Recent high-level U.S. diplomatic activity seems aimed at addressing a sense of grievance Gulf capitals harbor.
Abolish 153 is an awareness campaign started by a small group of women in Kuwait to eradicate domestic violence in the country. The initiative’s main target is Article 153 of Kuwait’s penal code, which stipulates that a man who murders his wife (or daughter, sister, or mother) after catching her in an adulterous act can receive a maximum punishment of three years in prison and/or a fine of up to 225 Kuwaiti Dinars (about $748). The group behind Abolish 153 has held several cultural and educational events to mobilize against Article 153 and gender violence, and to highlight women’s role in society. AGSIW spoke with Alanoud AlSharekh, co-founder of the initiative, to discuss the campaign’s founding, philosophy, and events, as well as its future.
AGSIW: Tell us about the initiative. What is the story behind how the group was formed?
Alanoud: Kuwait is pretty progressive but it is still a difficult place to have a conversation about domestic violence. There’s this public-private divide, a sanctity around the domestic space and this sense of kinship policy where it is disloyal to your family to talk about anything negative. In a sense, it is okay to internalize abusive behavior in order to preserve family honor, which can extend to murder. In 2005, when women won their political rights in Kuwait, I received a MEPI [U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative] grant to compile a list of the most controversial legislation for women. I stumbled upon Article 153 and I thought, I can’t believe this legislation exists in Kuwait! So, for a number of years I have been trying unsuccessfully to start a conversation on domestic violence and how to remedy it.
Kuwait was going through a political upheaval in 2012; there was an election boycott and several protests. In that space, a lot of movements began to mobilize and one of them was a resurgence of trying to have a conversation about domestic violence. At that time my co-director, Lulu Al-Sabah, came to me and said she wanted to do something philanthropic. So I told her, I have this passion project that I need help with. “Would you be interested in tackling honor killing legislation, not just in Kuwait but in the region?” This is a really taboo subject, not just because it is violence and women, but because it has this word adultery in it that nobody wants to touch. Basically, she rallied groups of people together and we sat down and talked. We were a core group of friends – two of us had a background in civil society work and the other three were artists who felt very strongly that it was not “Kuwaiti” to have this law in existence and the fact that it did exist meant that there was a lack of awareness. That’s how the team was formed in November 2014, and we started to test the water by using social media. I think this is where social media has been a game changer, especially for women’s groups, which can test the waters out virtually before sticking their necks out in the real space. We launched this campaign on International Women’s Day and the feedback we got was really positive: People were shocked and horrified that such a law existed. We were bolstered by the support that we found.
AGSIW: There are many political and economic issues and social practices that disempower women in Kuwait, why is this the main issue from which you choose to tackle the status of Kuwaiti women?
Alanoud: My consultancy firm does a lot of work with NGOs and with government bodies and there are SME [Small and Medium Enterprise] funds trying to empower women. As a frontline advocate, as an activist and somebody who lives and breathes female empowerment, I just don’t see us empowering women without removing the mechanisms that disempower them first. You can give women economic and a measure of social independence but if you don’t deal with the legal issues, the guardianship systems that are institutionalized, they will never be empowered. You have to start with the worst and most controversial practices. This rule is part of the guardianship structure; it is disciplinary violence and it informs our other laws. If you are going to empower women, you make them judges, you make sure that there are quotas in place to make them visible and you remove all laws that are in violation of CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women] and in violation of the constitution when it comes to women, otherwise, it is just a vanity project.
AGSIW: Would you talk about the activities you have been doing to raise awareness and mobilize against the article? And why have you chosen art and culture as your primary method?
Alanoud: We did the first campaign with Kuwaiti models, using Kuwaiti photographers, and everything was pro bono. Our first public show was an art exhibition where we showcased the work of young Kuwaiti artists commissioned for this project. Their works were graphic and bold but we didn’t want it to be a combative space. We wanted to confront the issue through cultural awareness because we strongly believe that this has to be political, social, and cultural advocacy because the idea of honor is so ingrained in the culture and therefore you need to tackle it through cultural venues.
