By Nourhan AlBahrani
Violence against women is surely among the gravest of evils currently plaguing our society. Unfortunately, it is a practice that takes place in most patriarchal communities, and Kuwait is no exception.
In recent years, Kuwait has been experiencing an increasing number of gender-based violence (GBV) crimes, including honor killings, that have highlighted the sinister gender viewpoint that is embedded in Kuwaiti society and its legal system. GBV is violence directed towards women simply due to their gender. It includes, but is not limited to, physical, sexual, verbal, psychological, and economic harm that causes great suffering for women (United Nations, 2022).
A study carried out in 2018 stated that 53.1% of women in Kuwait experience GBV. The lack of up-to-date statistics on GBV is because most of the country sees it as a privacy issue and believes these crimes should remain unannounced. Many women have admitted to being too scared to report incidents of GBV to the police due to fear of marginalization, retaliation, and stigmatization. They are often turned away by the authorities and discouraged from filing reports against their abusers.
The culture of immense toxic masculinity supported by a patriarchal system has continued to aggravate incidents of sexual harassment in Kuwait. In September 2022, a husband was caught on video publicly beating his wife, according to AlQabas newspaper. He justified his inexcusable behavior by claiming that he was forced to do it because his wife accepted a job offer without his permission.
In 2021, Abrar Zenkawi was driving with her toddler niece, her sister, and a friend when a man started waving at her in the rearview mirror. The man then started to drive dangerously close to her and eventually crashed into her car. The car flipped six times, leaving Abrar with a shattered spine. These are just two examples of the many unfortunate sexual harassment incidents that Kuwaiti women have been facing. They have become the norm in Kuwait and are only fueled by the fact that men do not need to worry about having to face the consequences of such heinous actions.
Kuwait has also had an increased number of honor killings taking place by male kin or other men, with each case sparking more fear and anger among the women in Kuwait has intensified the need to protect women from violence. Honor killing and Sharaf are viewed to be interlocked and mutually supported practices in many parts of the world. Sharaf is an Arabic word that translates to ‘honor’ in relation to the sexuality of a woman’s chastity and the responsibility of the male to guard his female relatives.
Honor killing is a social practice that has become unified and replicated within certain communal groups. These groups share an unwritten code passed down from one generation to the next through socialization and internalization. It is when a community supports a perpetrator’s concern to restore his family’s honor by killing a female member of the family who has allegedly behaved dishonorably. This is considered a means of “washing away the dishonor honors with blood” as a form of discipline in order to dominate social norms and communal expectations. It is argued that honor killings are heightened due to national laws that have discriminatory articles.
Article 153 is a provision of the Kuwait Penal Code that was introduced from the old French Penal Code (Napoleonic code). It states that any man who suspects that his mother, sister, daughter, or wife has participated in an unsavory sexual act (zinna) with a man and kills her, him, or both will be treated as committing a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of three years in jail time or fined 3000 Rupees (15 Kuwaiti Dinar). On the other hand, if a woman commits the same crime for adultery purposes against her husband, she faces a murder crime sentence.
In 2020, 35-year-old Fatima AlAjmi was killed by her two brothers for marrying someone outside the family tribe, even though her father had approved of the marriage. Pregnant Fatima suffered several gunshots in her house, and her one-year-old child was a witness to this crime. Fatima’s husband rushed her to the hospital, where she was placed in the ICU, and security forces were stationed at the entrance of the hospital for her protection. But, one of her brothers entered the hospital through a backdoor and shot her four more times, killing her in the process. Only three months later, Sheikeha AlAjmi, a parliamentary employee at the National Assembly, was killed by her 17-year-old brother, who supposedly did not approve of her job.
