“I felt full of rage, leaving the ambulance … that I didn’t have a stronger voice, that I allowed that to take place, that maybe I didn’t protest enough.”
It is more than a year since the woman The Age has given the name “Sophie” left that ambulance, having been subjected against her will to a grossly invasive physical examination to determine whether she had recently given birth to a baby found abandoned in a bathroom bin in Doha’s Hamad International Airport.
“Sophie” was one of the women hauled off their flights and examined after an abandoned baby was found at the airport. Credit:60 Minutes
At the time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne both expressed outrage. Mr Morrison deployed his “father of daughters” line, which would earn widespread criticism when he used it this year to respond to Brittany Higgins’ allegations of rape in Parliament House.
On Friday the Prime Minister declared himself satisfied with the outcome in the airport case, noting that “there was an investigation, there has been a conviction, and there’s been a significant change to airport processes in Qatar”. Sources within the government pointed to a high-level “confidential report” from the Qatari government.
But what happened on October 2, 2020, was not a matter to be squared away under international relations. It was a violation of the rights and the persons of individuals. As Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch told 60 Minutes reporter Sarah Abo, we still do not know how many women in total, from 10 flights grounded by Qatari authorities, were subjected to this assault. What we do know is that 13 of them were Australian, and seven of those Australians are now preparing to sue for compensation.
The conviction Mr Morrison referred to – a single police officer given a suspended sentence and a $3500 fine – might mean more if these women had been given a transparent and full account of how one officer was responsible (if indeed that is the case) for a series of events which, in the words of Qatari Prime Minister Khalid bin Khalifa al-Thani, “does not represent Qatar’s laws or values”. Instead they have been ignored and told by the state-owned airline on which they were travelling that their claim for mediation “has no merit”.
Qatar is a significant source of trade and investment for Australia, and Canberra doubtless wants to avoid souring relations with a country that only recently provided a crucial channel to Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders as Western militaries evacuated thousands of people from Kabul.
But the treatment of these women is a reminder that the petro-monarchies of the Persian Gulf have become accustomed to sweeping concerns over human rights and corruption under the carpet, confident that their enormous wealth can buy everyone’s acquiescence. After the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi state’s officers, its leaders were soon back at the diplomatic top table. The ruler of Dubai’s behaviour towards his fugitive wife and daughter hasn’t stopped democracies that loudly proclaim their devotion to women’s rights from doing billions in business with him.
For every Australian woman undertaking this legal action and looking for what Sophie calls a “stronger voice”, there are countless citizens of Asian, Arab and African countries subjected to mistreatment and abuse in the Gulf region. But when Qatar hosts the pageantry of the 2022 World Cup or Saudi Arabia buys Newcastle United FC, they do so confident that such events will work what New York Times writer Rory Smith recently called “amnesiac magic”.
It’s up to us, and to the Australian government, not to forget or to accept evasions from Qatar over what happened to these women. The very least they deserve is a thorough public explanation of what went on that night and how such decisions and actions came to be taken. They deserve an apology acknowledging the injury, humiliation and terror they suffered. If Qatar Airways and the Qatari authorities can admit the merit of their claim, it will go some way to making credible their talk of values and a commitment to do better.
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