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The Choice Between Tradition and Human Rights: Qatar’s Struggle with LGBTQ+ Rights



By: Meagan McColloch


From the moment it was announced, the 2022 World Cup was destined to be different from other World Cups. For the first time in the tournament’s 92-year history, the event would be held in the Middle East, specifically Qatar. In the past, the World Cup had been held in largely westernized countries. Qatar is a far cry from those westernized countries, as it is a predominantly Muslim country that incorporates Sharia Law into its legislation. Given that the FIFA World Cup has thousands of fans worldwide, it should be no surprise that some fans do not agree with the country’s practices. However, perhaps what sparked the most outrage from fans was the country’s policy on homosexuality. Although members of the LGBTQ community expect to be welcomed to the tournament, homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. Thus, Qatari World Cup officials have been strict with players or attendees wishing to wear LGBTQ regalia to the event, most notably banning players from wearing the LGBTQ armband. The 2022 World Cup marks a pivotal moment where western ideals clash with another country’s traditions, thus raising controversial questions surrounding the importance of maintaining tradition or integrating with western culture.


Qatar’s History Unearthed and The World Cup

The history of Qatar’s struggle to accept members of the LGBTQ community existed long before FIFA announced that Qatar would hold the World Cup in 2016. Homosexuality is illegal in the nation, and Qatar justifies the criminalization of homosexuality under Sharia Law in its 2004 Penal Code. According to NPR, homosexual tendencies between two men are punishable by up to seven years in prison, and men who attempt to “entice” other men could face one to three years in prison. In contrast, lesbian women commonly face forced marriages by their families if suspected of engaging in homosexual acts with another woman. Besides imprisonment and forced marriage, LGBTQ individuals are also subject to conversion therapy and harassment by authorities. In an effort to prevent the spread of homosexuality in the media, Qatar has enacted surveillance on social media sites, which includes television and radio broadcasts. Furthermore, on a list created by the Human Dignity Trust, a London-based legal group that campaigns for LGBTQ rights internationally, Qatar is one of eleven countries where the death penalty is a legal punishment for members of the LGBTQ community. Despite criticism over the years from human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, Qatari officials have made their stance on LGBTQ rights abundantly clear to foreigners. Recently, while interviewing a Qatari ambassador for the World Cup, the ambassador told the German broadcaster that homosexuality is “damage in the mind.”


In light of the World Cup, however, Qatar was quick to point out that everyone is welcome in the country but that “we are a conservative country” and asked for fans “to respect our culture.” Qatar has provided scant details on how it is expected for fans and players “to respect our culture.” In addition, ruling Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani told the U.N. General Assembly that the country would be opening its doors “without discrimination.” Yet, despite reassurances by the Qatari government, specific actions by Qatari World Cup officials have made many fans question the government’s credibility behind those statements. After announcing that players wearing OneLove rainbow armbands in Qatar, a symbol of solidarity with the LGBTQ community, would be penalized, European nations ultimately decided that their captains would not be wearing the armbands. Fans have also reported that Qatari officials attempted to prevent them from entering the stadium as a result of wearing rainbow-themed bucket hats and shirts.


Outside of the event, fans traveling across the country have reported discrimination by native Qataris. Some hotels have barred LGBTQ couples from booking a room in their establishment. Fans carrying or wearing rainbow-themed accessories have also faced discrimination or intimidation in public transportation, with one person described as being physically intimidated by another passenger while on the Doha subway. Even before the World Cup began in November, reports arose of members of the LGBTQ community being arrested and mistreated by Qatari officials, a few of whom had supposedly arrived in the country for the event.


The Reaction from Western Countries

Qatar’s handling of LGBTQ rights during the World Cup has spurred criticism from multiple countries, particularly Western countries. In the United States, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken quickly responded to the ban on LGBTQ armbands. Blinken expressed that the ban on armbands is “concerning,” stating that his concern stems from Qatar’s “restrictions on freedom of expression.” However, this has not prevented the U.S. national team from changing its team badge to include rainbow stripes in support of the LGBTQ community. Gregg Berhalter, head of the U.S. squad, stated that when on the world stage and in a venue such as Qatar, “it is important to bring awareness to these issues.” In the same statement, while Berhalter admitted that Qatar had recently made strides in improving its human rights, he acknowledged that there is still much work to accomplish in the country.


In the United Kingdom, the England squad flew to Doha on a Virgin Atlantic aircraft named “Rain Bow.” Prior to the ban on the rainbow armbands, the England squad had also planned on wearing the armbands. However, Qatar found an unlikely ally in the British government; foreign secretary James Cleverly. A member of the ruling Conservative party, Cleverly, stated that members of the LGBTQ community and supporters “are going to have to make some compromises,” citing the differences between their cultures. Cleverly’s statement drew mass criticism from the British population, including members of parliament. A spokesperson for newly elected British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak countered Cleverly’s suggestion, stating that fans should not be expected to “compromise who they are.” Scottish National Party member Kirsten Oswald called Cleverly’s comments “abhorrent." Meanwhile, Ellie Reeves, a Labor Party member, responded to Cleverly in a tweet that stated, “We should always stand up for equality.”


