Concerns about Noof al-Maadeed’s safety have mounted in recent days due to the campaigner not posting on Twitter since 13 October despite previously sharing regular - often hourly - updates about her situation.
The 23-year-old fled Qatar at the end of 2019 - accusing her family of spending years abusing her, curtailing her movements and beating her. She asked for asylum in Britain, documenting her trip in a TikTok video which went viral.
But the young woman, who lived in the UK for two years, chose to revoke her application for asylum in Britain, after the Gulf country’s government assured her she would be safe if she returned to her homeland.
Ms al-Maadeed, who has over 14,000 Twitter followers, returned to the Qatari capital of Doha on 2 October - claiming she endured threats from her family upon her arrival and reported this to the local police.
Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Independent they are highly worried Ms al-Maadeed is unable to communicate with the outside world.
She added: “It has been a week now and we are still not hearing from her. We don’t know her exact whereabouts. We don’t know if she is being held involuntarily against her will. The authorities clearly know where she is.
“The message from the Qatari authorities is she is not with her family and is safe and fine. She may not be with her family, she may be safe, but we do not think she is okay. She is not free.”
Ms Begum noted the activist, who turned 23 on Tuesday, previously warned her social media followers they should be concerned if they stop hearing from her.
She said: “Within two weeks of her returning, she was receiving threats from her family, her dad turned up at hotel. Her friends are incredibly anxious, very upset, and are feeling guilty watching this happen while not being able to do anything.
“They are angry at the Qatari authorities for failing her. This is potentially a repercussion for her being so public about her abuse.”
Women’s rights in Qatar, the country which will host the football World Cup in 2022, are profoundly clamped down upon, with their day-to-day lives controlled and restricted by men under the country’s stringent guardianship laws.
Ms Begum argued onlookers are seeing Ms al-Maadeed’s case as “emblematic” of many domestic abuse cases in Qatar where the authorities routinely fail women.
“Even if you came back to Qatar with government assurance they will keep you safe, you can find yourself missing and and confined,” she added.
Ms Begum said she thinks the Qatari authorities have confiscated the activist’s phone - warning she should be able to be in contact with her friends and people she trusts.
She argued when women flee family abuse in Qatar, the authorities either try to forcibly reconcile them with their families or restrict their movements. The authorities don’t want women to live independently against their families wishes, she added.
Many Qatari women who have also experienced abuse, violence and coercion from their husbands and family members will be able to relate to Ms al-Maadeed’s story, Ms Begum said. The campaigner raised concerns people will forget Ms al-Maadeed’s plight as the authorities are now pushing the narrative she is safe.
Fatima*, a Qatari woman with knowledge of the case, told The Independent Ms al-Maadeed chose to return home. Ms al-Maadeed felt unsafe before disappearing, Fatima added.
She added: ”Noof was very excited to go back home. She felt like there may be a chance of change in Qatar, maybe with the elections [Qatar held its first Shura Council elections earlier this month in a sign, claimed supporters, of political liberalisation].
“There’s a lot of support coming from older women. It’s good to see the case is going a bit viral, it has happened so many times to women, not just in Qatar, but the region as a whole.
“I see a lot of change but I just wish they wouldn’t shut us up or lock us up if we speak the truth or make trouble”.
The #WhereisNoof hashtag has gained traction on Twitter, with Lina al-Hathloul, the sister of prominent Saudi women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, issuing pleas on Ms Al-Maadeed’s behalf.
The Independent recently reported women in Qatar must get permission from their male guardians to marry, get basic reproductive healthcare, and study overseas on government scholarships. Most women interviewed for the Human Rights Watch report said the rules have exerted a “heavy toll” on their ability to have independent fulfilled lives - with some saying it has contributed to feelings of depression, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Women in Qatar must obtain the permission of a male guardian to marry irrespective of their age and once the woman is married she can be seen as “disobedient” if she does not get her husband’s consent before working, travelling, or if she leaves the house or declines to have sex with him, without having a “legitimate” justification.
While men, on the other, are allowed to be simultaneously married to up to four women without getting consent from their current wife or from a guardian.
Ms al-Maadeed was forced to take her father’s phone to carry out the pre-requisite exit permit needed to leave Qatar to come to the UK.
A representative for the Qatari government has been contacted for comment.
*Name changed to protect her identity
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