A woman who escaped to Britain from Qatar after enduring years of alleged domestic abuse has mysteriously vanished after returning to her homeland.
Fears are mounting for the safety of Noof al-Maadeed, 23, who was last heard of four days ago when she spoke of being in danger and receiving threats.
She said in a video posted online: ‘If you do not see any posts from me in the coming days, that means I have been handed over to my family against my will.’
With the situation unclear, one news report claimed yesterday she told police she was subjected to ‘murder attempts’ at the hotel where she was staying in the capital Doha.
Another suggested that she was ‘fine’ but her friends – who posted their concerns on social media alongside the hashtag #WhereisNoof – are deeply sceptical.
They raised the alarm after she suddenly went quiet on Wednesday afternoon and did not respond to messages. There has been nothing from her since.
Fears are mounting for the safety of activist Noof al-Maadeed, 23, (pictured), from Qatar, who was last heard of four days ago when she spoke of being in danger and receiving threats
Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: ‘We do not know her current whereabouts, if she is safe and if she is able to communicate with the outside world.’
She added that Noof’s case is ‘emblematic to many women, who face violence at the hands of their family or threats to their life’.
And she urged the Qatari authorities to ensure that Noof is ‘safe from any form of violence, that she is free to live her life as she wishes – and that she is able to access the outside world’.
Noof sought asylum in the UK in 2019 but returned to Doha two weeks ago after the Qatar authorities apparently gave assurances she would be safe.
Her case, which highlighted discrimination facing women in the authoritarian Gulf state, became a cause celebre two years ago when a video documenting her journey to Britain went viral.
It focused attention on Qatar’s male guardianship system in which women are dependent on men for permission to marry, travel, pursue higher education and access reproductive healthcare.
In March, Noof appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, claiming she suffered constant ‘physical and emotional abuse’ at the hands of ‘some of my family members’. Her freedom of movement was also restricted.
Noof sought asylum in the UK in 2019 after enduring years of alleged domestic abuse but returned to Doha two weeks ago after the Qatar authorities apparently gave assurances she would be safe
Her decision to return to Qatar took many by surprise. In a video she said: ‘I had a normal life in the UK, until that day when I felt I did not belong there, and that I wanted to live in my home country, but there were many difficulties, fears and dangers if I wanted to go back to my country.’ She added: ‘I’m still the same Noof who ran away defending women’s rights.’
Ms Begum said she had heard ‘nothing to verify she is indeed fine… so until we hear from her, we will remain concerned’. She added that Noof normally updated her followers daily on social media. ‘It is very hard for people away from home like this – sometimes people get tricked into coming back to their country,’ she said.
Qatari government rules prohibit unmarried women under 25 from travelling abroad without the permission of their male guardian.
So in November 2019, then aged 21, Noof took her father’s phone and used a government app to process an exit permit. She then climbed out of her bedroom window to go to the airport.
With her permit, she flew first to Ukraine and then to the UK, where she claimed asylum.
A message on Instagram from an anonymous group of women said: ‘Noof is our sister and we are standing together for this vulnerable young woman. She had sent out an online message saying she isn’t safe and there’s been suspicious activities on her online accounts since. The last we heard from her was when she sought refuge with local authorities as she feared for her life.
‘We urge everyone to please keep asking where Noof al-Maadeed is until we are informed she is safe and well.’
In a comprehensive report published earlier this year, Human Rights Watch said opaque rules on male guardianship leave women in Qatar without basic freedoms.
Researchers found that women cannot be primary carers of their children, for instance, even if they are divorced or the children’s father has died. If the child has no male relative to act as guardian, the government takes on this role.
Last week, a British woman abandoned by her Qatari husband told The Mail on Sunday that she is unable to return to the UK with their children because he refuses to give his permission.
Her friends raised the alarm after she went quiet on Wednesday afternoon and did not respond to messages, and posted their concerns on social media with the hashtag #WhereisNoof
The woman, who lives in Doha, said: ‘Society and the law are on his side. It always favours the man, yet he was abusive during our marriage and beat me up for some perceived slight.
‘He hasn’t seen me or the kids for years yet still exerts this power over me. I am trapped here.’
Women told Human Rights Watch how their guardians denied them permission to drive, travel, study, work or marry someone of their own choosing. Some spoke of how this had affected their mental health, contributing to self-harm, depression, stress and suicidal thoughts. Others reported being asked for proof of marriage to access some sexual and reproductive healthcare including antenatal care and smear tests.
After her arrival in Britain, Noof spoke of her life in Doha, saying she was ‘only allowed to go to school and back. Anything else [and I could] expect a beating’.
Of the Human Rights Watch report, Noof said: ‘I was very pleased that someone got actual data of what we were going through because even as a Qatari, we cannot get this much information and see a clear picture.
‘Now that the report is out, I hope that there is some real change and there will be actual help given to women and rights to travel and rights to do everything normally just like we should.’
Human Rights Watch is hopeful that change will come through international pressure, as well as changing attitudes within Qatar.
Ms Begum said: ‘I am optimistic because women have been vocal. Women are sick of it, younger women are very frustrated and this is a modern country.
‘Women are highly educated in many cases. With the World Cup coming, there will be a lot of focus on rights there.’