December 4, 2002

Qatar's Gay Rights Policy Under Scrutiny

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Renewed concern is arising around the Cornell Weill Medical College-Qatar because of the country’s recent record on lesbian and gay rights.

According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association’s (ILGA) world legal survey, “Article 201 of the Qatari Penal Code punishes sodomy between consenting adults (irrespective of sex) with up to five years of imprisonment.”

Qatar’s sodomy laws hardly make it unique, especially in the Arab world. According to Amnesty International, 83 countries explicitly condemn homosexuality in their criminal codes. 26 of those 83 countries are Muslim. Most convictions in those 26 countries happen in the Sharia courts, which use the Koran, Sunna and Ijma as sources for law.

In the Sharia courts, “Law is not a product of human intelligence and adaptation to changing social needs, but of divine inspiration, which makes it immutable,” according to H.A.R. Gibb in Mohammedanism, An Historical Survey.

What makes Qatar’s laws unique, however, is how they are put into practice. In most countries, foreigners, especially Westerners, are often immune to punitive action based on sexuality. In 1995, while the country’s government was still under Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al-Thani, the father of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, with whom Cornell has been largely negotiating, an American citizen in Qatar was sentenced to receive 90 lashes during a 6-month prison term for “homosexual activity,” according to the U.S. Department of State’s report on human rights practices for 1996. In October of 1997, 36 gay Filipino workers were deported, according to the Manila daily newspaper, Today.

Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin, however, remains confident that the University will be able to protect those students, faculty members and staff of the medical school who may be affected by Qatar’s sodomy laws.

“The Qatari government has agreed to abide by Cornell University’s standards for admissions and the status of students. The criteria for Cornell University medical students are all academic,” she said.

But, one student worried that it is the gesture itself that is important.

“I think it’s outrageous that Cornell would consider opening a school in a place where its students could be arrested for what they do in the privacy of their own bedrooms,” said Jake Lazarus ’05.

Qatar currently has no medical schools of its own, a fact that has consistently been given as one of the important reasons for opening this branch of the medical school. But such arguments are of little comfort to Lazarus.

“If they want access to our education, they can get a student visa and come to Ithaca. Cornell shouldn’t disregard its commitment to inclusiveness and diversity just because they want to make a few quick tuition bucks off rich Arab oilmen sending their sons to med school,” he said.

Martin agreed that the Qatari laws in relation to Cornell’s commitment to diversity was an important issue.

“It’s certainly worth my mentioning it directly to the Board of Trustees,” she said.

Martin also pointed out, however, that there are “a lot of provisions in the agreement [between Cornell and the Qatar Foundation] for protection of people in any emergency situation.”

Archived article by Freda Ready