World Cup hosts Qatar raise the rainbow flag even as LGBT+ community is forced to live a double life

Qatar’s discriminatory policies towards the LGBT+ community are coming under scrutiny as it becomes the first Middle East nation to host the event, writes David Harding

Thursday 12 August 2021 12:31
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<p> Qatar has stated that rainbow flags can be displayed at stadiums during the 2022 World Cup </p>

Qatar has stated that rainbow flags can be displayed at stadiums during the 2022 World Cup

Degree-educated, bi-lingual and with a well-established career at one of the country’s leading companies, Hamad is, to all appearances, the very epitome of modern-day, outward-looking Qatar.

But he harbours a secret, one which he says he has no choice but to keep hidden at all times; Hamad is gay – in a country where homosexuality is illegal.

“I pretend to be straight and tell people I am seeing a girl. I make myself fit into society. I can’t express myself in any way at all,” he tells The Independent from his home in Doha. “I don’t find it safe.”

Jovial and softly spoken, he details how the pretence even went as far as ditching his dreams of studying art and design at university, in case it was seen by some as “feminine”. Instead, he chose to complete an engineering degree which, he says, “I hated but I am fine with – as long as it keeps me away from people’s attention and their attempts to guess my sexuality.”

But the constant strain of living a lie takes its toll: “It is so oppressive.”

Qatar’s discriminatory policies towards its LGBT+ population have become relatively well-known in the run-up to next year’s World Cup, when the exceptionally wealthy Gulf state will notably become the first Middle East nation to host football’s main event.

Same-sex relations are illegal and carry a punishment of several years in jail. A conservative, religious, authoritarian state which applies Sharia law, theoretically Qatar could apply the death penalty for homosexuality, although no such punishment has been recorded.

Qatar is one of almost 70 countries identified worldwide by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), which criminalises consensual same-sex activity.

Hosting the World Cup will be a landmark event and is a huge source of national pride for many in the country. But it has carried a price for Qatar. It has pushed a discreet and guarded society into a largely unflattering global spotlight and prompted fierce criticism of Doha’s human rights record. Mostly, this has centred on workers’ rights, but is slowly turning to other areas.

Construction workers at Qatar’s new al-Bayt Stadium in Doha

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch highlighted the discrimination women face through the male guardianship system, which means women, among other things, need male approval to marry, study or travel until certain ages. And, in the 15 months before the tournament kicks off, it is certain that more attention will be focused on the issue of LGBT+.

Traditionally, the voices raised on this subject have been those in the West, and as the run-up to the World Cup gathers speed, these will no doubt grow louder. But one voice has been conspicuously quiet – that of local gay Qataris.

The Independent has spoken to several local LGBT+ people about their day-to-day lives, about existing in a society where their sexuality is not only a crime, but also clashes against widely-held societal and religious beliefs. Their homosexuality is seen as something worse than a mere transgression against the law; it is a sin.

They tell of an anxious existence, one dominated by the need to keep something as natural as their sexuality hidden for fear of shaming, reprisal, sexual assault or imprisonment from a combination of family members, friends, work colleagues and, ultimately, the police.

They speak of an unjustness that sees homosexuality perceived as something “worse” than other societal transgressions including drinking alcohol, or adultery. Some rail against the “audacity” and “hypocrisy” of the ruling elite for courting leading fashion brands or celebrities who are gay, yet it remains illegal at home.

“All financially privileged people here love to buy from ‘gay brands’. They are brought to life by the gays,” says Hamad. “Qatar supports LGBT products in secret and arrest LGBT out in the open.”

LGBT+ Westerners visiting or working in the country, many on lucrative contracts, who remain silent about the existing prejudice are also criticised.

Society has taught that we should not accept ourselves as being gay because it is abnormal to human nature

‘Jassim', an LGBT+ Qatari

“I look at people who come here to Qatar as if they are window dressing,” says Jassim, another LGBT+ Qatari. “There are rules that apply to us that don’t apply to them. They are not subjected to the same discrimination, prejudice. And they don’t seem to have any gripe or issue with that.”

Jassim describes his life as a “hellscape” and says he has considered committing suicide because of the impact on his mental health.

“Society has taught that we should not accept ourselves as being gay because it is abnormal to human nature,” he says. “We tried to fight these feelings when we were teenagers. We learnt in Islamic classes in school about the consequences of being gay based on Sharia law.”

Those consequences even extend beyond the here and now, he says, as they were taught that gay people would “get the worst places in hell” for their behaviour while alive.

“There are not many understanding people here,” he adds. “You can’t explain what you feel because religion is always the basis of how they think.”

Those people The Independent have spoken to were unanimous in claiming there is no such thing as a gay community within Qatar, more a collection of individuals who closely guard their secret for safety reasons.

“I wish there was [a community] because it’s something I have thought of, to have an inclusive support group system, where it can be easier to feel supported and dating can also be easier,” says Fahad, also a LGBT+ Qatari.

