A few weeks in Qatar forced me to unlearn some of my own biases about Muslim women in sport

A recent trip had CBC Sports senior contributor Shireen Ahmed checking herself and her assumptions. She discovered just because she doesn't do it doesn't mean it is a part of a culture that must be overthrown and rebelled against.

Ahmed gained interesting insights speaking with women watching the World Cup

Two women wave a flag at a soccer game
A woman waves a Qatar flag as people gather to watch a live broadcast of the opening match of the World Cup between Qatar and Ecuador at the Corniche of Doha on Nov. 20. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

A week before I was scheduled to leave for Doha to attend the 2022 men's World Cup, I was in the car with my husband and I announced tearfully that I didn't want to go.

It was peak busy time as a university instructor and my other work commitments were in full swing. More importantly, I was reluctant to go to a place that was hosting an event that I loved dearly, but at which I would have to compromise.

The reports about why Qatar was a terrible and fraudulent host were overwhelming. As someone who firmly believes in inclusion in sports and society and not "selective inclusion," I knew that specific communities — namely LGBTIQ2s+ groups — would not feel safe at all and would not attend. There is fair and necessary critique of the abuse and deaths of thousands of labourers, many from the same region of South Asia as my own family.

And there was the issue of women's rights in Qatar and how they faced immeasurable challenges inside and outside the home.

My view of sports is seen through an anti-oppression lens, but how would I be able to do that in Qatar? My husband wisely pointed out that I didn't have to reconcile every single issue at the Tim Hortons drive-thru. I drank my steeped tea with one milk and nodded. 

I landed in Doha exhausted from the flight but also wary. I am a hijab-wearing woman and my plan was to meet a colleague at the airport and go to our accommodations together, but my flight was two hours late. So I took a taxi and chatted with the driver about Doha.

Two women walk past a World Cup soccer poster
Women walk past a World Cup banner in Doha. (Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images)

He was Muslim from Ghana and was soft-spoken and polite. He pointed out neighbourhoods that we passed. I tried to be very nonchalant with my questions but I had about 7,000 of them. I also didn't want to come off as a foreign journalist disingenuously using stories of everyday people as bookmarks or exclamation points in reporting.

We talked about football. We agreed that Uruguay's Luis Suarez should never be forgiven for his handball against Ghana in 2010 and that we wanted more African teams to advance. We agreed that the Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba is one of the greatest soccer players, and that France's Zinedine Zidane was as pure as it gets on the pitch. But he was far more curious about me because I look like I could be a local (minus the Roots sweatpants).

I explained I am a Pakistani-Canadian journalist (with Afghan ancestry) who was in Qatar to watch some matches and do some research for a few projects. He nodded. He told me his wife and kids were "back home." He had been in Doha for almost two years. I asked about the mosques and whether women were permitted to attend. He laughed. I wasn't sure why.

I met up with a very close friend from Canada named Asma, who has been living in Doha for more than 14 years. I told her I intended on going to local mosques as a type of an "aha!" in case I was told I couldn't. 

"Of course, you can go to the mosque," she said with a laugh.

We went to a mall and she told me there were prayer rooms in every public place to accommodate men, women and children. Because thanking God in prayer and buying a new mascara from Sephora are not mutually exclusive. I quietly checked myself. 

Two women watch a soccer game
Two women sit in the stands during a World Cup match between Serbia and Switzerland on Dec. 2. (Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images)

'Comfort of my sofa'

The tournament's opening match match was Qatar against Ecuador. I watched it with a group of friends at the Corniche, a long strip of road with many parks along the waterfront.

I noticed that there were a lot of fans in fans zones, but where were the Qatari women? I didn't see many. Qatar has a population ratio of 25 per cent women to 75 per cent men, but surely some of them were football fans. There were visitors from other nations, but did Qatari women not have the opportunity to watch in public spaces?

I asked Asma why there weren't a lot of women at the public viewings of matches for the World Cup.

"Why go downtown in the chaos?," she said, making it clear she could go to the stadium if she wished. "I am watching from the comfort of my sofa!"

I had never considered that. My daughter was at Square One in Mississauga watching the Canada-Belgium match, I was at the stadium and Asma was at home. All three of those scenarios were excellent. 

I was speaking to my kids about this over a Zoom call and when I told them about this, my kids shook their heads. They are used to me advocating for women, and racialized women in particular, but was it necessary to do this all the time? And without speaking to actual women in Qatar before I flew in from Canada and decided to project my opinions and save everyone? Was this another typical white saviour-esque (read: white feminist) behaviour I complained about and rallied against? Actions that are unfounded and come marinated in exceptionalism and a perception that Western thinking is superior.

