On a map, Kuwait’s shape resembles a silhouette of an eastward-facing falcon’s head, gaping its beak open as if to shriek into the waters surrounding it. Resting on this open beak is the scenic Arabian Gulf Street, which curves around the bay. On the falcon’s lower mandible lies Kuwait’s National Assembly. With high columns holding a bended canopy over the parliament’s porte cochere, along with its seaside location, its regal façade can be easily confused for a five-star hotel.
Inside, Sheikha al-Ajmi was a parliamentary officer guarding the grand, luxurious halls designed for a constitutional monarchy. But when she was murdered, the regal halls stood as a testament to the failure to protect Kuwait’s women.
It was mid-December when it happened. The country was recovering from a contentious National Assembly election. Sheikha was in her home with her family. Kuwait houses a medley of people with different roots and ideological backgrounds, making the state a home for multiple identities all with distinguishable lifestyles. In Sheikha’s town of Riqqa, a predominantly conservative area hosting mostly Bedouin families, the obstacles women face are also different.
Kuwait is a small country, smaller than New Jersey, where most degrees of separation between people can be torn down with a question of whom you’re related to. Between nationals and expatriates alike, local happenings often travel faster than news coverage.
Sheikha’s brother did not approve of her donning an officer’s suit capped off with a beret decorated with Kuwait’s seal in its center. To him, parliament was no place for a tribal woman. Just two weeks after the elections, his disapproval turned to rage. Sheikha’s 17-year-old younger brother stabbed her three times; she was murdered by her own flesh and blood in her home.
Before an anti-sexual harassment movement erupted on Kuwaiti social media in early February, which many hastily called the arrival of the #MeToo movement in the Gulf, women’s patience was already running thin. A string of femicides struck Kuwait in 2020, a year in which zero seats were won by women in parliamentary elections, highlighting the intricately systemic obstacles Kuwaiti women face in a country often imagined as a progressive hub in the region.
In the silence of the now-all-male parliament, the ire of Kuwaiti women boiled hotter than before. Despite years of lobbying and activism, one viral video transformed this boiling ire into a scorching fury. In early February, Ascia al-Farraj, a prominent fashion blogger with an online following of over 2.5 million people, posted an impassioned video in which she candidly spoke about the fears of being car chased by a man, a common form of harassment in Kuwait. Many attribute al-Farraj’s video as sparking the anti-sexual harassment movement.
Just over three weeks after Sheikha’s murder, in early January, her brother’s crime was relegated from the felony of murder to the misdemeanor of honor killing, with only a two-year sentence to serve.
For Almaha al-Murri, a women’s rights activist and a board member of the Women’s Cultural and Social Society, the country’s first organization focused on women’s development, much of the state’s penal code is a “slap on the wrist” for men and a “great barrier toward justice” for women.
The penal code, which often contradicts both Kuwait’s constitution and shariah, infantilizes women while preserving a man’s right to gravely police a woman’s behavior and involvement in society. These laws range from allowing a male kidnapper to marry their female victim to the infamous penal law 153 that allows a man who “surprises” a female relative or spouse in an adulterous act with a foreign man to kill either person or both.
To the women’s rights activists who capitalized on the recent social media uproar, sexual harassment is both the tip of the iceberg in terms of how society sees women and emblematic of how the law treats women.
These paternalistic laws, al-Murri said, like the “right to physically discipline women,” are a reminder that the pursuit of women’s rights is a legal fight as much as it’s a societal one. Al-Murri, who, like Sheikha al-Ajmi, also comes from a tribal background, said if penal laws prolonging structural violence against women go unchallenged, it would halve any momentum for women’s rights. Kuwait’s parliament underwent a monthlong recess enforced by Emir Nawaf al-Sabah, the country’s leading monarch whose power extends over all three branches of government.
“My biggest fear is losing track of enacting a law,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who started this wave, it matters that we keep pushing the movement forward.”
When the anti-sexual harassment online campaign exploded, Shayma Shamo, a medical doctor, acted immediately. She launched Lan Asket — which translates to “I won’t be silenced” — where a “virtual safe space” anonymously documents testimonies of real-life cases of sexual abuse and harassment from victims, an effort she believes will encourage women to speak up while providing them with protective secrecy.
“I believe that a wave of change is coming and there’s hope for the future,” Shamo said after witnessing droves of messages being posted on Lan Asket’s Instagram account, which so far has garnered over 12,000 followers. However, both al-Murri and Shamo know policy change is what would solidify their efforts.
Kuwait’s penal code is not unique in the Gulf region, and although it is not as malleable as some would like, political opposition and challenges to the status quo are more common in Kuwait than in neighboring countries. Advocacy work like Shamo’s Lan Asket wouldn’t survive in the more repressive Gulf states like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.
Online conversations around women’s rights, feminism, and sexual harassment, as well as topics often mistaken as incongruous in Arab society, grew significantly, especially with the rise of platforms like Clubhouse. From teenagers to middle-aged adults of both sexes, what used to be private and taboo is increasingly discussed publicly.
