DARWIN, Australia — The Australian government on Monday demanded answers from Qatar Airways after female passengers on a flight to Sydney from Doha reported that they had been removed from the plane, strip-searched and given invasive medical exams to see if they had recently given birth.
The incident occurred earlier this month after a premature newborn was found abandoned in a terminal bathroom at Hamad International Airport in the Qatari capital, according to accounts provided to the Australian authorities.
“The Australian government is deeply concerned at the unacceptable treatment of some female passengers on a recent Qatar Airways flight at Doha Airport,” the Australian authorities said in a statement released on Monday, adding that the government had registered its concerns with the Qatari authorities.
It called the women’s treatment “offensive, grossly inappropriate and beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent.”
Qatar Airways could not be immediately reached for comment. Much remains unclear, such as if any of the passengers had given permission for the exams.
Hamad International Airport confirmed in a statement that the newborn, found abandoned at the airport on Oct. 2, was being looked after but remained unidentified.
As to the medical examinations, a spokesperson for the airport said only: “Medical professionals expressed concern to officials about the health and welfare of a mother who had just given birth and requested she be located prior to departing H.I.A. Individuals who had access to the specific area of the airport where the newborn infant was found were asked to assist in the query.”
But Heather Barr, a lawyer and co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, who is based in Pakistan, said: “I have never come across something quite like this before. These examinations can constitute sexual assault.”
She added that performing invasive exams on dozens of women was a “very strange and abusive way” to find and help a new mother in need. “It’s just not the right way to get help for the baby or for the mother,” Ms. Barr said.
Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, Marise Payne, said on Monday at a news conference in Canberra, the capital, that government officials had been made aware of the incident by passengers on the flight from Doha.
“This is a grossly, grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events,” Ms. Payne said. “It is not something I have ever heard of occurring in my life in any context.”
Ms. Payne added that Qatari officials had indicated they would provide a report on the incident, and that once she had reviewed the details, the government would determine its next steps.
Flight QR908 was waiting on the tarmac when the crew asked all the women on board to disembark, Wolfgang Babeck, a passenger, said in an interview on Monday. He said that a dozen Australian women, as well as women of other nationalities, were removed from the plane.
“About three hours in, there was an announcement that the women should disembark. I personally found this disturbing,” said Dr. Babeck, a law professor who was returning to Australia after visiting his sick father in Germany.
He said he later learned from the women that they had been escorted back to the terminal, where they had been given invasive exams by a female doctor. At least 13 women from Australia were medically examined, according to reports the women gave to the Australian government and accounts from other passengers. Some news reports indicated they had been examined in an ambulance on the tarmac.
When the women returned to the plane, Dr. Babeck said, many appeared “shellshocked,” and others were crying. “Everybody was, of course, desperate to get home,” he added.
Australia has among the strictest travel regulations in the world in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and anyone coming into or leaving the country must get permission from the authorities, even Australian citizens. The country recently set up a one-way travel bubble with New Zealand, under which travelers to Sydney or Darwin, Australia, from New Zealand will not be required to quarantine in Australia after a negative test.
Even before the pandemic shut down most air travel and changed the rules of flying, the industry had already been the subject of public anger. The unchecked (and often sexist) power of airline staff members and incidents of airline abuse that made headlines around the globe brought that anger to a head before the pandemic hit, with passengers calling for reforms.
In 2017, United Airlines confronted a public relations debacle after a passenger was dragged from a plane, and the airline was roundly criticized for arbitrarily banned women from wearing leggings.
Qatar Airways, too, has had its own troubles. Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive, had to apologize after he said in 2018 that women were incapable of doing his job. “Of course it has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position,” he said.
As airlines adopt new ways to work around a virus that has emptied out airports, there are fewer people around to hold an airline to account when it messes up. As news of the incident in Doha spread, it threatened to tarnish Qatar’s international relations.
It has also highlighted the treatment of women in a country where systemic gender disparity and oppression are common, and where it is illegal to have sex or become pregnant outside of marriage. Local women charged with such a crime, known as “zina,” can be imprisoned.
The question of whether foreign women traveling through the Doha airport could legally be subject to the same laws, and to invasive and potentially nonconsensual procedures, was unclear, experts said. Nevertheless, the details reported by the Australian authorities shocked many.
Ms. Barr, the lawyer, said that even if the women had not been forced to participate in the medical examinations, giving free and informed consent would be extremely difficult under the circumstances, in which the women had likely paid large sums, or waited for long periods, to travel to Australia during a global pandemic.
It was unclear, she added, what recompense might be open to the women who had been examined. She said it was crucial any investigation be carried out openly and with the participation of the Australian government.
The director of Amnesty International Australia, Samantha Klintworth, noting that news outlets reported that the incident occurred on Oct. 2, said in a statement, “Why then has it taken until now, following a report in the media, for the department to approach the Qatari authorities for an explanation?”
“There must be an independent investigation into the events that took place if we are to ever get a truly transparent account of what occurred and to establish unequivocally who is responsible and hold them to account for this gross breach of these women’s rights,” she said.
Livia Albeck-Ripka reported from Darwin, Australia, and Yan Zhuang from Melbourne, Australia.