WARNING: This story contains details some may find disturbing. Please read at your own discretion.
More than a dozen Australian women were reportedly marched off a Qatar Airways flight, strip-searched and given an invasive medical exam of their genitalia in an incident that has been condemned as sexist, humiliating and grossly inappropriate.
The searches were reportedly carried out at Hamad International Airport in Doha on Oct. 2 after staff found a newborn baby allegedly abandoned in the terminal.
The Australian government has raised “serious concerns” with Qatar over the incident, which was first reported by Channel 7 News.
Qatar Airways flight QR 908 to Sydney was held on the tarmac for four hours for the search, according to witnesses and the Australian government. All female passengers, including 13 Australians, were reportedly marched off the plane for a strip-search and exam in a waiting ambulance. It’s unclear how many non-Australian women were affected.
Witnesses say they were forced to remove their underwear so their genitals could be invasively examined.
“No one spoke English or told us what was happening,” an Australian woman on the plane told ABC News.
A spokesperson for the airport defended the move, saying that officials were concerned about the “health and welfare of a mother who had just given birth, and requested that she be located prior to departing.”
“Individuals who had access to the specific area of the airport where the newborn infant was found were asked to assist in the query,” the airport said in a statement to multiple outlets.
It added that the newborn is being cared for but its mother remains unknown.
Jessica, a 31-year-old Australian nurse on the flight, told the New York Times that she was “scared” throughout the experience. She asked for her last name not to be shared.
The woman who examined her offered only a brief explanation.
“A baby has been found in a bin and we need to test you,” the examiner said, according to Jessica.
The witness who spoke to ABC says every woman on the plane was forced off for the search.
“There was an elderly woman who was vision impaired, and she had to go, too,” the woman told ABC. “I’m pretty sure she was searched.”
Another witness told ABC that investigators demanded to examine her vagina, and she was not given any explanation or choice in the matter.
“I said, ‘I’m not doing that,’ and she did not explain anything to me,” the witness said. “She just kept saying, ‘We need to see it, we need to see it.'”
She says she tried to get out of the ambulance but there was nowhere to run, so she submitted to the exam.
Kim Mills, an Australian passenger in her 60s, told The Guardian she was escorted off the flight with the others but exempted from search at the last minute.
“As I was standing there with this officer telling me to go, a young lass came out of the ambulance and she was crying and distraught,” she told The Guardian. “I just turned around and started walking with her trying to comfort her.
“I was the luckiest one on the whole flight because I have grey hair and I’m in my 60s. They probably looked at me and thought, well, that’s impossible.”
Mills said the Qatar Airways staff were “absolutely horrified” by the search, and that they told her they didn’t know why it was conducted.
The Australian government has condemned the incident and shared its outrage with the Qatari government and Qatar Airways.
“This is a grossly, grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events,” Marise Payne, Australia’s minister of foreign affairs, said Monday. “It is not something I have ever heard of occurring in my life in any context.”
A spokesperson for Payne said the searches were “beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent.” However, Payne backed away from characterizing it as sexual assault when asked about that comment.
Heather Barr, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch, said the exams could constitute sexual assault.
“I have never come across something quite like this before,” she told the New York Times.
She also described the searches as a “very strange and abusive way” to search for a new mother in need. “It’s just not the right way to get help for the baby or the mother.”
A Qatar Airways spokesperson told the Guardian Australia: “We appreciate the concerns and distress expressed to you by the Australian passengers who you have spoken to, and will be investigating these matters with the relevant authorities and officials.”
Australian Federal Police are investigating the matter.
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