women’s lives and has a significant impact on their mental health. The people interviewed talked about states of acute depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts. A 22-year-old woman told HRW how she tried to stay in college residences rather than at home because family restrictions negatively impacted her mental health and college achievement. However, the university staff replied that “this is what families have to do: check where their daughters go, when and why.”


Capital punishment and LGBTQ+ rights in Qatar

The death penalty is practiced in Qatar, and homosexuality is considered – as much as torture, extortion, terrorism, drug trafficking- a crime and can lead to a death sentence.

Sodomy between consenting male adults in Qatar is illegal and subject to a prison sentence of up to five years. The law is silent on sodomy between consenting women. Any civil rights law does not cover sexual orientation and gender identity, and there is no recognition of same-sex marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships.


Giulia Francesca Pressani


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