Then again, as pro-women’s rights hashtags circulate, backlash from countermovements also rises. One particular hashtag roughly translates to “criminalizing feminism is a demand.” Some posts portray women’s rights as the downfall of Islam, with one Twitter user going as far as equating feminism with Satanism.
Outside social media, open discussions are drowned out by tireless realities. On the same street where the parliament is nestled, which connects to three major highways and several provincial entrances, sexual harassment has a uniquely vehicular expression. Men chase down women in their cars, catcalling from their windows, and women are often followed to their homes or, in more extreme yet frequent cases, suffer deadly car crashes.
Bibi al-Khudari, a prominent Kuwaiti journalist, took to the streets with her camera crew to document how pervasive harassment is. Her mini-documentary showed a number of male drivers racing after her, with one motorcyclist harassing her inches away from her window. After her report and viral video, members of parliament called al-Khudari, promising her legislative change and clarifying their support for women’s rights.
However, for many women, the violence they face is much clearer than political support. The messages received and published on Lan Asket are a collage of the various forms of violence women in Kuwait endure, from pedophilic groping and workplace abuse to families imprisoning women in their own homes and rape.
“No one is ever ready to hear the truth,” Shamo said. “So far, we’ve taken the first step and opened up the conversation in Kuwait. Now, we need to work on making sure we direct the conversation in the right direction.”
While Shamo recently met with member of parliament Abdulaziz al-Saqabi, al-Murri met with another member, Osama al-Shaheen, who also heads the parliament’s Women, Children and Family Affairs Committee. Both members have, at multiple times, promised their constituents they would make serious changes to laws in favor of women’s rights, particularly amendments to the penal code and laws encouraging economic mobility for women. Alongside lobbying for updated policies, much of these visits are used to inform male politicians about the realities women face.
However, concocting a legislated initiative to further the cause of women’s rights is an uphill battle, especially now that parliament is barren of women’s representation.
In August 2020, with only one woman holding a parliamentary seat at the time, the National Assembly approved a law that criminalizes domestic violence. Officially titled Law 16 of 2020, the new legislation offers a set of protective measures for women facing domestic violence, such as filing restraining orders and providing legal assistance for victims. Despite criminalizing the act itself and providing protections for victims, the law does not penalize domestic violence as a crime — it only penalizes violations of protective orders after the crime occurred and has been reported.
In the past, perpetrators of domestic violence frequently avoided prosecution, much less being reported, as issues within a family unit are barely resolved outside it. Social norms favoring a man’s control over the family and fears of tarnishing reputations remain stubborn realities in Kuwait. Months after the enactment of Law 16, al-Ajmi, among several other women since then, was murdered in incidents of domestic violence.
Mona al-Arbash said she fell in love with her work as soon as she started and that even though “being a female lawyer means double the work,” ensuring women are represented in the legal sphere remains her calling. However, like al-Murri and Shamo, she knows fear in a society built to serve men and persevering through the fight for women’s rights often go hand in hand.
“Let’s face it, the law is just ink on paper,” al-Arbash said. “These words are essentially frozen and ineffective. Only the heat of the courts can put them into action.”
Shortly after al-Farraj’s viral video and Shamo’s Lan Asket initiative, members of parliament rushed to propose new laws. Yousef al-Fadhalah proposed a government-sponsored mobile app designed to document and report instances of harassment and allow for immediate registration of a crime. Al-Saqabi proposed an amendment to the penal code, adding punishments that include up to a year in prison and a fine of almost $10,000.
Another member of parliament, Abdullah al-Mudhaf, provided a set of six legal definitions, two of which support the creation of a mobile app and added punitive measures to the penal code. However, al-Mudhaf’s proposed legislation also includes a three-month window for the executive branch to activate these laws.
Almost two months later, none of the proposed laws have passed, and infighting between government branches leaves the legislative pipeline effectively halted, adding greater distrust between women and parliament.
Al-Arbash, unlike her counterparts in the advocacy sphere, believes the social media uproar caused a standstill between lawyers and state courts. Although she commends those speaking out against sexual harassment, the “digital noise muffled our legal work,” she said, adding that working with the state without that much attention is “more effective and cooperative.”
Historically, working in the shadows hasn’t served women well in Kuwait. In 2017, Sundus Hussein, one of the founders of Abolish 153, an organization aimed at eliminating penal laws that are violently biased against women, in particular law 153, was working with the state on women’s rights legislation outside the national spotlight — but it proved to be a fruitless effort.
Hussein said the government’s excuse was that it didn’t want to “instigate a public uproar,” but now, during the simmering aftermath of a public uproar, members of parliament are rushing to cooperate.
Hussein also understands that outside of political games, Kuwait’s power dynamics also come into play. Women are the “weaker entity” because society punishes their assertion of power whereas it celebrates a man who asserts his own on others, she said.
For Alia al-Duleimi, a veteran advocate with over 30 years of experience, the National Assembly (the legislative branch) is ineffective enough that she believes it’s the “least important point of access.”
