Why Virtue Signaling about #Qatar2022 Won’t Bring Lasting Change

The World Cup in Qatar

It’s four days until kickoff for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the first to be held in the Middle East, the first to happen in November (and not summertime), and the first with female referees.

The awarding of the world’s biggest sports gathering came with lots of controversy, which has gathered steam over the last decade. What about all the poor South Asian laborers paid terribly and working in awful conditions? And in a place where LGBTQ people have no rights – even be jailed? How could FIFIA? How …

All valid and important questions. (I’ll pose some answers below, I promise, which we can debate).

But first, let’s look at the undercurrents of the conversation because they’re equally important to what is being said. There are a lot of people who are taking up these causes – and rightly so. Advocacy is the only way things change.

One example of a brand claiming to be aware of problematic issues in Qatar despite their own contradictory employment practices and relying on inaccurate stats.

In our digital age, however, posting a popular headline can feel like advocacy, when what it has the danger of doing, is undercutting the mission entirely. Because the media is going to mediate, with misinformation, half-truths, and inflammatory images that prey on the undercurrents of this controversial, historic decision. And social media makes it deliciously easy to partake.


In July 2020, there was the black and white selfie campaign going around Instagram and Facebook. Your female friend might have tagged you, saying, “You’re beautiful, and I know it!” It was then your turn to post a humble-brag, millennially-accepted glamour shot and receive dozens of comments on how, indeed, you were beautiful. Somehow this trend was connected to female solidarity, uplifting other women, and tangentially supporting women in Turkey.


If you tugged on this thread, you would find Turkish activists explaining that black and white photos are what Turkish media uses to report the deaths of murdered women in newspapers. And the movement to post black and white selfies was to create awareness with the idea that you, the poster, could be next, in a crime that would likely go unsolved or the assailant unpunished.

If you tugged a little harder, black and white photos were tried as a campaign strategy to raise cancer awareness in the US until it was dropped because the connection between the selfie and the cause was hard to make.

Are the women who posted black-and-white selfies bad people? No. Did they have malicious intent? No. Did the majority of them help further the cause of Turkish women? Also, unfortunately, no.

Keep Your Hair

A more recent example is the women who filmed themselves cutting their hair to support the protestors in Iran. Now, this is a much more complicated situation, so stay with me. The Iranian regime is brutal and has been suppressing its people for decades. Women, in particular, have had their freedoms curtailed, so the death of the twentysomething Mahsa Amini, as a result of beatings received while in custody of the morality police, for not wearing her headscarf properly, sparked national outrage.

Iranian women began taking off their hijab publicly, cutting off their hair publicly, and in general, breaking all the rules around veiling.

For the west, long confused by the hijab, or the Islamic practice of veiling, this was the moment many had been waiting for. Women casting off the veil on their own! Embracing freedom – what would come next – democracy?? For the others, the images just made sense. Who wanted to be told what to wear on their head?

No one. So the current cause of Iranian women was a very easy one to take up for many because it resonated with the Orientalist narratives that Muslim women are oppressed, forced to hide their hair, pressured by their society, religion, and culture to be small.

Critics of celebrities cutting their hair in solidarity with women in Iran

But, but, but, Muslim women worldwide started pointing out – would you be this interested in Iranian women if they weren’t taking off their veils? Do you really want to support Muslim women? Then… What about Muslim school girls in India whose rights are being chipped away at being told not to wear the scarf to school, or in France where Christian religious symbols are permitted but not the hijab, or fines for wearing niqab in Switzerland, or ….?

Social movements are easier than ever to be swept up in – especially when they come with catchy hashtags or a ‘Gram-worthy’ moment.

Here’s What Does Work

Don’t give up – I’m not saying what we post and share doesn’t matter. It does. The best pairing is a post with action. Remember way back when we doused each other with coolers full of freezing water? In the time before masks, and Maga hats, a quieter past (is that just nostalgia??) when the ALS ice buck challenge almost doubled the foundation’s funding? From funding grants to creating jobs for researchers to more scientific data available, the pairing of the social media video/image with the pledge to donate, was the magic combination of viral action.

If it feels exhausting – like you don’t want to do research about every single thing you post before you post it – then maybe that’s okay. I have a really good friend who often says, “I don’t know much about this, but from what I understand…” the first time I heard her say it, I was flabbergasted. Because it was so fresh, open, original, and honest.

The fact is we don’t have to be bandwagon jumpers to participate in current events. We can pick and choose, educate and inform, ourselves first, in the art of nuance. An increasingly lost art.

by Tim Reckmann

Okay, okay, can we talk about those Qatar issues now?

Yes, okay, now, we can talk about the issues specific to this World Cup in 2002 being held in the desert emirate of Qatar. The facts: the best thing that happened for labor rights in the Middle East and specifically the Arabian Peninsula, where Qatar is located, along with Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, is being a host nation for the world’s game.

Now there’s an International Labor Organization project office. Now companies with workplace fatalities are blacklisted and banned from being awarded future contracts. Now there is a minimum wage.

Is there still a lot to do? Yes. And hopefully, the world won’t forget the unpaid wages or compensation for lost lives or pending labor cases after the final match in December. It’s partial reform, and it’s a huge step in a system used regionally to discriminate against people.

The LGBTQ population is another one that has been touted as needing international attention. And what queer Arabs will tell you is that they prefer their cause to be separate from that of the western movement. In this, they are similar to ‘third world’ feminists who have been explaining for decades that western feminism ignores how race, gender, and socio-economics call for a different type of approach to women’s rights in developing countries (see above two examples, or leave a comment, because whole books have been written about this…).

What Qatari LGBTQ people will tell you – yes, there are some (that also could be a whole book) – is that being championed by western activists like Peter Tatchell has a host of complications. The main one is that their identity becomes a way to defame their own country. Tatchell’s account of being arrested while he held signs outside the National Museum conflicts with what eyewitnesses saw (police taking his photo, and walking away).

For queer people in Qatar, and other Muslim countries, associating with western forms of identity politics muddies the waters. They’re seen as foreign agents used by others to undermine the state. And as is the case with the current protests in Iran, taking up their cause serves political agendas. So, what’s to be done in their case? Again, dialogue, consultation, and discussions with the people whose issues these are.

The wheel of progress is slower than any of us would like. We can certainly help push it forward – which in Qatar, the 2022 World Cup has done by leaps and bounds. We may not be where we want to be yet. But shame is a bad teacher and an even worse motivator.

Let’s celebrate progress and plan, call, and seek for more.

And let’s hope the world doesn’t lose interest in these issues, or people, just because their use as political footballs ends at the last kickoff.


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