A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed for the BBC World Service’s Sportsworld Sunday Debate. The topic of the show was whether countries with strong and controversial political views should be allowed to host major sporting events. The issues discussed included the Sochi Olympics and Russia’s homophobia, but I was interviewed specifically about Qatar and its hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
I gave my perspective and the other interviewees/guests on the show gave theirs. All in all, a normal debate. Except for one tiny, sexist thing. One of the guests pretty much brushed me off and everything I had to say because I was a “young woman.”
Here’s the background:
I spoke briefly about women’s rights and migrant laborer issues in the country. Basically I said that when it comes to women’s rights, Qatar actually has a lot of things going for it. The country has made a lot of progress and women in the country should not be stereotyped and belittled as being unequivocally oppressed across the board here.
In fact, it’s that stereotyping of Gulf and of Middle Eastern women as being weak, oppressed and in need of rescue that particularly upsets my Qatari female students. They criticize Westerners’ ignorance frequently.
That said, like most other countries in the world too, Qatar still has a long way to go to achieve gender equality, and I have written about Qatar’s shortcomings and advancements in this sphere on this blog, in published editorials and professionally. So believe me when I say that I am not trying to sugar coat anything.
But I also believe that Westerners in particular have to be careful about, as Edward Said would put it, Orientalizing the Middle East. We have to avoid “othering” the people of the region and labeling them as inferior and backwards to their Western counterparts. Stereotyping all Middle Eastern women as oppressed is part and parcel of this. And frankly, it’s simply not the case. As I’ve said, there’s a lot of progress being made here and women are really emerging as powerful community leaders, academics, and political activists in the region. Qatar is no exception (read about powerful Qatari women here) and the government is also making a real effort to increase women’s participation in the work force and in sports.
So at least in terms of women’s rights, the country is on the right path.
Migrant laborer rights are a different matter entirely. The Guardian has covered this topic extensively, and no doubt Qatar has a lot of work to do. But does that mean the World Cup should be taken away from Qatar? In my Sportsworld interview I state that the country has gotten a lot of negative publicity on this issue. But I tried to explain that not everyone in Qatar is turning a blind eye to it. I said that there are many Qataris who are also upset about how migrant laborers are exploited here and that they want to see change happen.
My opinion, which I state in my interview, is that by awarding the World Cup to Qatar, the subsequent international attention will only serve to speed up human rights progress in the country. I think the negative attention Qatar has already received for its human rights record is making an impact. So in that sense, I don’t necessarily think taking the World Cup away from the country will help the situation. On the contrary, I think that reversal would actually only isolate Qatar, and then what motivation would officials here have to improve the situation?
In other words, I think major international sporting events have the power to help transform the countries that host them for the better. Maybe that’s not the case for all countries – I don’t know if the Winter Olympics and accompanying international criticism led Russia to become less homophobic (certainly not on the governmental level, but what do we know yet about how it impacted the attitudes of regular citizens?). But at least in terms of migrant laborers’ rights in Qatar, I am more optimistic that the World Cup will. As I said, many Qataris were horrified by the subpar living conditions and health and safety violations that were exposed by the Guardian’s reporting. Will they now be moved to push for quicker and greater change?
And who knows how the World Cup, a venue through which a plethora of ethnicities, nationalities and differing perspectives can meet and interact with one another, may impact locals’ attitudes toward cultural and social issues (hello, soft power!). Perhaps the World Cup will lead to greater open-mindedness here toward some of those more controversial ones.
At the very least it will raise awareness about these important issues, as Juliet Macur argues the Sochi Olympics did in an op-ed for the NY Times:
Similarly, if the Games had not been held here, the uproar about Russia’s antigay law — among other oppressive laws — would not have been heard by so many around the world.
Putin got the Olympics, and his country thrived. A less endearing side of Russia was exposed in the process, which might prove to be the most important success of the Games here.
So this is my personal opinion. Not everyone would agree with me on this and that’s fine. In fact, one of the in-studio guests on the Sportsworld show (I only gave a pre-recorded Skype interview) did disagree with me. And I would be completely fine and respectful of his response if he hadn’t prefaced it by virtually dismissing everything I had to say because of my age and gender.
In his rebuttal, he refers to me as “this young woman” and bizarrely tries to pinpoint my nationality and where exactly I might be from in the United States. I kind of get what he was trying to do; it’s in response to my comment that Westerners have to be wary of stereotyping the Middle East without actually bothering to come here and learn what the actual situation is on the ground (I said this regarding women’s rights in Qatar). But personally I think his rebuttal to me comes off as incoherent and a bit all over the place.
Listen to my interview and his rebuttal here at around 22:40.
Again, I’m fine with him disagreeing with me. That’s the whole point of a debate. But what I don’t appreciate is his dismissal of me as a “young woman.” He said this in spite of the host mentioning that I am a university lecturer and a journalist based in Doha, Qatar. Again, he may disagree with me but there should be some acknowledgement on his part that I am a professional – that I am familiar with the country and region and have more than just superficial knowledge of what is going on in Qatar.
I don’t think he intentionally meant to be sexist, but that’s how it came off. My interview with the show’s producers was about 10 minutes long but they ended up using only a minute of my interview. So I get that some of the context as to what I was saying was lost.
Nevertheless, I question whether he would have made a similar dismissive comment if I had been an American man. Is it my vocal cadence? American guys may have a deeper pitch, but I think both gender’s vocal cadence/tone/sound quality/nuances/flourishings are pretty similar overall.
I also think it’s easy to tell whether an American man is young, middle age or geriatric when he speaks. But would this person have dared to dismiss a nearly 30-year-old male journalist/expert as “this young man?” I think not.