I arranged to meet with a young student through a friend at the Qatar Foundation. Malak is 23 years old and had completed her undergraduate studies at the Georgetown University campus located in Education City, an area in Doha. The University of Calgary also has a campus there. Malak was now pursing a degree in public policy. (Malak said 70 per cent of the students in post-secondary institutions based in Doha are young women, which surprised me.)

We sat at a very chic cafe in Katara Cultural Village. Malak was wearing a traditional black abaya (long dress-type or robe) over very smart pants and a blouse. She was raised in Florida but moved with her Moroccan family 14 years ago to Doha.

women watch soccer game on street
Ethiopian women walk around the Corniche promenade in Doha. (Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

Want their own spaces

We talked about the men's World Cup, but I was more interested her way of life. After living in the U.S., did she feel more restricted? Did she play sports? Did she want to play sports? 

Malak is interested in advancing sports for women on her campus. She told me that the usual implementation of sports programs could not just be transplanted from North American or European countries. Muslim and Arab women had specific needs. Some may not want to exercise in front of men. Some might not want to cover fully while exercising (something I understand, which is why I had a women's-only gym membership for years).

Women wanted their own spaces and these women wanted to dictate the terms. So they are building from scratch and telling men what they want. As a very small country, Qatar might be able to shift societal norms more easily and converge with what young women want. And what they want is options and opportunities. Some don't want to cover and they choose not to. Malak has more friends who don't wear abaya, unlike their mothers and aunties. 

Some wish to have women's only spaces. Some want to play sports in public and are fine with men watching. At campuses in Doha there are women's programs for cricket, basketball, volleyball (also co-ed) as well as a memberships in the Global University Sports Association. 

I was listening to Malak and realizing that what she was saying was exactly what I had been fighting for in terms of inclusion for Muslim women in non-Muslim spaces. She is part of a generation of young women building pathways and possibilities for women as well. And the understanding of sports went far beyond intramurals; it is participation and engagement with fields like sports medicine, nutrition, coaching, personal training, disability awareness and so much more. 

There are conversations happening in spaces that we are not privy to in this part of the world. We are not invited to them and so we automatically assume they aren't happening. I am by no means asserting that women do not struggle against violent patriarchy and abuse in Qatar. Of course they do. We fight it everywhere. But the reality is that women in Qatar can access safe abortions and they can't in most of the U.S. It makes one wonder why they are shouting so brazenly from there. 

Had I been co-opted by western feminism? Something I vowed I wouldn't do? Did I assume that any woman who didn't make similar choices as me wasn't as free? Who was I to dictate freedom to someone else? Wasn't that the point of intersectional feminism? To let women make the choices that they want? 

A woman outside a soccer stadium.
A woman arrives at the Stadium 974 ahead of World Cup match. (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

After my return I was thinking about what Asma said to me about safety and that many people don't lock their doors in Qatar. She has lived and traveled all over the world and said she has never felt safer than in Doha. I know that while traveling in London or New York I have felt anxious. My hijab identifies me clearly and sometimes I have felt less than welcome. I didn't feel that way in Doha.

I roamed around alone, to and from museums, and walked through the Corniche to Souq Wakif, a main tourist spot. I stayed on the brightly lit sidewalks and minded my own business while drinking karak chai — the stronger and creamier cousin of my Tim Hortons steeped tea. No one bothered me.

It also made me think about women I met who said Qatar has been a wonderful experience for them as female fans because there hasn't been aggressive and unruly behaviour that is correlated to alcohol consumption, which is restricted in Qatar. The U.K. has reported that alcohol is a connector to incidences of domestic violence during the World Cup. While violence against women is a product of misogyny in society, studies have shown that alcohol exacerbates this. 

I kept thinking about choices that women have and this trip reminded me that I often have to check myself and my own ways of assuming. Just because I don't do it, doesn't mean it is a part of a culture that must be overthrown and rebelled against. A lot of young women watch football with their families and friends. That is their preference. They watch the way they want. It may not be what I am doing, but isn't the point to be engaged in football and in a manner that they deem best for themselves? 

It took some caffeinated beverages for me to make this realization and nudge myself away from thinking that just because those of us in western society don't do it, then there's something wrong with it. That is the exact opposite of empowerment through cultural exchange. 

And to be honest, karak chai is far better. 


Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now