“There is an astonishing divide between women and power in this country. She can get into parliament, but she can’t easily get into the executive branch, where the real power is,” al-Duleimi said, pointing to the political glass ceiling between Kuwaiti women and a ministerial position.
The very least that could be done, she believes, is to introduce a quota with a minimum number of women working in both legislative and executive branches, like Saudi Arabia’s 20% quota of women representatives in its Consultative Council. In September 2020, Kuwait appointed eight female judges for the first time, enabling women to grow in power in the judiciary branch, which is currently their only governmental representation.
Al-Duleimi’s particular advocacy field is concerned with the right to maternally pass on Kuwaiti citizenship as the state doesn’t naturalize the children of Kuwaiti women. She is no stranger to institutional gatekeeping, noting that she firmly believes women in Kuwait get only the “breadcrumbs of human rights.”
“The government doesn’t look at a woman unless she’s attached to a Kuwaiti man; her husband, her father, her brother … even the access to our rights is funneled through a man,” she said. “And to deny someone their rights, their agency? That’s a direct act of violence.”
Al-Duleimi is also no stranger to the class differences among women in Kuwait, adding that “there’s a trickle-down oppression effect” where the lower the “class-rung” a woman inhabits, the “greater the damages she’ll face.”
When she was 20 years old, Khadeija al-Shammari read a job post for secretarial work in a local newspaper. Excited to go in person but alarmed by the post’s requirement of having “good looks,” al-Shammari took her mother with her. When they arrived at the office address, she said she spotted odd curtains around the office with red lights beaming through. She knew it was a scheme to sexually entrap women, one that often targets the Bidun community, and later left.
Al-Shammari said many of the obstacles faced by women in the Bidun community — Kuwait’s stateless population — are invisible to the rest of society. When a Bidun woman declares her feminism, al-Shammari said, she likely has to jump over the hurdles of a conservative family and a significant lack of access to basic resources like health and education, and she has to manage society’s exploitative view of her statelessness — a combination of challenges that a Bidun woman isn’t likely to survive.
When it comes to domestic workers, a population that is almost exclusively made up of a migrant labor force, exploitation and abuse are near given. Jaafar, whose real name has been changed for their own safety, is a former domestic worker who now works with a local migrant labor rights union. Jaafar began advocacy work after Jaafar’s aunt was raped while working as a housemaid in Kuwait. After more than a decade of experience working in Kuwait, Jaafar has lost count of how many raped maids, nurses, and secretaries they’d helped.
When asked what incident they remember most, Jaafar lit up a cigarette, perhaps hoping the smoke would conceal the tears that Jaafar’s voice couldn’t.
Jaafar was working with local authorities on an investigation to bust a sex-trafficking ring in 2018. Jaafar remembers filing a missing persons report of a Filipina nurse to both her embassy and a local police department. Jaafar thought her case would just gather dust along with the others that couldn’t be found.
During a bust on a suspected “sex den” that Jaafar took part in, there was a nurse lying on the ground in one of the rooms of a shabby apartment complex. She was drugged to the point of unconsciousness. Once she recovered, the nurse told Jaafar that her assailants drugged her daily, selling her off to be raped by their clients over 50 times a day, and then eventually she was sold off to another sex-trafficking ring.
Having built a coalition with international bodies that ensures the government cooperates with the local migrant labor rights union allows Jaafar to continue this work. Another former domestic worker who works with Jaafar scoffed at the idea that greater women’s rights in Kuwait would mean greater women’s rights for expatriates like her.
Shaikha al-Hashem, a Kuwaiti doctoral researcher who studies feminism and gender, is well aware that “Kuwait needs to be safe for all women, not just Kuwaiti women.”
Like al-Duleimi, al-Hashem also acknowledges class and status play a big role in the reality of the women’s rights movement in Kuwait. Focusing on inclusivity and being aware of who already holds power within society would clarify the movement’s approaches to legislation, she said.
Otherwise, as al-Shammari argues, fighting on multiple fronts would be an “invitation to death” for the movement, where translating an uproar into changing policy would be wasted.
During the December 2020 elections, 29 women ran for office. None was voted into parliament. Coronavirus restrictions against congregating or holding political rallies didn’t stop men, but for women, that inability to gather was further complicated by the gatekeeping confines of Kuwaiti politics, said Zainab al-Sammak, a research director at Mudhawi’s List, an organization that rallies political support for women running for office.
Kuwaiti women’s suffrage was enacted in 2005, with both voting and election rights granted, but not without great opposition. That gap in real-time experience, in addition to gatekeeping women from political funding and access to powerful roles, are “shackles” on women in politics, al-Sammak said. She also noted that confining political activity to a “virtual realm” doesn’t help either, especially as Kuwaiti men have a stronger political culture of assembling in person than women.
Besides the constant push to fight on a policy-making level, a recurring theme among the variety of people we talked to, from those involved in politics and advocacy to public discourse and online engagement, is that women in Kuwait want to end the fear and silence.
“When we push for the life we deserve, we’ll open up the gates of hell. But the awareness we gain for our causes from that opening will be our backbone for the future,” al-Duleimi said.