Doha, Qatar – When Andrea M left New York to follow Team USA at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, she assured her friends and family that she wouldn’t do anything risky during the tournament.
What she had read about Qatar painted an alarming picture of the host country.
“The way the American media portrays the Middle East is very different from what I experienced here,” 29-year-old Andrea told Al Jazeera, adding that her friends decided not to travel to Qatar.
Andrea said she’s glad she came. “Simple things like walking around town late at night, I can’t do that at home.”
A kick-off time of 10pm (7pm GMT) for many of the group stage matches and knockout matches means fans leave stadiums, use public transport and party in fan zones well past midnight. And women, in groups or alone, watch football at public displays, sing and dance with other fans, and move about without worrying about their safety. According to the Numbeo Crime Index, Doha is routinely ranked as the safest – or second safest – city in the world.
For Joy Nkuna, the experience was a stark contrast to her home country of South Africa, which is one of the most dangerous countries for female travellers. “We have very high crime rates in my country, especially against women,” she said. More than 1,000 women were murdered in South Africa in a three-month period between the beginning of July and the end of September, according to recent government figures.
Nkuna, 39, said she doesn’t go out alone after sunset in her country. “From the moment it gets dark, women can’t be out alone or they’re in danger,” she said. “Here me and my daughter were walking around at 3am and no one intimidated us, called us names or looked at us in a way that would make us feel unsafe.”
It’s an experience Tatiana Lopez can relate to. Thirty-three-year-old Brazilian fan Lopez, who traveled from Colombia with two other women, said men have been very courteous in public places. “Although it is strange to see more men in public places (compared to women) than I am used to in Colombia, they were all very respectful.”
Lopez said she enjoyed the tournament without worrying about her belongings, something she’s not used to at home. “I can actually carry my backpack on my back and keep my phone in my pocket because I know no one will take it away from me.”
Women who have lived in Qatar said security is not a new phenomenon related to the World Cup.
Khadija Suleiman, a 32-year-old Ethiopian who has lived in Qatar for 10 years, was recently at Lusail Stadium for a kick-off at 10pm with her three children and two nieces. “I don’t feel the need to be with a man to feel safe,” she said as she walked toward the stadium.
To be sure, the security presence in Qatar has increased because of the World Cup. But Suleiman said the safety of women and children in public places has never been a concern for her in the country. “If necessary, I can send my children to school in a taxi and not worry about their safety.”
That confidence is shared by women from other parts of the Gulf region, many of whom fearlessly competed in the Middle East’s biggest ever sporting event.
Dalia Abushullaih has traveled to Qatar from Saudi Arabia and said she is thrilled to see women celebrating in public spaces. “Qatar has made women feel safe and comfortable by actively participating in the tournament and enjoying themselves freely,” said the 29-year-old. “The world is finally witnessing our beautiful Arab culture, and it’s wonderful to see people take it all in and take some of it home with them.”
Aside from the stadiums, women and children have crowded into tourist areas such as Doha’s Souq Waqif and fan zones across the city. Some arrive during the daytime as the festivities begin, while others push through the crowds in pushchairs to take part in the post-game celebrations.
The decision by the organizers to ban the sale of alcohol in or near the competition venues has also increased the confidence of many women that attending competitions will not put their safety at risk.
Camilla Ferrierra, a tournament volunteer from Brazil, said she felt safer knowing she won’t be surrounded by drunken fans in the stadiums.
“I couldn’t imagine going to a football game alone [in Brazil]she told Al Jazeera. “I can’t imagine being out late at night, using my phone in public without fear and just enjoying a walk or a football match. Here I feel 100 percent safe and that is very nice for us women: being able to enjoy the festivities and football in a safe way.”
Hanoof Abdullah, a Kuwaiti football fan, sat alone among thousands of Brazilian fans at Lusail Stadium. She said Arab families would have found it difficult to stay out at night if they knew alcohol was being served.
“Qatar has shown the world that you can enjoy football without alcohol, and that women can enjoy it without fearing for their safety,” she said. “The bar has been set very high and now the world will have to work very hard to match it.”