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Economy & Labor , Reporter's Notebook , World

Reporter’s Notebook: Migrant women in Qatar’s hotels speak out

by Louise Donovan November 21, 2022

After the hotel guests she was serving verbally abused her, one woman said she sat in the toilet and sobbed. Their words – donkey, monkey, dirty pig – swirled around her mind.

Another woman, from Kenya, said her supervisor at the hotel where she was employed assaulted staff when he became frustrated that they didn’t understand Arabic. 

“In Kenya, we don’t have work,” she explained over the phone when I asked if she felt safe as an employee of the hotel. “You need to eat. You need to work. So if the opportunity comes you’re going there and you just say: ‘God help me.’”

These details didn’t make it into my latest reporting, which shines a spotlight on the issues facing migrant women working in Qatar’s hotels. It’s impossible to fit everything in, but their stories are important and, as often is the case for migrant women in Qatar, left unspoken. 

The brutal treatment of the mostly male migrant workers who built the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, which kicked off over the weekend, has been well documented. Yet rights groups say migrant women’s issues have not been scrutinised in the same way. Their voices have largely been absent from the debate on migrant workers’ rights.

I have written about migrant women working in the Gulf for several years, but this story was particularly difficult to report. I hoped to speak to women about their lives in Qatar, yet few were willing to do so. Time and time again, I received the same reply: they’re too afraid. Several rights groups who also investigated the country’s working conditions told me they faced a similar issue – workers fear retaliation. 

This fear is not unfounded, particularly for women. The country’s penal code criminalizes sex outside of marriage. Police often do not believe women who report sexual violence, says Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. They instead side with men who claim it was consensual, which can lead to the survivor facing charges themselves. 

Begum points to Paola Schietekat, a Mexican woman who alleged she was assaulted in Qatar last year. After reporting the incident to the authorities, instead of receiving support she was charged with the crime of consensual sex. She faced 100 lashings, a seven-year imprisonment and, at one point, said the authorities asked for a virginity test.

A court later dismissed her case, but as an employee of Qatar’s supreme committee, the body in charge of organizing the World Cup, Schietekat was in a relatively privileged position, says Begum. For low-paid women in hotels, things may be harder, she adds.

Five migrant women did eventually feel brave enough to talk to me for my story, published with the Guardian. They were employed at different hotels in Qatar over the last few years and said they faced sexual harassment, physical and verbal abuse. They felt naive, that they had no idea what they’d be facing. Some said they simply didn’t know how to report harassment, as they’d never been told. 

Mostly, they sounded despondent. When they did pluck up the courage to complain, they said very little was done. So they carried on, finding their own ways to survive. Like plastering over their tears with a smile as fragile as their rights in the country. After years, perhaps one of the more than one million visitors to Qatar this month might notice.

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