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February 24, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9194

Yemeni Women's Rights Activist Nada Al-Ahdal's Participation In Qatari Conference On Marriage Sparks Uproar

February 24, 2021
Qatar, Yemen | Special Dispatch No. 9194

In Qatar, there was a public uproar after an invitation was extended to Yemeni human and women's rights activist Nada Al-Ahdal to participate in an online conference on marriage. The conference, which is taking place February 23-25, is held by the Doha International Family Institute (DIFI), which is subordinate to the Qatari Ministry of Education, Science, and Societal Development. The institute is headed by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the mother of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamed Aal Thani.[1]

Ms. Al-Ahdal made headlines in 2013, when she was 11, after she ran away from home to escape being forced into marriage; the video she made about her plight went viral after MEMRI translated it and subtitled it in English.

To view the 2013 clip of Ms. Al-Ahdal on MEMRI TV, click here or below:

Today, Ms. Al-Ahdal heads the Nada Foundation for the protection of Yemeni children,[2] and is active on social media promoting awareness of child marriage and gender equality. She is vocal in her criticism of religious extremism and violation of women's and children's rights in the name of Islam and has often challenged the norms of Islamic society and provoked Islamic sensitivities, for instance by encouraging women to take off the hijab and even rewording Quranic verses to make them compatible with the principles of gender equality.[3]  


Emblem of the conference on the DIFI website (Difi.org.qa/events/marriage-formation-and-constituents-of-stability)

Ms. Al-Ahdal's invitation to participate in the conference infuriated many Qataris, due both to her feminist views and to her August 2020 criticism of Qatar for deporting a Yemeni woman who had fled with her son from her violent husband. She had written at the time: "Oh Qatar, this is the act of a gang, not a state."[4] A Twitter hashtag "No to Nada Al-Ahdal and others like her" went viral, and was appended to many messages attacking both her and the conference organizers and calling to disinvite her because her views offended Islam and the values of Qatari society. One tweet, by Sheikha Maryam Aal Thani, a member of Qatar's royal family, accused Ms. Al-Ahdal of "denying the words of Allah."

Articles in the Qatari government press stated that Ms. Al-Adhal's participation in the conference constituted a danger to the Qatari family, and that there must be no tolerance for those who undermine the values of the local society.

Even the Qatari parliament addressed the issue; in a February 15 online session it stressed "the importance of preserving the values, principles and morals of Qatari society" and called for respecting them when inviting figures to speak at social and cultural conferences.

In response to the uproar over her participation in the conference, Ms. Al-Ahdal posted a video on her YouTube channel in which she clarified her anti-patriarchal views and her critical perspective on the Quran. She apologized for her August 2020 tweet, stating that she had not meant to criticize the Qatari state but only those who abused their influence in the state to behave like a gang.[5] 


From the video posted by Al-Ahdal on her YouTube channel

The Doha International Family Institute did not respond to the uproar sparked by Ms. Al-Ahdal's invitation and held the conference as planned. However, apparently due to pressure, it did try to downplay her participation by removing her from the list of main speakers and relegating her name and photo to a less conspicuous place in its web pages on the conference. The only response by anyone close to DIFI came from Amal bint 'Abd Al-Latif Al-Manna'i, director of the Qatar Foundation for Social Work, which was also founded by the mother of the Qatari Emir and has collaborated with the DIFI since 2015. She defended the decision to include  Ms. Al-Ahdal in the conference, saying that while she herself disagrees with her views, it is important to provide a platform for different opinions.

This report reviews responses in Qatar to Ms. Al-Adhal's participation in the DIFI conference.

