news

Sandrine was one of the 13 Australian women invasively examined at Doha airport. This is her story.

On October 2, 2020, Sandrine* was embarking on the trip of a lifetime, heading to Australia from France for a new job and a fresh start. 

She was on board flight QA 908 from Doha to Sydney waiting for take-off but the flight was delayed by four hours. 

Sandrine had fallen asleep when armed Qatari authorities boarded the plane and ordered all women to exit the aircraft with their passports.

The authorities were looking for the mother of a newborn baby discovered abandoned in an airport rubbish bin.

Watch: Jane, another victim, shared her experience on 60 Minutes. Post continues below.


Video via 60 Minutes.

"It lasted for maybe three minutes. I didn’t move."

It was Sandrine’s first time coming to Australia. 

She'd been posted to Canberra for work, having waited months to receive a visa exemption and flight tickets amid Australia's border restrictions. 

When Sandrine finally received confirmation that her Qatar Airways flight on October 2 was going ahead, she was both relieved and excited. Arriving in Doha from France, she had one final flight on her journey to Australia to go.

In total, 13 Australian women, including Sandrine, were on flight QA 908. 

At 52 years old, Sandrine is well-travelled having worked in various cities across the world. But she had never been to Doha or travelled via the Persian Gulf state before, and in this instance, she was travelling alone. 

Doha, Qatar. Image: Getty. 

ADVERTISEMENT

As she and her fellow passengers waited for the plane to take off, the delay continued, growing by the hour.

“We just looked at each other in disbelief. I then fell asleep because I figured we would take off eventually. It had been a long day," Sandrine told Mamamia in an Australian exclusive.

“I was woken up by an announcement. I missed the first few words as I was waking up from my nap. But then I heard ‘...passengers have to disembark with their passports’.”

The first word that Sandrine had missed was “female”. More than a dozen armed guards then stormed the plane. 

“I took my bag and my stuff. But they told me not to, only take my passport. But at that stage, I didn’t know if I would even be getting back on the plane. It was only when I walked to the front of the plane, I realised the passengers standing were all female. Then I saw the policemen with guns.”

As the women were escorted off the plane in groups of four, they began to feel unsafe and confused, asking the armed guards what was going on. Sandrine was in the second group of women, who were taken by two guards down in the lift. 

Once on the tarmac, they were directed towards an ambulance. It was only here that Sandrine’s group were informed of why they had been ordered to disembark; the authorities wanted to check if any passengers showed signs of recently giving birth.

“I couldn’t understand. Probably because I was in panic mode. All I could think was I don't want to have to do a gynecological exam here in Qatar. It’s not safe. They took the first lady of my group, who was in her late 50s. The other two women in the group were in their 30s," Sandrine recalled. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“The first lady was gone for maybe five minutes. When she came out, she must have seen from our faces that we were frightened and shaking. She tried to reassure us.”

Sandrine was next.

She was taken into the ambulance, where a woman wearing a medical gown was standing in the vehicle waiting to examine her. She was asked to lie down on the bed, and unbutton and open her blue jeans.  

“She touched my stomach, my pelvic area and underneath my bra. I was laying on the table, staring at the ceiling, my mind a blur. It lasted for maybe three minutes. I didn’t move. I was just praying they didn’t confuse me for the mother,” she told Mamamia.

When she was told she could leave, Sandrine immediately opened the ambulance door and didn’t look back. 

“It was implied to me that if you don’t go into that ambulance, you’re not getting back on the plane. I didn’t want to stay in Qatar. I was travelling on my own, nobody could help me.”

Doha’s Hamad International Airport in Qatar. Image: Getty. 

The aftermath.

Sandrine was escorted back onto the plane and started fielding questions from the male passengers on board. Everybody was in disbelief. 

Once all the women had returned from the invasive examination, the plane left within 15 minutes.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Once in the air, nobody talked to anybody. I don’t know if it’s because we were exhausted or in shock,” said Sandrine.

The following day, QA 908 arrived in Sydney. It was only when they were all put on buses to head to hotel quarantine that the women began to talk about what had happened to them.

“We asked one another if we were okay, and one woman told me that she had gone through a very invasive gynaecological exam.”

Sandrine feels like one of the lucky ones. What she soon discovered was that there were two ambulances on the tarmac that night. One to the left, one to the right. 

“I was in the left one; the people on the left weren’t subjected to as major of an internal exam as those in the other ambulance. We set up a WhatsApp group, contacted the embassies and authorities and then went into quarantine for two weeks.”