I pretend to be straight and tell people I am seeing a girl. I make myself fit into society. I can’t express myself in any way at all

‘Hamad’, a gay Qatari

Dating apps – Grindr and Tinder are accessible – but appear to have only made life more fraught. Fear of being duped by officers from the Criminal Investigation Department posing as someone else online is high, says Hamad. Ironically, gay foreigners in Qatar (the country’s population is almost 90 per cent foreign) avoid gay locals online for the same reason, says Jassim.

Hamad claims that some gay Qataris have taken to using dating apps for straight people to try and avoid detection, and hopefully find like-minded people doing the same.

Previously they used “safe cafes” to meet, he says, but that also had its dangers. “People heard that government spies went there and pretended they were cafe clients. No one knew for sure why they spied, but gays no longer have safe cafes.”

One area where it is exceptionally difficult to keep their sexuality hidden is the overwhelming societal pressure to get married.

“At my age, I am constantly being bombarded, told and asked if I am married, or told to get married because that is widely accepted as the only legitimate form of being in a partnership or union,” says Jassim. “That’s the only acceptable way, any other form of relationship is illicit, and I am a deviant if I am not married.”

“Lavender” marriages – weddings that conceal the sexual orientation of the bride, groom, or both – take place, but for Hamad this is not an option. “Such weddings happen a lot,” he says. “It’s my belief, I can’t do that.”

Qatar has a problem with homosexuality.

Over the past decade or so, as the country’s profile has risen globally, it has sought to portray itself as a relatively progressive society compared to its neighbours in the Gulf. It has introduced a minimum wage and just last month trumpeted its biggest ever voting reform, with the first elections to the country’s Shura Council later this year.

A British protectorate just 50 years ago, Qatar is now one of the richest states on the planet. Fuelled by phenomenal gas reserves which have utterly transformed the country. Doha is every inch the modern city you would expect, all glass fronted signature towers, 5-star hotels, high-end shopping malls and new buildings. It is a futurescape carved out of the desert.

The illuminated skyline of Doha

But no matter how much modern Qatar glistens, this contemporary country can come into jarring conflict with its traditional self. In August 2016, local English language news website Doha News published a first-person article from a Qatari, Majid, describing his life as a gay man in the Gulf.

The issue was deemed so sensitive that Doha News bosses made sure to press the button to publish only when it knew all its staff were out of the country.

The backlash was immediate. An – ultimately unsuccessful – attempt was made to find Majid. Locals angrily claimed Western values were being imposed on Qatar. A fulminating op-ed in a local Arabic language newspaper compared homosexual acts and animals, talked of Doha News “opening the door of filthy perversion” and railed Qataris to “never remain silent” about this matter. A hashtag, “stop promoters of vice in Qatar” circulated. By the end of 2016, the website was blocked.

A year later, when its powerful neighbours, primarily Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt, began a four-year diplomatic, trade and travel blockade of Qatar, Doha partly responded by emphasising how the actions of its rivals had undermined the human rights of its own citizens, tearing apart those Qataris who had family scattered across the Gulf.

It was true, and was good PR, but leaves Qatar open to accusations it is selective when it comes to emphasising other human rights of its own citizens, such as those who are LGBT+.

The issue remains extremely sensitive. Earlier this year, indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila were scheduled to appear at Northwestern University’s Doha campus but cancelled after an online backlash against the band’s singer who is gay.

For the World Cup, Qatar has consistently said “everyone is welcome” and rainbow flags can be displayed in the eight stadiums. Qatar is a safe country and, no doubt, people will be made to feel welcome in 2022. But this approach has only caused more offence and dismay among gay people within Qatar. The Independent approached the Qatari government for comment on their treatment of the LGBT+ community but has not yet received a response.

Construction work underway at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar

“During the World Cup, they said they would welcome the gays,” says Hamad. “It really makes me angry. Why make it safe during the World Cup and we are here? They should make it safe for everyone all the time here. It’s shameful.”

Jassim agrees: “Temporary and conditional tolerance only to meet the standard of FIFA during the World Cup is hypocritical and disgusting. How come a taboo subject, which is criminalised by religion and law suddenly become tolerable? We are human too and this protection should stay after the World Cup.”

Any protests in the West ahead of the event, however well-meaning, are also problematic and potentially naive. Fahad calls for “more pressure” from the outside to “expose the hypocrisy of the country’s law”. But some opposed to homosexuality view the whole process as an attempt to force outside views on Qatar, and therefore, see gays as “pawns” of the West, says Jassim.

He argues that those who are LGBT+ in Qatar don’t need “Western saviours”, nor seek a gay culture that replicates many around the world. What is needed, he says, is for Qatar to stop treating him and his friends as “walking crimes”, and for legal protection to be put in place.

“Qatar must do more to prevent homophobia, we need to be protected wherever we are.”

All names have been changed.

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