Fifa’s meetings with LGBT charities are just a ‘Band-Aid’ to cover Qatar’s oppression, says Arab LGBT group

One of the only LGBT organisations based in the Gulf region has accused Fifa of putting a “Band-Aid” over Qatar’s treatment of LGBT people by holding meaningless meetings with advocacy groups as a public relations exercise – while privately treating the issues as a “distraction”.

“They talked to us, we had so many different calls, and the last I heard from [Fifa] was more than a year ago – and they never followed up,” one of the founders of Ahwaa told i.

Ahwaa has thousands of members throughout North Africa and the Middle East, providing an online platform where young LGBT people can securely communicate. Due to an increase in threats, the co-founder is unable to disclose her name publicly, but spoke to i to ensure the international community and the wider public understand what’s happening behind the scenes.

“They [Fifa] listened to us, but they didn’t make a single promise that we feel that they kept. And there weren’t a lot of promises to begin with, except that ‘we will continue this conversation’ – and never did,” she said. “It wasn’t an organisational effort, it seemed like a few Fifa people who just wanted to clear their conscience.”

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In the lead up to the World Cup, concern over the Qatari government’s record on LGBT rights has grown internationally as journalists, activists, and NGOs have tried to highlight the scale of abuses in the country.

An investigation by irevealed that the government’s Preventive Security Department hunts gay men and trans women on dating apps, entrapping and luring them to hotel rooms before arresting and deporting them. Some are beaten or raped by officials. Others are imprisoned in solitary confinement. And an investigation by Human Rights Watch documented violence and sexual harassment against LGBT people kept for months in an underground prison in Doha, the capital. Homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment in Qatar with sharia law also allowing for lashings.

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Ahwaa began engaging with Fifa early last year, hoping the World Cup would be an opportunity to improve the situation for LGBT people in Qatar. Initially, the meetings appeared to be held in good faith, Ahwaa’s co-founder told i, with Fifa officials wanting to understand more than just the laws but what life is like for LGBT people in the region.

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“So we told them that the lack of freedoms, about what young people have to go through. We told them about the suicide rates amongst us, because of the isolation. We told them about the platform [Ahwaa] and the personal stories that people were sharing.” But as discussions continued, Ahwaa members grew increasingly disheartened at the lack of progress from Fifa.

“It seemed their attention was really on, ‘let’s protect the LGBT journalists that come to report or the LGBT players, or [fans] who want to put a rainbow flag on just to show sympathy’,” she said. “But those are performative statements, either as a fan or as a player, and the next day, they’re going to leave, and then we’re going to be stuck there with the same issues, and nothing would have happened.”

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Ahwaa tried to explain to Fifa that what would help LGBT people living in Qatar is for the football governing body “to actually try to influence local policies so that by the time you leave, we can hold the government accountable,” she said.

But this began to appear unlikely, partly due to how Fifa officials saw their role within the wider picture. “They said this is much bigger than Fifa. At the end of the day, we’re here to play football.”

This wasn’t the only issue hampering the talks. “It was completely disorganised,” she said. “Every time you’re speaking to somebody completely different who does not understand the context that you’ve already shared in a previous call. And then they’re completely oblivious to what is happening internally.”

Two women stand with a board reading in German "Smooching for Qatar" during a symbolic action by LGBT+ associations in front of the FIFA museum in Zurich on November 8, 2022, to call FIFA to defend the rights of the LGBT+ community ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament that will start on November 20. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
Two women stand with a board reading in German “Smooching for Qatar” during a protest in front of the Fifa museum in Zurich (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty)

Throughout, Fifa gave the impression that someone else within the organisation was always responsible, she said, while trying to reassure Ahwaa that “we’re taking care of this, we have people on this” but without specifying or promising anything.

“They don’t know what they’re doing,” she said. “So it just feels like they’re putting a Band-Aid on this just to be able to tell people: ‘We work directly with local LGBT people, we listened to them, and we set up some measures to try and protect any potential LGBT players or fans.’” But, she added: “And then you leave? What happens to the people who stayed and the people who called on you to make a difference?”

