By MARIAM FAM
DOHA, Qatar — Aside from the competition for the World Cup title, one of the most hotly contested issues in the tournament in Qatar is over rainbow colors.
In the first week of the tournament, seven European teams lost the battle to wear multi-colored “One Love” armbands during World Cup matches and some fans complained they weren't allowed to bring items with rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, into the stadiums of the conservative Islamic emirate.
Qatar, where gay sex is illegal, faced intense international scrutiny and criticism in the run-up to the tournament over rights issues, including questions on whether LGBTQ visitors would feel safe and welcome. The Gulf nation has said all are welcome, including LGBTQ fans, and that it would ensure safety for everyone, regardless of background, but that visitors should respect the nation’s culture.
Piara Powar, executive director of Fare, the anti-discrimination group that is reporting incidents in and around stadiums to world soccer body FIFA, said he believes the Qatari hosts felt that the debate about LGBTQ rights has been given too much space and that they need to clamp down internally.
“We have talked to them about rainbow flags and the symbolism that it has across the world, not just in western Europe. There are Latin Americans who recognize that, there are Asians who recognize the Pride flag," Powar said.
Just before the tournament started, FIFA stopped plans by seven European teams including England and Germany to have their captains play with “One Love” anti-discrimination armbands, saying they would receive yellow cards if they did. The decision sparked outrage by some in the countries involved.
One of the teams, Belgium, tweeted a team photo Friday showing captain Eden Hazard wearing the “One Love” armband. The country's foreign minister, Hadja Lahbib, wore it as she watched Belgium's World Cup opener against Canada on Wednesday.
Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt turned up at Denmark's match against Tunisia wearing an outfit with rainbow-colored sleeves. In an Instagram post a day later, she appeared conflicted about the choice of clothing.
“I’ve been reflecting on whether showing up in rainbow colors is actually helping gay and queer folks in Qatar,” Thorning-Schmidt wrote in the post. She wondered whether it could “make things worse by hardening the Qatar government against them? I don’t know the answer but doesn’t it show us that nothing is binary, only good or only bad?”
Some fans have said that they were asked to remove and discard their rainbow hats at a World Cup stadium earlier this week despite assurances by FIFA before the tournament that such items would be allowed in stadiums.
Justin Martin, a U.S. citizen living in Qatar, said he was holding a small rainbow flag on the metro on his way to the U.S. opener against Wales when two people wearing shirts that identified them as volunteers asked him to put the flag away. He didn’t want to.
“One of them became agitated and ... referred to me as ‘disgusting,’” said Martin, an associate professor of journalism at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.
At the stadium, however, a woman in Qatari police uniform who was searching his bag found the rainbow flag, looked at it and put it back, he said. “I actually wasn’t prohibited from bringing that into the stadium.”
Martin said he had previously worn a pride T-shirt in Qatar to the grocery store or to exercise without any issues.
Some Wales fans said they were prevented from taking rainbow bucket hats to the game against the U.S., prompting the Wales soccer federation to raise the issue with FIFA, which assured them that rainbow symbols would be allowed for Friday's game against Iran.
Laura McAllister, a former Wales captain who acts as ambassador to the World Cup, said she and other fans wore rainbow hats to Friday's game without problems. She said she was among those asked to remove their hats before the earlier game with the U.S.
The Qatari World Cup organizing committee did not provide answers to questions by The Associated Press on the instructions to stadium security and volunteers about rainbow symbols.
In April, a Qatari official suggested that fans carrying rainbow flags could have them removed to protect them from possible attacks.
The issue has been debated frequently in Qatar and the wider Middle East, where many believe it’s only fair for visitors to respect the country’s laws, customs and religious beliefs, just like people from the region are expected to honor other nations' rules when they travel. Others counter that rights’ issues are universal and that sports must be inclusive.
Ahead of the tournament, some LGBTQ rights activists sought to raise concerns about how LGBTQ people in Qatar may be treated after the World Cup ends. Some of them have also argued that international attention was disproportionately focused on the visitors and not enough on LGBTQ people in the country.
Associated Press writers Karl Ritter and Graham Dunbar contributed to this report.