Inside courtroom number 12, a woman known only by her first name, Wazilfa, looked small and hunched in her black veil. The three male judges looming over her seemed to grow in size as she sunk further and further into the folds of her abaya, while the charges brought against her were read out one by one in Arabic:
Unmarried illicit sex.
Pregnancy outside of wedlock.
Facilitating trespassing into private premises.
There was murmuring between her lawyer and her Bengali interpreter as they explained the implications of each charge.
If found guilty, Wazilfa would spend up to one year in prison. Because she is Muslim, the sentence would include up to 100 lashings. She claimed to be divorced from her husband in her home country of Bangladesh, but unless she could prove it, she would be charged with adultery and sentenced to death by stoning.
Zina cases like Wazilfa’s are often referred to as “love cases,” a misnomer for the women who fall victim to them.
Based on some interpretations of Islamic legal tradition, zina laws criminalize sex outside of marriage. There are no official statistics on the number of zina cases, but Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that zina laws are applied in varying degrees across most of the Middle East and North Africa.
In Qatar, a small country on the fringes of the Arabian Peninsula, everyone is theoretically subject to the laws. But in practice, pregnancy is used as proof of the crime, and so it’s mostly women like Wazilfa who are prosecuted.
Qatar has one of the highest migrant populations in the world. Over 90% of its two million-plus population are not Qatari nationals. Most men comprise the legions of construction workers racing to prepare the city for the 2022 World Cup. Women primarily work in private homes, shops, groceries, and salons.
They’re all governed by the kafala system, which require permission from an employer to leave home, work, or the country. For domestic workers, days off are rare, passports are often seized, and 60-hour work weeks result in less than a third of the average Qatari salary.
It was in Capital Security in Najma, the police station in a neighborhood in Doha, where I first met Wazilfa, the woman in courtroom number 12. She emerged carrying her baby in her arms, wrapped in a blue blanket and the folds of her sari. Her story came tumbling out in a rush of broken Arabic that my translator pieced together as best she could despite the muffled acoustics from the glass barrier that separated us.
Wazilfa came to work in Qatar as a domestic helper. She had been there for a few months when she met a Bangladeshi man online. They carried on a relationship for almost one year. Fridays, the official day off in Qatar, they would meet in the majelles — a structure separate from the main home where men usually gather to pray or smoke shisha.
“He told me he loved me,” she says. But he disappeared when she told him she was pregnant. When she began to show, her employer turned her over to the authorities. She gave the police her boyfriend’s photo and mobile number, but they could not find him. It seems he had given Wazilfa a fake name.
Qatar is a religiously conservative country with limited opportunities for men and women to mix socially. This compounds the homesickness, boredom, and isolation for domestic workers, and makes meeting online appealing.
In some cases, “boyfriend” is a euphemism for “benefactor” and the relationship functions as an income extender. “Always, we have to look at the context of where these women are coming from and why they do it. Often they live and work in hostile environments where they are treated like slaves,” says Ellene Sana, Executive Director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy in the Philippines.
The number of women like Wazilfa, jailed for zina law violations, isn’t known.
“The world knows very little about women convicted or accused of zina,” Begum says. “The stigma around conviction over sexual relations means that women’s families do not report their stories widely and neither do the women when they return.”
A BBC Arabic investigation in neighboring United Arab Emirates, which also has zina laws and a large population of migrant workers, suggests the number is in the hundreds and that many of those imprisoned are pregnant or victims of rape. Anecdotal evidence suggests Qatar is similar.
A court interpreter present during Wazilfa’s case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that most zina hearings he has seen involve female migrant workers who met their ‘boyfriends’ online. Visits to two jails, a women’s shelter, and a deportation center in Doha showed that it was indeed mostly domestic workers who were detained for zina crimes.
Last June, in a jail outside the Doha city center, I spoke to a 39-year-old Filipino woman who only wanted to be called “V.” She had been in jail for one year but had not yet been sentenced, and it was unclear when she would be released.
By her account, V had gone to the hospital because of profuse bleeding, but the doctors who turned her over to the authorities said she was pregnant and had miscarried. Though she admits that she had an Indian boyfriend she met online, she denies ever being pregnant.
V rattled off a list of other inmates: two Bangladeshi women, two Filipinas, one Kenyan, and one Sri Lankan. With the exception of one Bangladeshi woman who was still pregnant, all the women were in jail with their babies. All were migrant workers.
V and the other inmates likely landed in jail because of a tangle of restrictions that made them more vulnerable to pregnancy and prosecution.
Most women I spoke to didn’t have knowledge of contraception. Even if they did, the purchase requires a day off and a trip to the mall; both require employer permission.
Between the kafala system and zina laws, migrant women are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and are often afraid or unable to report it. Sometimes, women who report it end up being detained, accused of having sex outside marriage.
“It is very hard for domestic workers to report physical or sexual abuse, including rape at the hands of their employer,” says Fabien Goa, who works in migrant rights at Amnesty International. “Her employer has so much control over her movements.”
Abortion is illegal in Qatar, except when the life of the mother is endangered. Even traveling to her home country for an abortion (if it is legal there) is impossible without permission from an employer. For most domestic workers who fall pregnant without the absolution of a wedding ring, all paths lead to jail.
Until recently, domestic workers were not included in Qatari labor laws and had no legal protection. Last August, Qatar finally introduced a domestic worker law that puts limits on working hours and mandates timely release of pay and rest days.
“However, there is still no grievance mechanism for domestic workers to bring complaints and to enforce their rights if they are not respected by their employer. There remains very little recourse for a domestic worker to seek out justice,” says Goa.
Without support navigating the legal system, many women are left to languish in jail until they finish serving their sentence and are deported.
Noel Tolentino of labor rights group Migrante International thinks looking beyond Qatar for solutions is necessary. “Labor-sending countries need to look at the lack of economic opportunities that compel these women to work abroad.”
The next time we saw Wazilfa was in court where her charges were read out in a room full of strangers. She begged us to be at her second hearing where she would enter a plea. Her baby was proof she had committed the crime of zina; she would certainly go to jail. But her lawyer advised her to insist that she is divorced to avoid being found guilty of adultery.
The sentence of death by stoning is hardly, if ever, carried out — fear of international backlash jeopardizing the 2022 World Cup is too great.
But women like Wazilfa, often with their babies, are still fated to languishing in jail.
“When a woman is pregnant, the last place she should be is in detention. What danger can a pregnant woman possibly pose to society?” asks Vani Saraswathi, associate editor and director of projects of Migrant-Rights.org.
I had to leave Qatar but two friends followed Wazilfa’s case. There were a series of postponements of her case until the court went on holiday for Ramadan and we all lost track of Wazilfa.
I still think about her and wonder if she‘s like the other women prosecuted under zina, jailed for having a baby without a husband to show for it.