Qatar and Us: The Violation of Women’s Bodies Has a Long History Among Western Nations

After an abandoned infant was found in an airport bathroom in Doha, Qatar, women passengers were strip-searched and invasively examined to see if they had recently given birth. The practice understandably sparked international outrage. But such searches have a long history around the world, and they continue in so-called Western nations—including the U.S.—to this day. 

Qatar and Us: The Violation of Women's Bodies Has a Long History Among Western Nations
When multiple women underwent invasive physical examinations after a newborn infant was found in the trash in Qatari airport, it was framed as a one-off example of a human rights violation—but the practice is one with a long global history. (Creative Commons)

Last month, upon the discovery of a newborn infant hidden under trash in a public restroom in Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, airport authorities took several female passengers off of their outbound flights and subjected them to invasive physical examinations to determine if one of them was the mother of this abandoned infant.

What made this horrible series of events an international scandal was not the discovery of the infant—that has attracted little interest, as has the ongoing search for the baby’s mother. Instead, most reporting is focused entirely on this outrageous treatment of foreign travelers (outrage now shared by the Qatari government) which has belatedly moved to investigate and prosecute the airport authorities. 

News of this first broke on Oct. 25, when an Australian television station featured an interview with a female nurse subject to one of the physical examinations. Although several women reported details of the incident to the authorities upon their return to Australia, due to COVID-19 restrictions for all incoming travelers, all passengers on the flight were placed into quarantine for 14 days, limiting their ability to follow up on their complaints with the Australian federal authorities.

Even then, the Australian government took its time in lodging a public protest—only doing so after the news broke on national TV. None of the other countries whose citizens were subject to this degrading and offensive treatment have followed suit. 

“Not Something I Have Ever Heard of Occurring in My Life”

Economic considerations, not least among them the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha, have obviously played a role in how governments have responded to this incident. But there are other reasons to reflect further on these sad events.

We need to recognize that this episode is only one performance in a universal drama in which women’s bodies have been and continue to be subject to outrageous treatment. This sad fact is all too often ignored or overlooked. For example, Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, after characterizing the physical exams as “a grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events,” then added: “It is not something I have ever heard of occurring in my life in any context.” These same comments were echoed by a lawyer from Human Rights Watch.

This response has framed the incident in Qatar—specifically the egregiously, invasive non-consensual physical searches of women’s bodies—as an example of Qatari exceptionalism. That is, these responses construct the events as a gross violation of human rights engaged in by a country well out-of-step with so-called Western norms. But such a framing ignores established fact. Such searches have a long history around the world, and they continue in so-called Western nation—including the U.S.—to this day. 

Britain’s “Juries of Matrons”

What those women endured in Qatar was horrifying—but the practice is one with a long global history. From antiquity onward, we know of episodes in which judicial authorities probed female bodies seeking evidence of virginity, recent sexual activity, or pregnancy.

Britain employed the practice for centuries, using juries of matrons—women with experience in childbirth and pregnancy—to physically examine the bodies of women suspected of infanticide, or who claimed pregnancy to avoid a death sentence when convicted of crimes such as theft or homicide. That it was usually women, “matrons” who conducted these examinations, probing these women’s breasts, abdomens and vaginas, made them no less invasive. 

Qatar and Us: The Violation of Women's Bodies Has a Long History Among Western Nations
In medieval England, common law was a male-dominated system—except for the juries of matrons. (Wikimedia Commons)

The practice followed European colonization of the Americas and beyond. Although in some parts of the United States juries of matrons remained in use until the mid-nineteenth century, from the late eighteenth century onward white, male physicians increasingly assumed the role of conducting these same physical exams.

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Indeed, in cases of enslaved women, those same physicians performed experimental procedures to develop modern obstetrical techniques, using the bodies of the enslaved as live specimens for perfecting medical procedures still employed to this day. 

From Buck v. Bell to the Border and Beyond 

This long historical practice of inspecting and violating women’s bodies set the precedent for the ongoing violations of female bodies and reproductive autonomy in the twentieth century.

In 1921, the United States Supreme Court famously ruled in Buck v. Bell that coerced sterilization was legal. The ruling justified the wide ranging extension of state-sponsored sterilization programs across the United States. And although Carrie Buck—the plaintiff in 1921—was white, those programs disproportionately targeted women of color. As historian Johanna Schoen has demonstrated, the programs continued unabated in the United States until the 1970s.

Although a number of states have now ceased and apologized for their state-sponsored sterilization programs, the Supreme Court has never overturned its ruling in Buck v. Bell.

Attitudes informing that ruling, perhaps, explain the forcible sterilization of refugees and migrants alleged to have taken place in recent years. Reports leaked by a whistleblower indicate that for over five years, ICE has subjected women to unnecessary gynecological examinations.

In some cases, ICE authorized partial or full hysterectomies on incarcerated and detained women without providing the women with a rationale for the procedure or an opportunity for them to provide informed consent. Others received Depo-Provera, a birth control shot, unaware that they had received birth control because they had been informed they were receiving shots “for the pain.”

Qatar and Us: The Violation of Women's Bodies Has a Long History Among Western Nations
The February 2014 “Moral March On Raleigh” in North Carolina. (Stephen Melkisethian / Flickr)

These practices, which largely targeted detained women from Latin American countries, echo those conducted on Mexican immigrants in California in the 1970s, and so chillingly detailed in the award-winning documentary, No Mas Bebes, by historian and film producer Virginia Espino. 

What happened in Qatar was horrifying. All who have condemned this incident are justifiably outraged—as Qatari authorities have now acknowledged, ordering the prosecution of those involved and condemning their actions as “wholly inconsistent with Qatar’s culture and values.”

But, tragically, what happened there is not a case of Qatari exceptionalism. It is happening in the United States today and all over the world. And governments should be as outraged at the conduct of the United States and their ongoing invasive and unnecessary inspections of female genitalia as they are at Qatar. We should be too.

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About and

Sara McDougall is associate professor of history at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Felicity Turner is Associate Professor of History at Georgia Southern University. Their co-edited forum "Rethinking the Criminalization of Childbirth: Infanticide in Premodern Europe and the Modern Americas" is coming soon in Law & History Review.