In the early hours of a Ramadan morning in April, Farah Hamza Akbar, a young Kuwaiti woman, was kidnapped from her car with her two daughters. The kidnapper later stabbed Akbar in front of her daughters, drove her body and the two orphaned girls to the hospital, and fled the scene.
Following the gruesome murder, Akbar’s sister and lawyer, Dana Akbar, shared on social media that she had warned the prosecutor multiple times that her late sister was under a grave threat from the perpetrator. According to Dana, the man attempted to kidnap and harm Farah on multiple occasions. Dana Akbar filed two complaints against him. He was detained twice but released on bail each time.
Akbar’s death sparked outrage across the country. Women, activists, and human rights advocates gathered at Kuwait’s Erada Square, in front of the National Assembly building, protesting in solidarity with the victim. Demonstrators held signs that read “End gender-based violence,” “Am I next?” and “Stop killing women.”
This grassroots activism has gained national traction and applied pressure on the legislative branch. This has helped the movement garner support from younger Islamist members of parliament, such as Abdulaziz al-Saqabi and Osama al-Shaheen, who joined the protest and expressed their condemnation to the public.
Protection Only on Paper
In spite of a lack of up-to-date statistics, gender-based violence is widespread in Kuwait, affecting 53.1% of women according to a 2018 study.
During the past two years, there has been a repeated pattern in Kuwait of violent killing of women, whose lives were taken most commonly by their male kin but sometimes by other men. This has seemingly increased since the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic. According to activists and experts interviewed by Al-Anba newspaper, this has been aggravated by the lack of legal resources and shelters for survivors of violence. In its last submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Kuwait claimed that only 447 domestic violence cases had been filed in 2016, and only 76 of those resulted in conviction. Harassment laws are absent from the legal system and reported cases of violence are often brushed off by law enforcement.
On August 19, 2020 Kuwait’s National Assembly approved the Family Protection Law, which offers protective measures against domestic violence for women and families. However, many of the law’s requirements remain merely ink on paper. For instance, Article 2 of the law stipulates that the state is obligated to take all necessary measures to protect the families of all residents of Kuwait against all forms of violence. But, despite the new law, two women have had their lives taken by male family members since then.
In September 2020, Fatima al-Ajmi, a 35-year-old pregnant Kuwaiti woman, was shot dead by her brother in the intensive care unit of a hospital due to a marriage dispute, although Ajmi’s father and another brother had approved the marriage. Three months later, Sheikha al-Ajmi, a parliamentary employee at the National Assembly, was stabbed three times by her 17-year-old brother who allegedly did not approve of her job, given that she is a tribal woman.
Only two members of parliament out of 50, who all walk in the same hall that Sheikha al-Ajmi patrolled, have spoken out about the heinous crime committed against her. Three weeks after her murder, the court charged her brother with a misdemeanor, imposing only a 2-year prison sentence.
In a recent article, lawyer Noor Bin Haider claimed that if the Family Protection Law gets implemented, it will guarantee the protection of women from any form of violence. Article 3 of the law states that a committee for combatting domestic violence shall be formed under the Supreme Council for Family Affairs including ministerial representatives. However, an official committee has yet to be created.
According to Article 5, shelters for victims of domestic violence are supposed to be established, however there is still not a single functioning state shelter in Kuwait. According to Alaa al-Saeedi, a prominent lawyer and member of the International Bar Association, the solution lies in creating and opening the shelters immediately, especially for women who have obtained protective orders from the court. During an interview with Al Rai newspaper, Saeedi stressed that the absence of shelters in Kuwait makes it nearly impossible for women and children facing domestic violence to find a safe haven, causing them great anxiety. However, there remains no clear explanation as to why the shelters have not yet opened.
Laws that Harm
Kuwait has lagged behind its neighboring countries when it comes to the safety of women. For instance, the country’s penal code contains several laws that discriminate on the basis of gender.
One of the worst is Article 153, which treats honor killings as a misdemeanor. It stipulates that any man who surprises his mother, sister, daughter, or wife in an unsavory act with a man and kills her, him, or both will be charged with a misdemeanor and receive a 3-year jail term or a maximum fine of 3,000 Kuwaiti dinars (about $10,000). Another law, Article 182, allows an abductor to escape punishment if he marries the person he abducted or raped (with the permission of her guardian). Disciplinary beatings are also sanctioned by law under Article 29 of the penal code.
While many of the cases of violence and harassment against women that have occurred do not fall under the textbook definition of honor killing, the existence of these discriminatory laws helps perpetuate a culture of normalizing violence against women.
On January 31, prominent fashion blogger Ascia al-Faraj posted a heartfelt video after being harassed by a man in his speeding car, sparking an anti-sexual harassment campaign. The video ignited a series of conversations about sexual harassment and gender-based violence, which were once considered taboo topics among female activists across Kuwait.
Shayma Shamo, a medical doctor, launched an awareness campaign on social media, “Lan Asket” (I won’t be silenced), for women to share anonymous testimonies of harassment or abuse. Shamo believes that having a virtual safe space that ensures anonymity encourages more women to speak up.
Since 2015, the Abolish 153 campaign, an awareness campaign founded by five women aiming to eradicate the honor killing law in Kuwait, has focused on filling the legal vacuum along with advocating and lobbying for the safety of women and the abolition of Article 153 of the penal code. Alongside the campaign, civil society organizations such as Eithar – Abolish 153’s registered sister – and Soroptimists Kuwait have also been working effectively on this issue, providing survivors of domestic violence with resources and support.
In May 2017, five members of parliament, including the only woman member of parliament at that time, presented the first bill in the National Assembly to abolish Article 153 as an urgent matter. However, the 4-year legislative term ended before the National Assembly took up the bill.
The campaign has met several times with various members of the now all-male parliament urging them to resubmit the bill. On March 24, District Three representative Hesham al-Saleh presented a second bill to abolish the legislation.
The recent social media uproar has caught the attention of members of parliament who have promised legislative action to confront harassment and violence against women. In an attempt to capitalize on the momentum of the outrage over Akbar’s murder, Osama al-Shaheen, a member of the Women, Children, and Family Affairs Committee, and other Islamist members of parliament presented a third bill. During his participation in the protest, Shaheen spoke about abolishing Article 153 as a step in the right direction to protect women.
Coverage of femicide and gender-based violence has become more prevalent in Kuwaiti media. At the same time, there has been more legislative action and greater pressure from the streets to enact laws and change cultural norms to protect women against violence.