No catcalling or hassle, why female football fans feel safer in Qatar than at matches at home

Ellie Molloson (right) says she has felt safe in Qatar as a female football fan. Credit: PA/ITV News

By digital producer Suzanne Elliott

The Qatar World Cup has been mired in controversy but the conservative Gulf nation may be giving the male-focused world of football in the UK a lesson in sexism.

Ellie Molloson, an 18-year-old Nottingham Forest fan and advocate for safer spaces for women in football, was "really nervous" about travelling to Qatar to cheer on England.

"I didn't think I was going to feel safe here. I was worried about if I show skin will I get arrested... and it's just not been the case at all," she told ITV News.

She adds: "I felt incredibly safe."

"I've not had any catcalling or any of the strange comments that you would perhaps get in England sometimes.

"They've just been incredibly hospitable."

Ms Molloson spearheaded the HerGameToo campaign to improve the culture on the terraces for women football supporters by fighting sexist abuse in sport.

She travelled to Qatar with her dad as her chaperone, but her experience at the tournament has been better than many of her afternoons on the terraces in England.

'This is about men and women' - HerGameToo campaigner Ellie Molloson says there is still much to be done in football to banish sexism

"I think the easiest way to describe it is it's much more subdued here. It's much calmer. I've not experienced any sort of hostility, I don't mean necessarily to me personally, I haven't even witnessed anything. And that's regardless of gender. I've just not even seen it.

"Sometimes you get football fans getting a bit angry. And there's been none of that at all."

Ms Molloson said that while she's enjoying a hassle-free tournament, there are pros and cons to the quieter atmosphere.

"We do like a bit of banter (in England) and that's great but there hasn't been any sort of hostility here... sometimes that rowdiness is a bit more fun."

Qatar’s human rights record has come under intense international scrutiny and condemnation since Fifa's controversial decision to hand the World Cup 2022 to the small Gulf nation.

More women are going to football matches. Credit: AP

Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, which has also been condemned for its treatment of low-paid migrant workers and its suppression of free speech.

Qatar's treatment of women has also come in for criticism.

While women have made progress in Qatar, they still face discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives.

Women must get permission from male guardians to marry, pursue higher education and work at certain jobs, and women under 25 from travelling abroad without permission from a guardian.

A report by Human Rights Watch in 2021 found that Qatari women find it difficult to express or demand their rights, on or offline.

But women fans, like Ms Molloson, travelling from outside Qatar have said they found the stadiums at this year's World Cup more welcoming than at home.

As a conservative Muslim country, alcohol is served only in hotel restaurants and bars that have licenses in Qatar. It is illegal to consume it elsewhere.

The rules were set to be relaxed for the World Cup, but in a last-minute U-turn, said to be at the request of the Saudi royal family, Qatar banned alcohol sales within the perimeters of the stadiums.

Costa Rica players argue with referee Stephanie Frappart during the World Cup Group E clash. Credit: AP

Alcohol is still available in hotels and private homes while Budweiser - the tournament's sponsor - turned a luxury hotel into a massive themed bar. But at about £15 for a standard bottle of beer getting drunk is an expensive hobby.

As a result, there have been no signs of the booze-fuelled hooliganism of tournaments past.

Some say this more sober World Cup could be behind the less aggressive atmosphere.

Chief Constable Mark Roberts, the UK’s football policing lead, believes the lack of trouble at the Qatar World Cup was in large part due to the comparative scarcity of alcohol.

He said the lack of arrests was a sign that ministers should resist calls to ease restrictions on drinking in UK football grounds.

Whether alcohol is a factor or not, fans like Ms Molloson, a Nottingham Forest ambassador for HerGameToo and an advocate for HerGameToo cricket. want to see change in how women who like football are perceived.

HerGameToo campaigns for women and girls to feel confident and safe sharing their opinion about football without fear of sexist abuse, both pitch-side and online.

Progress is also being made on the pitch in Qatar.

Thursday's game between Costa Rica and Germany saw an all-female refereeing team take charge of a men's World Cup match for the first time.

French referee Stéphanie Frappart made history as the first woman to referee at a men’s World Cup game.

Frappart, 38, was joined by assistant referees - Brazil's Neuza Back and Mexico's Karen Diaz Medina - to complete an all-female refereeing team on the field at Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar.

Frappart - who took charge of the 2019 Women’s World Cup final for FIFA - has refereed men’s games in World Cup qualifying and the Champions League, and this year’s men’s French Cup final.

She has already broken new ground in Qatar, having last week become the first female fourth official in the men’s competition.

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Despite these big gains and her positive experience in Qatar, Ms Molloson says football still has a long way to go.

"We need to improve how many spectaculars are at women's games," she told ITV News.

She adds: "There needs to be more publicity for women across the board in football."

"We celebrate our men so widely, and they do deserve it, I'm not taking that away from them, this isn't about men versus women, it's about men and women."