The Persian Gulf state of Qatar says it “regrets” forcing at least 13 women to strip naked before a physician subjected them to non-consensual gynaecological exams to check for signs of recent childbirth. The incident at Doha’s Hamad International Airport (DOH) on October 2 has attracted international condemnation with Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne describing what happened as “grossly disturbing” and “offensive”.
On Wednesday, Qatar’s prime minister and minister of the interior Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani addressed criticism over the incident for the first time, saying a “comprehensive” and “transparent investigation” was now underway.
The statement, that fell short of an apology, said Qatar “regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveller caused by this action.” Al Thani promised to share the results of the investigation with international “partners” as soon as it was complete.
Although the strip searches took place earlier this month, details were only made public when some of the women caught up in the horrifying incident shared their stories with the Australian media.
“On 2nd October 2020, a newborn infant was found in a trash can, concealed in a plastic bag and buried under garbage, at Hamad International Airport (HIA),” a statement from Qatar’s official government media office explained.
“The baby girl was rescued from what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her. The infant is now safe under medical care in Doha,” the statement continued. “This egregious and life-threatening violation of the law triggered an immediate search for the parents”.
Officials said this was the first time a newborn infant has been found in such circumstances and that the “aim of the urgently-decided search was to prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping”.
While it’s known that every single woman onboard Qatar Airways flight QR908 was subjected to a vaginal exam, officials today admitted that other “flights” were also targeted.
Rothna Begum, senior researcher for women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, raised concern about what could cause a new mother to treat their newborn in such a way.
“In Qatar and across the Gulf region, sexual relations outside of wedlock are criminalized, meaning a pregnant woman who is not married, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape, may end up facing arrest and prosecution,” Begum explains.
“Hospitals are required to report women pregnant outside of wedlock to the authorities. Abortion is also criminalized with limited exceptions including that women must have their husband’s consent. Low-paid migrant women, like the more than 100,000 migrant domestic workers, in Qatar are disproportionately impacted by such policies.”
Amnesty International, meanwhile, has called for an independent investigation to get to the bottom of what happened. The condition of the newborn child, Amnesty says, can’t be used as an excuse for violating the human rights of innocent women.
“There must be an independent investigation into the events that took place if we are to ever get a truly transparent account of what occurred and to establish unequivocally who is responsible and hold them to account for this gross breach of these women’s rights,” commented Amnesty International national director for Australia, Sam Klintworth.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that this was not the first time a newborn infant had been found abandoned at DOH.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.