Reem Al-Haddad is 23 years old, a data scientist, photographer, and a Muslim woman who wears a beautiful teal hijab.
During the World Cup, she and her brother stood in Souq Waqif, Doha’s popular market, with a sign that read: “Ask us anything about Qatar.”
The questions came quickly, in person and then on social media. There were so many that she got her friends to participate, both online and in person, to answer them as well.
“Where do I buy a dress, an abaya, for my wife?”
“Is it true that all Qataris have oil in their backyard?”
“Why do men wearing thobes (white robes) always look angry? Are they sad for their wives?”
“What about polygamy?”
“How about alcohol? Would you like to try it?”
“Why do some women wear masquerades and others don’t?”
“Did you get paid to do this?”
Reem tried to answer them all (and no, she wasn’t paid to do it). And if he didn’t know, he tried to direct people to others who might know more. Their responses are explanations, many beginning “in Islam…” or “in Qatar…” – rather than offering opinion or judgment.
“I feel like a lot of people are curious about a lot of things, but they think we’re not going to respond or it’s going to be weird to come up all of a sudden,” he says softly. “So having a banner really helps people feel that person is welcoming.
“We told them it’s a choice (wearing hijab). Many of them think we’re forced to wear it and we’re oppressed. We told them we wear it because we feel modest wearing it and it makes us feel more protected and female
“I think it’s very important (to answer these kinds of questions) because all the people listening are from parties that haven’t lived here. It’s important to listen to local people, not necessarily Qataris, but people who live here.”
Mehreen Fazal, a British Muslim woman from Wolverhampton who moved to Qatar with her husband and children two years ago, agrees.
“I think it’s incredibly important (to listen to the people who live here),” he says. “We need to emphasize local voices and we need a more realistic picture of the reality on the ground. I think it’s a great opportunity we have for the world to see what Qatar is really about.
“It’s crucial to amplify women’s voices and have women’s perspectives on sport and other issues to help change the narrative or show that women have a vital role to play.”
Reem was 11 when Qatar won the bid for the 2022 World Cup in 2010; old enough to know that “Qatar had won something big”, but not sure what it meant. Over the next 12 years, he became increasingly aware that the country had “the goal of growing up” in time to host the tournament.
“Before the World Cup we don’t hear so many negative things,” he adds. “It was good. But then, right before the World Cup started, we started hearing a lot of things. It was a sudden thing, we never saw it coming. It was strange. We had mixed feelings about it because we definitely felt that everyone was against us. It’s a bad feeling.
“Not many people came. Some of them might not have been able to come, but some might have heard so much bad information from the media or were scared because they felt it was not the right place to go. I hope that perspective will change.”
This is something I also struggled with before going to Qatar to cover the World Cup The Athletic, after telling me what I could expect as a white woman working in a Muslim country with male guardianship rules that mean women need permission to get married or travel, for example. It didn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, to be honest. “Shut up, do what you’re told and you’ll be fine” seemed to be the general message.
But how would I have any idea what it was like if I didn’t go there? And how could I try to hear other women’s perspectives if I did?
We talk about how Japan’s equalizer against Spain looked clearly offside in the stadium, but then the VAR ruled it had not been seen from above.
“See how different viewing angles can have different meanings?” says Reem. “I never expected the perspective to be so extreme.”
Trying to talk to Qatari women was not easy. It is a small place, with only about 380,000 Qatari citizens in a population approaching three million people. Clearly, not all women are as open to conversation as Reem and Meereen, who have been involved in a year-long storytelling project called GOALS.
Groups of women dressed all in black, whether walking along the Corniche, on the subway or in a restaurant, were unfailingly polite, but they didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t want to intrude.
However, many brief conversations took place in women-only spaces such as a nail salon and when washing hands in the women’s restroom.
The phrase “the World Cup is amazing” was frequently used as women in expensive shoes and bags took selfies in the mirrors. Many had attended games with their children and enjoyed the experience.
They wanted to know more about what I had thought of the tournament and whether I had enjoyed my time in Qatar. These questions were tinged with anxiety about how Qatar was perceived around the world and frustration when told that some people were still, at best, conflicted about the whole issue.
The women cleaning those toilets didn’t want to talk beyond where they were from (Bangladesh, Pakistan or the Philippines, usually) and often looked scared when asked “How are you?”
If male migrant workers have been silenced during the tournament, these women are invisible.
So what does a Qatari think of the fans who dressed up in traditional Arab clothes, some in the colors of the countries they support?
Is this embracing a different culture or mocking it?
“It’s really fun to watch them,” says Reem. “My brother goes to them and helps them fix their style. Seeing people curious about our culture…they really want to learn about it and that’s a good thing.”
How does it feel to watch a football match wearing a hijab?
“I felt so comfortable, so welcome, so part of everything,” says Mehreen, who never felt able to attend a game when she lived in Wolverhampton. “It’s been eye-opening. It’s better than I thought it would be.
“In the UK, I just watched matches on TV or what my friends would say about it – this magical place where everyone goes! But I didn’t get that chance. But here, I’ve understood what that magic really means.”
I realize I take it for granted. I had the same feeling when I spoke to Iranian women at the beginning of the tournament; those who take huge risks to watch a football game and do something they can’t do at home.
And I’ve complained about having to enter media areas with a separate line so a security woman can scan my body, or be constantly briefed and told how to cross the road, or watch beyond or ignore from time to time.
I wasn’t particularly concerned about my physical safety (this is a country with a very low crime rate and people leave their houses and cars unlocked all the time), and I felt very safe, even walking around at night. Certainly much safer than London anyway.
Reem shot some footage of Ian Wright, who was in Qatar working as a pundit, on the beach last week. He set everything up, went to take some pictures in a different location, and then found everything back where he left it.
“Ian’s agent said, ‘Is this your stuff?’ You just left them here, for over an hour?’” he says. “Yes! That’s the best thing here.”
The crowds were also very different at Euro 2020, for example. No drinking inside the stadiums was a contributing factor, of course, but the make-up of the fans was also much more diverse, with many women and children in arms and fewer younger men.
The same cannot be said for the press box, however. TV screens and radio stations are full of female talent, but the writing side seems to be getting worse, if nothing else. FIFA did not respond to repeated requests for the percentage of accredited writing journalists who are female or non-binary, but the eye test tells me it would have been in the single digits.
For the women who came, we were largely asked:
“Where are you from?”
“Are you enjoying the World Cup?”
“Are you married?”
(If the answer to the last question was “yes,” the conversation tended to end very quickly and politely.)
I only felt awkward once, when I offered my hand to a Qatari man to whom I was introduced. He took a step back, said “no, no” and then explained in his religion that he didn’t think it was appropriate to shake hands with a woman if we weren’t married.
I said I was sorry if I had offended him and asked him what greeting he would have preferred. A small bow of the head and a hand on my own chest would be better, he said.
He didn’t ask me what I would have preferred.
(Top image: Reem Al-Haddad)