Why has the Qatar women’s national football team not succeeded? My research on women’s football in Qatar might shed some light on the issue. While the Qatar Women’s Sports Committee (QWSC) was set up by royal decree in 2001—with the aim of facilitating and developing women’s sports, along with creating sports awareness among the population—serious sports developments, including the establishment of the women’s national team, can be traced to the period right before or right after the country’s World Cup bid. In 2010, the same year it was announced as the host nation of the FIFA 2022 Men’s World Cup, Qatar launched its women’s national football team. The team first appeared in the 2013 FIFA ranking as no. 112, about as far from the top as possible. Since 2015, the national team has not appeared in the ranking—meaning that the team has not been sufficiently active to be ranked at all.
The lack of success of the Qatar women’s national football team is despite the fact that football is arguably the most popular sport in Qatar among women. In 2016, I interviewed 30 people in Qatar about women’s football, about half of whom was female players. Many expressed their passion for the game, among them a young Qatari woman:
“We used to trespass. On a pitch, with no lights. We would turn on our car lights, so we had some visibility, and we used to invite everyone. And then, when people arrived, we’d separate two teams. (…) I find that people who show up are people who really love it as well. And they wouldn’t mind going through all of this. Because at the end of the day, they just want to play.”
This story underlines that the problem is not a lack of interest, but a lack of opportunities for the women to play “on their own terms”. A major issue for Qatari women wanting to play sports is that of public exposure—either or personal reasons related to modesty, or because of hegemonic social norms. Exposure is not simply a matter of dress, but includes playing sports in front of a non-segregated audience. Playing on a professional team, such as the national team, would require exposure and might not be an option for most Qatari women.
In Education City (EC), an area composed of mostly satellite universities on the outskirts of Doha, Qatari women who play sports expressed dissatisfaction that women’s games were open to male spectators, thus not segregated with reference to local norms on female modesty. As a result, most players on the basketball teams in Education City, for example, were not Qatari nationals. Qatari female students have taken matters into their own hands by establishing their own football league to suit their needs by limiting games and practices to women.
In this case, the barrier to women playing football was not just about social norms or personal beliefs related to exposure but, rather, the lack of opportunities for these women to play on their own terms. If the World Cup organizers want to see the event bring more opportunities for female footballers, then efforts must include organizing games according to the needs of these women and allowing them the space to pay in ways that suit their needs. A good place to start is focusing on semi-professional or community teams, and ensuring safe environments where women feel comfortable.
 Charlotte Lysa, “Qatari Female Footballers: Negotiating Gendered Expectations,” in Sport, Politics, and Society in the Middle East, edited by Tamir Sorek and Danyel Reiche (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
 For a national team to be ranked by FIFA, it needs to have played more than five games against other officially ranked teams during the past eighteen months. When Qatar first made the ranking in 2013, a total of 219 women’s national teams appeared in the ranking.
 Interview with Aljohara, Doha, November 2016.
Article by Charlotte Lysa, postdoctoral research fellow at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo.
Read more about the project here.