When i asked Fifa what they have done to advance LGBT rights in Qatar a spokesperson said during the World Cup there would be “the enacting of legal provisions allowing for the protection of everyone including LGBTIQ+ individuals, as well as human rights training sessions with public and private security forces, and the training of staff and personnel involved in the delivery of the tournament”. There would also be “in-stadium mechanisms such as the anti-discrimination monitoring system,” and “the implementation of the three-step procedure to address discrimination during a match, as well as the operation of a grievance mechanism,” the spokesperson said.

Developing these measures has involved collaborating with a range of stakeholders, Fifa said, “including organisations promoting LGBTIQ+ rights… Fifa is confident that all necessary measures will be in place for LGBTIQ+ fans and allies to enjoy the tournament in a welcoming and safe environment, just as for everyone else”.

But hopes for any enduring change beyond the tournament, particularly for LGBT people who live in Qatar, are not high.

A memo detailing meetings between Fifa officials and Qatari authorities that was leaked to The Guardian described security forces agreeing to be lenient towards fans but with no mention of the penal code being changed – therefore no permanent progress on LGBT rights after the football ends. On 7 November, Qatar’s World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman told a German TV station that homosexuality is “damage in the mind”.

According to the Ahwaa co-founder, Fifa gave the impression they were meeting with other LGBT groups but when Ahwaa spoke to LGBT organisations about the World Cup “none of them knew what was going on,” she said. “So who else were they talking to? We don’t know.” When asked by i which LGBT organisations they had met, a Fifa spokesperson did not specify.

FILE - FIFA President Gianni Infantino, left, and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani leave the stage before the 2022 soccer World Cup draw at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center in Doha, Qatar, Friday, April 1, 2022. The first World Cup in the Middle East is only one month away. Qatar has been on an often bumpy 12-year journey that has transformed the nation. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)
Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (Credit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Fifa president Gianni Infantino wrote to all 32 participating countries recently telling them to “focus on football” and “do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists”.

“They want to get this event over with, and they don’t want any side distractions,” said Ahwaa’s co-founder. “They do consider this to be a distraction, based on how we were treated. They said: ‘Let us get back to you, and next time let’s talk about recommendations.’” But, she said, “that never happened”.

“Fifa as an organisation fell short,” she said. “Who are we to them? Nothing. There’s no consistency in any promises and any claims that they’ve made. We have not seen a single shred of evidence that they’ve taken our story seriously.”

One of the barriers to change, she said, is a kind of loop in which the suppression of LGBT people is so extreme that the entire community appears almost entirely invisible – and therefore voiceless. “There weren’t enough of us for this to really be a big headache for [Fifa],” she said. “In Qatar, you’ll be lucky to find one or two LGBT people to even speak to the media. Because of that, they [Fifa] feel like: ‘Well, if they’re hiding, we also don’t want to make them uncomfortable by putting them on the spot.’ And they think they’re doing us a favour by that.”

After the World Cup ends, LGBT people remain at risk in Qatar and beyond, with organisations like Ahwaa struggling to protect the community against state persecution, family rejection and social stigmatisation, she said. “We are left to our own devices with no support, with no resources, and with a lot more at stake.”

She called on Western human rights organisations to help. “We need more than a press release, more than just putting a statement out, tweeting a couple of times and then moving on to the next event. They need to start providing grants and opportunities to local homegrown organisations,” she said. These organisations exist with almost no funding and at significant risk to their own safety.

“But we take that risk. And that’s why I’m speaking with you now. I want to see a difference in my community. I want to see that if tomorrow my nieces come out as queer that they have an opportunity to be who they are without shame, and more importantly, without the risk of imprisonment.”

Her immediate predictions are not sunny, however – that change is not coming for LGBT people in Qatar or across the region, whatever the hype around the World Cup. “We are always a footnote in the story,” she said. “We never win.”

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