We did our first symposium in a public space – a panel on domestic violence and honor killings at the American University of Kuwait – and we got other women’s groups and youth organizations with us, and some international NGOs, and Rana Husseini, an award winning journalist who has written about honor killings in Jordan. We also wanted to integrate education with grassroots advocacy so we did a musical in Al Hamra Mall – because this is where people go in Kuwait, they go to malls and we wanted to extend our reach to random people. We also participated in a campaign that targeted private girls’ colleges called Be Strong, which looked at all aspects of violence against women and was about self-defense.
We did a night of short movies on violence against women and honor killings in Shaheed Park, a public venue, and we were very happy that in Kuwait there is a place where you can have these conversations in public and the government will not suppress them. It was very well attended, but we thought what we really needed to focus on was training and setting up shelters and helplines – because in Kuwait we don’t have the resources or infrastructure to save somebody who [needs it]. So we’ve started a micro-fund to try and help these emergency cases, an underground network. We did a training this past April – the first ever gender-based violence training in Kuwait – and we trained 36 dedicated women from different civil society organizations.
At the same time, we have had regular meetings with MPs on how to change the law. We don’t want to work against the system; we strongly believe in working within the system. We show up to the MP’s offices and get other women’s groups with us, and get their constituents to care about this and talk about how shameful it is. The good news is that, in January 2016, the head of the women’s committee asked the minister of justice a question in a Parliament session about Article 153. He asked whether it is constitutional or not and how do we go about removing it. This was a big win for us – even if the players change, it is now there on record.
AGSIW: What has the response been from young men and women in Kuwait? And have you had any negative reactions or challenges to the initiative?
Alanoud: Abolish has been totally embraced by youth groups. Young artists donate their work to us and that is basically how we fundraise for our activities. We are part of a youth platform that has been so supportive of us. Some suggested that bedouins would be against us but they are very committed to our cause and they encourage us and use some of our tactics and publicly say that they were inspired by Abolish breaking taboos. Youth especially have been amazing, and when we do the symposium and work with universities and with Shaheed Park, which is run by a youth organization, it is always the young people who want us to become more radical.
In terms of challenges, well there is a reason the core group is only five women. We spoke to groups of people, people who are supposed to be [with us] … [some said] “This is not an epidemic in Kuwait, why are you focusing on this? There are more important things, this is way too early, too controversial…” Some were willing to support us behind the scenes but didn’t want to be publicly associated. Our biggest failure in this process so far was to have too much trust in politics. When we were lobbying we forgot we were dealing with politicians; when you are in the room their job is to agree with you. It is not that they weren’t supportive, but we expected the support to translate into action and it took us awhile to realize that it won’t translate into action unless there is real pressure from us.
AGSIW: Would you talk about building a regional coalition in the Gulf Cooperation Council and in the wider Middle East?
Alanoud: We work with Kafa in Lebanon and with similar organizations in Jordan so we already have support in the region. We believe in a collaborative process with cultural and educational institutions in the GCC and NGOs, though we understand the structures in Kuwait may not be exactly replicated elsewhere. We have been approached by women’s groups in Bahrain and Qatar that are interested in opening this conversation as well because this law exists in different forms all over the Arab Middle East. Abolish is a GCC-wide initiative. We had our first exhibition in Dubai and the UAE government, which has been quite pioneering and progressive, will perhaps move toward abolishing the honor killing legislation and then inspire a GCC-wide trend.
AGSIW: Once you succeed in getting Article 153 abolished, what’s next on the agenda?
Alanoud: Our first focus has always been awareness and advocacy, and even though we are fairly new we have accomplished a lot and learned a lot. We learned that there is a strong need for training and capacity building and we are interested in doing both right now. Article 153 is just the tip of the iceberg for us. There are so many other laws in the penal code that need to be looked at. There’s a lack of resources for survivors [of domestic abuse]. We want to change how this conversation takes place; we have to tackle the educational curriculum, as well as the whole gender-violence sphere. We have a long way to go.
On Kuwaiti Women’s Day on May 16, Abolish 153 will hold an art exhibition to raise awareness about its campaign. For more information on Abolish 153’s events visit Abolish153.org, and follow the initiative on Twitter and Instagram.
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