DARWIN, Australia — The Qatar Airways flight bound for Sydney, Australia, had been mysteriously stalled on the tarmac in Doha for more than three hours when an announcement boomed through the cabin. All female passengers had to take their passports and disembark immediately.
They were marched from the plane and directed to ambulances, where, according to Australian officials and accounts from some women, they were strip-searched and given invasive medical exams to see if they had recently given birth because a newborn had been found abandoned in a bathroom at Hamad International Airport.
The episode in Doha sent shock waves through Australia, drawing anger and disbelief. It called into question Qatar’s treatment of women and threatened to tarnish diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Among the women who told Australian officials she had been examined while transiting through the Qatari capital on Flight QR908 was a 31-year-old Australian nurse who insisted she be identified only by her first name, Jessica, because of the personal nature of the exam.
“I was scared,” she said in an interview on Monday. “We were all, like, Can someone please tell us what is happening?” Speaking of the woman who examined her, she said: “All she said was ‘A baby has been found in a bin, and we need to test you.’”
The exam occurred on Oct. 2, but the experience of the women went public only after the Australian news station Channel 7 broke the news this weekend, and it ricocheted around the globe.
On Monday, the Australian government said it was demanding answers from Qatar Airways.
“The Australian government is deeply concerned at the unacceptable treatment of some female passengers on a recent Qatar Airways flight at Doha Airport,” the authorities said in a statement. The government called the passengers’ treatment “offensive, grossly inappropriate and beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent.”
The case has been referred to the Australian Federal Police, which said they were aware of the matter and would not comment further.
Qatar Airways could not be immediately reached for comment. Hamad International Airport said the newborn found abandoned at the airport was being cared for but remained unidentified.
As for the medical examinations, a spokesperson for the airport said: “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.”
Heather Barr, a lawyer and co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, said: “I have never come across something quite like this before.” She added, “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.
At a news conference on Monday in Canberra, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, Marise Payne, said that government officials were first 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.”
She said that Qatari officials had indicated they would provide a report on the incident, and once she had reviewed the details, the Australian government would determine its next steps.
Flight QR908 was stalled on the tarmac in the evening when a dozen Australian women, as well as women of other nationalities, were removed from the plane, according to Wolfgang Babeck, another passenger.
“I personally found this disturbing,” Dr. Babeck, a law professor who was returning to Australia after visiting his sick father in Germany, said on Monday.
When they returned, Dr. Babeck said, many appeared “shellshocked,” and others were crying. “Everybody was, of course, desperate to get home,” he added.
At least 13 of the women were from Australia, according to reports the women gave to the Australian government. Some passengers on the same flight suggested that, based on information provided to them by the police, their plane might not have been the only one on which women were forced to submit to the invasive exams.
The Doha case 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.
Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways had to apologize after he said in 2018 that women were incapable of doing his job because it was “very challenging.”
The episode also raises the question of whether foreign women traveling through the airport in Qatar could legally be subject to the same laws, and to invasive and potentially nonconsensual procedures, experts said.
Jessica, the nurse, said that she and the other women were divided into groups of four and led out onto the tarmac toward two ambulances. She and at least one other woman were told to lie down on a table and remove their underwear, she said. It was only once she was inside the ambulance that she learned why she was being examined. She said the ambulance had windows without blinds, and more than a dozen men were standing outside. The experience lasted about 15 to 20 minutes, she said.
“It was incredibly invasive and I was freaking out,” she said. “I still didn’t know what was happening.” She added: “I remember lying there. I think I was in shock but I was thinking, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t how this should be done.’”
She said she had been told that many older women directed to the other ambulance had their bellies pressed.
She said that as a health professional, she was experienced in gaining informed consent from her patients, and that she had not given hers: “There was no choice in any of it.”
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 long periods, to travel to Australia during a pandemic. It was unclear, she added, what recompense the women had.
Jessica said that the experience had left her deeply shaken. After returning to Sydney, she and some of the other women, realizing they needed to organize and seek some kind of justice, had swapped numbers and started a WhatsApp group.
They informed the Australian Federal Police, she said, and the authorities have since connected the women with counselors as well as conducted regular check-ins. She said the statements from Qatar Airways that they had not received complaints from the women were inaccurate.
“They were well aware of how upset it made us,” she said. “We were horrified.”
Livia Albeck-Ripka reported from Darwin, Australia, and Yan Zhuang from Melbourne, Australia.