Meanwhile, Germany’s squad made a statement on their flight out. The message “diversity wins” was displayed across the fuselage of their Lufthansa Airbus A330. Before their game against Japan, German players took it a step further and covered their hands over their mouths, expressing their outrage over not being allowed to support LGBTQ people at the World Cup. German coach Hansi Flick stated that his team delivered “a message… that FIFA is silencing us.”


Days before the first match of the World Cup, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke out, explaining that “sport shouldn’t be politicized.” However, before the rainbow armbands were banned, France’s team captain Hugo Lloris announced they would not be wearing the armbands. When defending his decision, Lloris claimed they would “show respect” to Qatar.


Fans have also taken it upon themselves to protest and speak out against Qatar’s treatment of LGBTQ rights. Some fans have even resorted to boycotting the event entirely. In an interview with NBC, Dario Minken, a German soccer fan, announced that he would not watch a minute of the tournament to show solidarity with LGBTQ people in Qatar. In contrast, some have used the World Cup as an opportunity to raise awareness of Qatar’s treatment of members of the LGBTQ community. Dr. Nasser Mohammed, who grew up in Qatar but now resides in California, claims that the World Cup gave him the opportunity to expose Qatar’s treatment of members of the LGBTQ community. Dr. Mohammed is now an outspoken public advocate for LGBTQ rights in Qatar, and with the spotlight on the country for the World Cup, he has stated that the international community truly needs “to know all of us.”


Historical Examples

It is easy to place the blame on Qatar for its treatment of members of the LGBTQ community. The prevalence of Sharia Law in Qatar’s government is detrimental to LGBTQ people in Qatar, given that Qatari officials justify their treatment of LGBTQ community members with Sharia Law. It is without a doubt that other nations and organizations should be actively looking into Qatar’s complicated history with LGBTQ people and holding the country responsible for its violation of human rights. In the modern world, regardless of tradition, the protection of human rights must be of utmost importance in all countries, as our world has the technology and resources to ensure that all human life is treated equally. A nation can still honor its traditions without threatening the safety of those in its community.


A prime example of honoring traditions while still acknowledging human rights concerns is foot binding, which originated in China and lasted for about ten centuries before becoming a grim reminder of what many Chinese women had to undergo in the past. For centuries, the Chinese considered smaller feet more attractive; thus, many girls desired to get their feet bound. Girls between the ages of four and six would have their feet repeatedly broken whenever their feet grew too large. However, as Western people began to move to China through colonization, Western women, in particular, began to speak out against the practice. Chinese scholars, who had studied in Europe and the United States, agreed with these women, citing the subjugation Chinese women experienced through this practice. Today, the Chinese are still able to celebrate their traditions and culture without the presence of foot binding, from the Lantern Festival to the Chinese New Year. Therefore, Qatar can look to China as an example of a country moving on from a harmful practice, but still retaining and celebrating its cultural identity. Ultimately, Qatar can successfully maintain its culture and continue practicing Islam without subjugating members of the LGBTQ community.


However, as previously hinted, while it is crucial to acknowledge Qatar’s human rights violations and hold them accountable, Qatar is not alone in taking the blame. When considering the World Cup, FIFA is just as responsible as Qatar for the mistreatment of members of the LGBTQ community. According to CNBC, soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with over 5 billion fans. Therefore, it would seem only logical for FIFA to choose a host country accepting people of all backgrounds, given that they have an international audience. While it is too late to change the host country for the World Cup, there are steps that FIFA can take to reflect on its decision and improve from it. Suppose FIFA wishes to gain the trust and support of their fans back, specifically those who identify as LGBTQ. In that case, FIFA must advocate for the community rather than shun them by backing Qatar’s agenda against LGBTQ people. Advocacy could come in the form of allowing fans to wear rainbow-themed clothes or accessories into the stadium, including the rainbow armbands that many players had initially planned on wearing. While FIFA could issue a statement advocating for its support of the LGBTQ community, it is necessary that FIFA acts rather than express its solidarity to show that they are committed to the rights of its fans. Therefore, in the future, FIFA should consider its audience and host the World Cup in a venue that will accept people from all backgrounds. As another way of actively showing solidarity with the LGBTQ community, FIFA should support organizations or individuals advocating for LGBTQ rights in Qatar.


Conclusion

Although Qatar has yet to formally address and remedy the suppression of LGBTQ people in their country, the issue surrounding Qatar and the World Cup raises awareness of a much broader problem: members of the LGBTQ community continue to face discrimination across the world. As a queer person in a Western country in the 21st century, it is easy to forget that there are those of us across the world in our community that do not have the privilege to express our true selves freely. Therefore, it is necessary that we not aid in drowning out their voices but act as an amplifier for their voices. We must help pull them to the surface, and until they are able to free the water that has been forced into their lungs, we must amplify their silent cries. While FIFA should not have been the catalyst that unearthed Qatar’s history of suppressing members of the LGBTQ community, as action should have taken place long before, the Western world is reminded that freedom of expression is a rare commodity outside of their realm of influence. Therefore, if the Western world truly stands for freedom and democracy, they will not silently wait for another 2022 World Cup.


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