Being confined to a hotel room for 14 days by yourself in a new country is challenging for anyone. But for Sandrine, it was a greater mental hurdle than she could have ever anticipated.

“When I was in quarantine I was able to have a long conversation with my family. While I was on the plane just before takeoff, my brother must have been tracking my flight on his phone, because he sent me a text saying ‘why is your flight four hours late?’ I just replied, ‘you will never believe what has just happened to me’.

“It was a relief to just tell somebody what had happened. I was offered some psychological assistance, but I think I was in denial at the time. I didn’t want people to see me as a victim.”

After hotel quarantine, Sandrine and the other women were interviewed at a police station to recount their experiences. As soon as that was over, she made the move from Sydney to Canberra and tried to get back to starting her new life.

But then the news headlines began to circulate, a process Sandrine says was overwhelming.

“I didn't want to start my new job with that attached to me. With a new job, new home, new country and to already have my story on the front page," she said.

She was, however, relieved to see Australians were horrified and disgusted by the story.

ADVERTISEMENT

At the time, Australian politicians and leaders were vocal in their condemnation. Prime Minister Scott Morrison condemned the incident, saying: “As a father of daughters, I could only shudder at the thought that anyone would, Australian or otherwise, be subjected to that.” 

But Sandrine and the other women are yet to hear a single word from not only Qatari authorities, but the Australian Government.

“I was watching the 60 Minutes program recently, and I saw the clip of the Prime Minister saying he was really happy about the progress and there have been some major changes. That was news to us.”

"The more we have to wait, the angrier I get."

In a statement to Mamamia, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, "The Australian Government sought an immediate investigation into the incident by Qatar authorities, and that action be taken against those responsible. The Australian Government also sought assurances that concrete steps be taken to ensure this cannot happen again. 

"The Australian Government acknowledges the steps the Government of Qatar took in this matter, including a comprehensive investigation, the prosecution and conviction of those responsible, and the implementation of revised airport security processes to ensure this cannot happen again."

But seven of the 13 Australian women aren't satisfied. Sandrine is one of them. 

They're now launching legal action against Qatar Airways accusing them of assault, battery and deprivation of their liberty. Their lawyers told Mamamia their clients want an apology and a meaningful guarantee that something like this won’t happen again to women travelling through Qatar. They're also seeking compensation for ongoing trauma, including PTSD, as a result of the violation.  

"It’s not enough for Qatar’s Prime Minister to just tweet a generic apology that the government ‘regrets’ the unacceptable treatment of female passengers that occurred and then ignore direct communications from the group of passengers,” said Daisy von Schoenberg, a senior associate at Marque Lawyers. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“This is about sending a message to Qatari authorities that women cannot be treated in this manner.”

“I think it’s also up to the public to signal that people won’t just accept what’s happened, forget and move on. And the Australian public can continue adding their voices to the conversation, particularly with the upcoming 2022 World Cup being hosted in Qatar," she added.

In Sandrine's eyes, if they'd been offered an apology within the first few days "it probably wouldn’t have gone further." 

"The more we have to wait, the angrier I get," she shared.

The only response the women have received from Qatar Airways was a reply that their “claims had no merit".

Listen to The Quicky: “They will never go to school again”: Afghan women need our help. Post continues after audio.


A year on, the women are still in regular contact. 

“We still have our chats and we talk very often," Sandrine told Mamamia.

“It has been really important for me to have that support and to see that the others were struggling as well. Even if we are scattered all over Australia, I think there’s a very strong bond now between us.”

ADVERTISEMENT

With borders opening up, international flights are back on the cards. But for Sandrine, a trip home doesn’t feel safe.

“I would love to go home to visit family at some point. But I am absolutely terrified of the idea of going on a plane alone to my family in France. I will have to find an alternative route because I've realised that I’m not even safe at a very busy and well-known international airport like the one in Qatar. 

“Qatar and their airline are blacklisted for me. Now I have to make smart choices. I don’t even want to think about it now. Because I’m not ready for it, obviously.”

Twelve months on, the trauma hasn’t left Sandrine. Even though the invasive examination lasted minutes, the emotional scars remain.

"I think I’ve been through different emotional stages. I’ve asked myself, why has this happened to us? How could this happen? Why would they ignore us?

“There was no consent. They didn’t ask for our permission, they didn’t ask if we agreed to that. Since then, my feelings haven’t changed and I still think about it every day." 

Mamamia has reached out to the Qatar Government for comment. 

*Name has been changed for personal reasons.

The feature image used is a stock Getty image.