In 2021, Farah Hamza Akbar was murdered by Fahed Subhi Mohammed, a man who she filed two cases against on the basis of kidnapping and attempted murder. The perpetrator crashed into her car to kidnap her and her two daughters in broad daylight. Then, he stabbed her in the chest before leaving her at the entrance of a hospital to die. Farah’s sister, Dana Akbar, stated in a social media post that she had raised her concerns to the prosecutor numerous times, explaining that her sister’s life was in danger. She further highlighted that the perpetrator had previously attempted to harm and kidnap Farah, which led the family to file a number of complaints. He was detained twice but released on bail each time.
The perpetrator was out on bail when he killed Farah. Farah Akbar’s death sparked outrage across the country, and women’s rights activists and advocates gathered at Kuwait Erada Square in front of the National Assembly Building to protest the crime and express solidarity with the victim. The protest was able to assemble support from younger Islamist MPs at the time, such as Abdulaziz AlSaqab and Osama AlShaheen, who expressed their condemnation to the public. Without clear laws against GBV, male authority over women will continue, and men will repeatedly demand obedience from women. They will keep using force and their power as they consider it an acceptable technique to discipline women.
This is not to negate that there have been steps taken in the right direction. In August 2020, the Kuwaiti parliament made a progressive change by passing its first domestic violence legislation. This aimed to tackle domestic abuse and protect the survivors and victims. They also made plans to establish a women’s shelter and a hotline to receive domestic violence complaints. There was some effort made to provide legal assistance for victims of GBV and to allow women to obtain emergency protection (restraining orders) from their abusers.
However, many of the new laws are still unimplemented on the ground. The Kuwaiti government is yet to open a state shelter for women and has also failed to implement article 2 of the law, which highlights the state’s obligation to take all measures to protect families and residents of Kuwait against all forms of violence. Despite small efforts here and there, Kuwait still has not taken any solid legal action to eradicate violence against women and honor killings in the country.
Civil society organizations have been playing a central role in eradicating GBV, most notably the ‘Abolish 153’ campaign that has been running since 2015 and aims to eradicate the honor killing law in Kuwait. It focuses on filling the legal vacuum through advocacy and lobbying in order to create a safe environment where mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives are protected from all forms of violence. It also aims to raise awareness of these violent practices, as well as build a coalition across the GCC and the Arab world to abolish all similar laws.
The campaign runners met with various members of the parliament numerous times, and in 2017, they managed to achieve a small step toward their goal. Five members of the parliament, including the only women member of parliament at the time, presented the first bill in the National Assembly to abolish 153 on urgent status. However, the four-year legislation term ended before National Assembly took up the bill.
It is clear that violence against women and honor killings have become a practice that is defended in the name of tradition and exists in a vacuum of legal assistance. These acts of violence are not related to any adulterous actions. Instead, they stem from the need to control and establish power over women. They are about the men committing them and the patriarchal society that allows them to continue to do so with impunity and little fear of facing any consequences.
Violence against women and honor killings as social practices need to be isolated from the larger socio-cultural milieu. They need to be redefined as acts of violence and criminal conduct against women’s human rights. There is a common misconception that “culture is an absolute standard source of validity of moral rights or rules” (Howard 1995a, pg.55). But culture is not a static feature of society; it is fluid as it’s created, recreated, and maintained through physical performance.
Therefore, in order for women to enjoy the ability to be equals and live their lives free from violence and discrimination there needs to be education programs to promote gender equality and wonens rights and the implementation of corrective measures and laws to eradicate any harmful practices against women.
People in Kuwait hope this change takes place soon, especially in light of the recent parliamentary elections that took place on the 29th of September 2022. Elections that people in Kuwait hope would bring about change to the political and economic gridlock that has plagued the country for the past few years. The election was viewed as a political win for women in Kuwait since two female MPs were voted into the parliament, thus, reversing the lack of women representation in the last few parliaments.
However, until now, no change has taken place, and the question remains whether MPs will be able to cooperate with each other to end GBV and implement the necessary reform measures.
Nourhan AlBahrani has an interest in writing about political, social and human rights issues, holds a BA in Politics and Sociology from the University of Brighton and an MA in Human Rights from the University of Sussex.