Trigger Warning – Mentions and description of systemic transphobia, misogyny, GBV
Last week, Kuwait overturned a 2-decade-old law that criminalised the “imitation of opposite sex” a.k.a. being a transgender person. This came after a 2-year-long battle which began after a trans woman named Maha Al Mutairi got arrested for reporting police officers for raping her in 2020.
She was arrested under the country’s amended Article 198 of the penal code in 2007 that was used to criminalize ‘cross-dressing’. The law was initially introduced to act on those making lewd signals in public places and was later expanded. The arrest happened after she posted to her Snapchat talking about how she was sexually assaulted by police officers while she was detained in Kuwaiti men’s prison during a 7-month detention. The police accused her of imitating a different gender because she wore lipstick and femme-presenting clothes and also said that she made sexual advances.
Maha broke down on her video and said “When you imprison me because I’m trans, then I get raped and sexually assaulted by people with high authority and by cops, what do you call that?” she said. “When you imprison me in a men’s prison and as I’m sleeping in my cell, I get groped and sexually assaulted by policemen what do you call that?”.
Her case sparked the biggest LGBTQ+ rights movement in Kuwaiti history. Within days of her arrest, her video started trending on social media sites under the hashtag “Free Maha Al Mutairi” and “Justice for Maha Al Mutairi”. Her case garnered global support after a lawyer translated it to English. However, according to Shaikha Salmeen, a queer rights lawyer in the country, Mutairi didn’t know about the movement for days.
The police officials told her that nobody knows or cares about her whereabouts. “For days I was not even allowed to meet her. The jail officials would lie to me and say she wasn’t there” says Salmeen “She didn’t even know that there was a lawyer coming and asking after her willing to take up her case”.
Maha only realised that there was this huge movement for her post her release and was overwhelmed upon finding out.
Maha is almost 40 and she says that this behavior and assault by the authorities has been the norm ever since she came out at the age of 20. Within hours of her video going viral Salmeen received hundreds of messages from gay and trans people sharing similar incidents of abuse.
With both pre-marital sex and intercourse between two (cis)men still being criminalised in the country, Kuwait still has a long way to go in terms of ensuring the human rights of queer people. Amnesty International has called this case a breakthrough in the queer rights and human rights movement in Kuwait. The case is certainly a glimmer of hope for the country’s queer movement.