Updated on 24/11/2020
Many of us are not alarmed by phone calls from “unknown” numbers. But for Maha Almutairi, a transgender woman from Kuwait, these calls are life-threatening.
Maha has gained popularity across multiple social media platforms, and particularly on Snapchat. Her visibility as a transgender woman in Kuwait led to her arrest on February 26, 2019 for being charged with “imitating the opposite sex,” which is codified as criminal in Kuwait’s Article 198. Following her release on September 22, 2019, Maha became extremely cautious about how she presents herself and uses her platform: she wore thyab and unisex clothes, stopped wearing makeup, and avoided referring to herself with “feminine” Arabic pronouns.
Regardless of her cautiousness and avoidance of anything that may get her in trouble with authorities, the ‘enforcers’ continued to harass and assault her. This included regular calls from police stations asking her to visit their center. These exclusive ‘visits’ are not like checkups for all previously-arrested people, but target transgender people particularly and serve only to humiliate them. During these visits, Maha was physically and verbally abused while being recorded. And after she is dismissed from each visit, Maha hopes never to receive another inevitable call.
Maha is one of many transgender woman who have experienced police violence in Kuwait as a result of Article 198, which states that whoever “(imitates) the opposite sex in any way” would face a year in prison and/or a fine of approximately $3,600. Article 198 is an amendment to preexisting “public decency” laws that was passed by Kuwait’s National Assembly in May 2007. The condition of Kuwait’s transgender community was throughly documented in a 2012 Human Rights Watch report,“They Hunt Us Down for Fun”, which compares shifts in their condition before and after the implementation of this Article.
Like many other transgender women in Kuwait, transness was not the only difficult process Maha had to navigate. She had to realize that the country and people she loved would never reciprocate these emotions. Instead, they imposed laws that criminalized her identity and never missed an opportunity to exclude her and make her pay her personal safety as a cost of being visible and honest about her truth. Not only is Maha struggling with the trauma resulting from these arrests, but she also has to live with the fact that many deny and will take away her entitlement to life and dignity.
“I still got out of jail, and nothing has changed: I’m still a trans woman.”
The word “transgender” was one that Maha directly lived, but she could never pinpoint. “I discovered [being trans] when I was really young. I was in kindergarten, or even before,” said Maha. “It was a difficult stage because I was a baby, I was so young. I didn’t know what was happening, or what I was going through.”
Transness was something familiar to her, but since an early age, Maha was aware of the rejection from society she may encounter because of her identity. “I lived in constant stress. [Due to] the traditions in Kuwait and our society in the Arab world in general, it was really difficult to express my feelings or tell someone that I feel this way. So it is really difficult for us to talk about [being trans] with our families because these topics are very sensitive.”
Her family eventually began noticing certain things about her, which Maha wanted to happen and signaled to them. “Since I was young, my family 100% noticed. I never liked to play with boys, and I always waited for other groups of girls to play and talk with them, especially on the weekends. The boys always felt some type of way about me, and I [Maha smiles] never liked them actually.”
As she grew, her awareness of her gender identity grew with her. And even before deciding to transition, Maha noticed that her community’s transphobia was even reflected in its health system. According to her, “in Kuwait, we don’t have any facilities that provide us with services, like surgeries and hormones, to transition.” Maha’s frustration with health system is accompanied by it being a replica of the criminal system, which imposes Article 198 that makes her and other transgender women “experience severe oppression in Kuwait.”
Social media was a way for Maha to explore and connect with other trans women in both Kuwait and the region. Like many Arab LGBTQIA+ people who seek refuge in digital spaces where they’re granted a sense of belonging, community, and visibility, Maha found these in Snapchat when it started being used in the Gulf in 2014 and 2015: “I started posting snaps publicly as a transgender woman, with long hair reaching the end of my back.” The snaps were initially for people who knew her from afar or were in her inner circle, but as her account gained public attention, the visibility and platform Maha has created got her arrested in 2019. “They buzzed my hair before I was released, and I was devastated and abandoned Snapchat for a while.”
When she returned to posting on Snapchat earlier this year (2020), she was cautious for her own safety. “I forgot about long hair and only had very short hair after,” Maha said. “I knew that being trans didn’t mean having long hair. What I felt within my soul was enough.”
On Friday June 5, 2020, Maha received one of these calls yet again. This time, she recorded a video accusing policemen of raping, assaulting, and beating her and posted it on Snapchat, exposing the violence that she endured during her arrest and the subsequent visits. Minutes later, the video went viral across different social media platforms, causing the circulation of a petition demanding her freedom and other transgender women.
“No one is willing to harm their reputation for a ‘humane case.’ No one cares about that.”
Many of Maha’s followers were concerned about her, because they knew this public condemnation of abuses of transgender women put her at further risk. Some of Maha’s followers were friends of Aljawhara lawyer Shaikha Slameen, and reached out to her to handle Maha’s case.
Salmeen, who has experience defending cases related to Article 198 pro bono, took the case immediately, saying “This is my community. It’s always been my fight.” Salmeen, alongside a select number of lawyers, have been actively working towards dismantling Article 198. This fight, however, is going to be draining and long because, according to Salmeen, “no one is willing to harm their reputation for a ‘humane case.’ No one cares about that.”