Qatari Journalists, Regime Associates: Nada Al-Ahdal's Inclusion In The Conferences Is A Provocation Against Our Religion And Homeland

As stated, the extension of an invitation to Ms. Al-Ahdal to participate in the DIFI conference on marriage sparked an uproar on social media. 'Abdallah Al-Mulla, a columnist for the Qatari daily Al-Arab, tweeted: "What horror!! The teenage feminist Nada Al-Ahdal is the main speaker at the conference of the Doha International Family Institute!! And she is supposed to speak on the topic of marriage! What kind of families do you propose to [promote] by inviting this woman, who disparages the principles of Islam and the Quran and accuses Qatar of being a country of gangs?!"[6]

Sheikha Maryam Aal Thani, a member of Qatar's royal family, tweeted: "Some have defended those who invited Nada Al-Ahdal by saying that Qatar supports pluralism of opinion, but I do not see this as  any kind of justification! True, freedom of debate and expression are a solid right granted to all, but there are principles that undermine the faith and must not be debated! Is it reasonable to debate with someone who questions the faith and denies the words of Allah? Where are you leading this generation?[7]

Journalist Mubarak Al-Shahwani, a columnist for the Al-Sharq daily, tweeted: "We are still waiting for those who invited [Al-Ahdal] to cancel the invitation and to explain [their action] and apologize for it. We will not remain silent in the face of this provocation against us [and against] our religion and homeland, you can be sure of that. #No to Nada Al-Ahdal and others like her."[8]

Qatari Parliament Calls For Protecting Fundamental Values And Principles Of Qatari Society

Following the hubbub on social media, the Qatari parliament addressed the matter as well. In its February 15 weekly online session, it "stressed the importance of preserving the values, principles and morals of Qatari society" and presented the government with a series of recommendations for achieving this aim. These included a recommendation to "formulate a strategic national plan for social security, with a vision, objectives, rules and principles aimed at ensuring the construction of a strong society that adheres to its faith and is proud of its values and moral standards." The parliament also called to "monitor the [infiltration of] foreign ideas into [our] society and identify suitable means for families and society to confront them, while increasing parents' awareness of the importance of their educational role and empowering civil society organizations to spread healthy ideas that conform to the Islamic shar'ia and to our traditions and customs... Implicitly referring to the issue of Ms. Al-Ahdal, it also called "to preserve the values, principles and pillars of Qatari society when inviting [figures] to participate in local social and cultural conferences."[9]   

Qatari Journalist: Ms. Al-Ahdal's Participation In The Conference Is A Danger To Our Families And Society

As stated, the Qatari government press also harshly criticized Ms. Al-Ahdal and her participation in the conference. Al-Sharq columnist Jaber Muhammad Al-Marri wrote on February 16 under the headline "Do Not Harm the Family": "We were surprised.. that [Nada Al-Ahdal] was invited to participate in the conference dealing with the noble values and correct basis for successful marriage. The [conference] organizers see her as a pioneer of family reform and an expert on the problem of 'child brides,' [but] many [others] are aware of the great flaw in the faith and thinking of this guest, whom the organizers insist on having as a key speaker.

"This is not slander, for there are recorded video statements and tweets in which she speaks bombastically and insults the religion. She urges our sisters and daughters to rebel against what she equates with slavery and [what she derisively] refers to as submission to religion and its commandments, and to defy their parents and family for the sake of what she touts as freedom, by [removing] their hijab or violating the principles of our monotheistic faith that respects and exalts women and makes them purer than the women of any other nation.

"This guest's radical statements do not stop there. She has also insulted Qatar on social media and made false accusations against it without apologizing. I ask those [who invited her to the conference]: ... Is it possible that you are not familiar with her resume, her beliefs, her thinking, and her approach, [and for that reason invited her] to speak before Qatari families and all members of Qatari society? Are there no other women with sufficient knowledge and experience in the field, with unblemished records and intact faith, unlike this guest who abhors the correct laws of the shari'a that protect our daughters from blemish and harm?

"This speaker's presence at the conference is a danger to Qatari families and society, who have no need for her as long as she continues to preach corruption… Do not turn three-penny celebrities into role models."[10]


Cartoon published in Qatari daily in the context of the uproar over Al-Ahdal's invitation to the conference: The battered man's friend asks: "Why do you let them hurt you?" He replies: "On the contrary, I must be open and accept the opinion of the other" (Al-Watan, Qatar, February 16, 2021)

Qatari Journalist: No Tolerance For Those Trying To Undermine The Values Of Qatari Society

Another Al-Sharq columnist, Ibtisam Al-Sa'd, praised the recommendations issued by the Qatari parliament, especially its call to respect the values and identity of Qatari society when inviting figures to speak at conferences. Hinting at Ms. Al-Ahdal, she called for no tolerance for those trying to harm Qatar and its society: "The recommendations issued by parliament included issues and articles that will be a compass for Qatari society, [pointing it to] safety. A tiny handful of people are trying to undermine the identity [of this society] and to disparage its values by Westernizing it and expunging its religious and moral characteristics. But this traditional society repeatedly insists on declaring that these values are strong and well-established.

