The State of Qatar issued an apology for forced genital examinations on female passengers traveling from Doha to Sydney on October 2, 2020. After being pressured by Australian government, Qatar’s authorities started an investigation.
13 Australian women on Qatar Airways Flight 908 were forced to disembark the aircraft and brought to two ambulances where an invasive check was carried out. The incident happened after a premature baby was discovered in the terminal bathroom of Hamad International Airport (HIA), Qatar earlier that day.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that on the same day female passengers from 10 other planes were also checked, though it was not clear if all of them were invasively searched.
The Qatari government could not explain why officials decided to perform a vaginal examination on women. Human rights activists equal these actions to sexual assault.
Qatar’s Government Communications Office stated that the newborn was a girl. It was found wrapped in a plastic bag and hidden behind a trash bin. The officials rescued the baby and tried to find its parents immediately.
“While the aim of the urgently decided search was to prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping, the state of Qatar regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveler caused by this action,” the government said in a statement.
Qatar is a small, energy-rich country on the Arabian Peninsula as well as a major hub for East-West travel. It is a conservative monarchy where sex and childbirth outside marriage are punishable by jail even if a pregnancy is the result of rape. Women in the past tried to abandon their babies to avoid prison.
Hospitals are required to report women pregnant outside of wedlock to the authorities. Abortion is also criminalized unless a woman has a permission from her husband.
After the incident at the airport, Human Rights Watch demanded Qatar to start reforms to protect women. Especially to decriminalize childbirth outside of marriage.
“Qatar should prohibit forced gynecological exams and investigate and bring to account any individuals who authorized any demeaning treatment. It should also decriminalize sex outside of wedlock”, wrote Human Rights Watch.