"The parliament's recommendations determined that it is vital to preserve the values, principles and pillars of Qatari society when inviting figures to participate in local social and cultural conferences. This is a reference to the uproar sparked in Qatar after [certain] figures who have blatantly and shamelessly offended Qatar's leadership, its government and its people  were invited to participate in sports and social events held in Qatar…No tolerance should be shown to those who try to harm [Qatar]..."[11]

Director Of Qatari Organization Close To DIFI: Nothing Wrong With Ms. Al-Ahdal's Participation In Conference

Amal bint 'Abd Al-Latif Al-Manna'i, director of the Qatar Foundation for Social Work, which was founded by Sheikha Moza, the mother of the Qatari Emir, and has been cooperating with DIFI since 2015,[12]  also criticized Ms. Al-Ahdal's views, but added that there is nothing wrong with inviting her to speak at the conference, since different opinions should be heard. She wrote: "I closely followed the Twitter debate about the invitation of Nada Al-Ahdal to participate in the conference.. After examining the structure and objectives of the conference, I looked up the invited [speaker] Nada on social media and on other forums where she has spoken. In defending her views on child marriage, she relies mainly on her own experience that turned her into a feminist leading a rebellion against men. Sadly, in defending her views she lost her message, departed from the customs and traditions of her [society], and was dragged into [debating] core issues of the religion out of ignorance and without  reason or in-depth knowledge...

"[But] as for inviting her to participate in the conference, there is nothing wrong with it, for in Qatar we are accustomed to inviting many [speakers] from different religions, beliefs, sects, cultures and societies. We believe in open dialogue, in listening to every opinion and in holding rational dialogue that may reinforce the conviction of those who are [already] convinced and make up the mind of the undecided.  Our Qatari society has principles that have frequently been stressed by [the Emir] Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad...

"Inviting [Ms. Al-Ahdal] to participate in the conference is a good opportunity for her and for all the participants, and more importantly, [serves] the conference, its goals and its conclusions, for open debate and polemic - claim versus claim - is preferable to exclusion and evasion..."[13]

On Website, DIFI Removes Ms. Al-Ahdal From List Of Main Speakers

As stated, the  Doha International Family Institute did not respond to the media uproar and held the conference as planned, with Ms. Al-Ahdal's participation, although it apparently did try to downplay her presence by removing her from the list of the main speakers at the conference (see images below).[14]


Al-Adhal (second from left in the bottom row) was originally included in the list of the conference's main speakers, but was later removed from this list, as apparent in the image below:

 

[1] The online conference, held in cooperation with the Arab League, is titled "Marriage  Formation and Constituents of Stability," and features marriage experts, sociologists and representatives from NGOs from all over the world. The topics include legal marriage age, foundations for happy marriage, social and economic challenges for marriage, marriages in conflict zones and during the pandemic, and so on. Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), February 13, 2021.

[3] See, e.g., Twitter.com/nadalahdal, October 14, 2020, October 15, 2020, February 14, 2021; Twitter.com/3omri_Qtr, February 14, 2021.

[4] Twitter.com/nadalahdal, August 12, 2020.

[5] Nada Al-Ahdal's YouTube channel, February 14, 2021; arabic.cnn.com, February 14, 2021.

[6] Twitter.com/almullah543, February 12, 2021.

[7] Twitter.com/ALThani_M, February 13, 2021.

[8] Twitter.com/Mubarak_197844, February 18, 2021.

[9] Al-Sharq (Qatar), February 16, 2021.

[10] Al-Sharq (Qatar), February 16, 2021.

[11] Al-Sharq (Qatar), February 17, 2021.

[12] Al-Arab (Qatar), August 10, 2015.

[13] Twitter.com/AaaaQatar, February 13, 2021.

[14] Event.difi.org.qa, February 23, 2021.

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