What makes the task even harder for Salmeen is that the issue of transgenders aren’t even acknowledged by public sectors like the health one. So the risk of being arrested isn’t the only risk she is trying to keep transgender women away from. “[transgender women] are buying their hormones from the market. They’re not even doing it as transgender women. They ask their [cis] girlfriends to buy them for them. They even have to go to countries like Thailand for top surgeries,” said Salmeen. “It’s risky, and they’re putting themselves at risk just to live their reality.”
Salmeen’s work was not easy. She couldn’t start looking for Maha on Friday, when the video was posted, because she didn’t know exactly which facility Maha was at. She tweeted on her account asking Maha’s close friends who knew where she was headed and what her legal name and ID number were to contact her. When Salmeen was finally contacted by Maha’s friends on Saturday morning, she headed to the station on the same Saturday in the afternoon and gave them Maha’s full legal name and info to inquire about her. Salmeen was, however, dismissed and asked to return back on Sunday because it was a weekend and “there were no employees.”
More suspicious was that the officers had immediately claimed they did not have Maha upon Salmeen’s arrival, even though she did not name the detainee she was looking for. “I told them that I haven’t even given you the name yet. When I did, they pretended they didn’t know about her,” said Salmeen. “I told them that they haven’t checked any of their files or made any of their calls to make sure. When I told them I came yesterday, one of them asked if I was asking about the ‘imitation’ case and said I would find [Maha] at alneyabah (النيابة).” Salmeen checked two alneyabat that could potentially be where Maha was at. She asked and made calls at both of them, yet there was no trace of Maha. “We told you don’t have her. Do you think we’re hiding her?” said one of the officers to Salmeen.
On Monday morning, Maha called one of her friends asking her to come and bail her out. Apparently, Maha was present at the alneyabah where Salmeen has been looking for her. Maha didn’t know of Salmeen before that Friday, but when they met, Maha told Salmeen that the police had told her of a woman tweeting about her arrest. That woman was Salmeen.
Comparing this arrest to the 2019 arrest, Maha said that, “[in 2019], they buzzed my hair, they raped me, they tortured me… This is the best they’ve ever treated me.” Maha also says “my first arrest was because I was accused of ‘imimitating the opposite sex,’ but this one was because I wasn’t scared to live my trruth after I was released.”
Both Salmeen and Maha think this is a result of the spread of the video. “Maha exploded when she released that video,” said Salmeen. “It was her way of saying ‘enough is enough’ about how she was treated by everyone.”
Maha, alongside Salmeen and other lawyers and activists in Kuwait are currently working on fighting against these barriers that haunt the transgender community in Kuwait in what she calls “baby steps.” They are doing so in two ways: collecting stories and documenting incidents of police violence against the transgeder community and other detainees, as well as taking the case against Article 198 to the constitutional court with the help of psychiatrists, human right activists, and lawyers.
Maha hasn’t fully recovered from everything she has gone through. “I hope things become better. Prison isn’t a solution. What is its purpose even?” Maha wonders. “I still got out, and nothing has changed: I’m still a trans woman.” Yet she is still filled with hope that things will change for her and other transgender women in Kuwait and the region with help of people like Salmeen.
Maha now, against all odds, still seeks refuge on Snapchat. And while she is taking all safety precautions to avoid any threat to her safety, she is cultivating and creating spaces for fellow transgender women in Kuwait and the region to reach out and learn from. Kuwait may have not loved Maha back, but Maha will never stop loving it.
Maha hasn’t received any calls, and she doesn’t wish to anytime soon.
On June 2020 Controversy
Last June 2020, Maha published a series of tweets and videos following her arrest in which she demonized the community that advocated for her. This was understood by many as an attempt to appeal to the heteronormative majority that dehumanized her, but does not justify her comments.
Shaikha Salmeen tweeted an apology on June 15, 2020, writing, “I called Maha because i was BEYOND angry , and i asked her to explain what she meant, and she said she never meant to hurt anybody, but she used a “stupid” defense when she was being attacked as she was fed up with the mixture between homosexuality and transgenderism.” Two Kuwaiti LGBTQ activists also responded, saying that though Maha should be accountable for her actions, this was an issue of ignorance and exposure to conversations and knowledge (1, 2).
Most importantly, Maha also apologized on June 15 both on Snapchat and Twitter, writing, “After some self-revaluation, I deleted the tweet that some found offensive. I didn’t mean it. I assure you of my support for the LGBTQ+ community, which is a humanitarian community that deserves to thrive in respect and safety. I love you all.”
Note from writer:
As the team of My.Kali magazine was preparing for the release of their latest issue, “Emigration & Desolation”, I checked in with Maha Almutairi and Shaikha Salmeen to see if they were still fine with the feature story I wrote about them to be published. I understood that any word could endanger Maha’s safety and cause more unnecessary complications to her case. While they were excited for it be published and have been answering my questions and updating me on the case since last June, they are still at risk — Maha was arrested again last month for “imitating the opposite sex and misuse of social media,” and she was finally released last Sunday after requesting a “medical diagnosis of gender dysmorphia.” Not only is Maha’s story a reminder of how the laws in the Gulf alienate and criminalize trans people, but it’s also a reminder of how far authority is willing to go to ensure it’s silencing and erasing opposing voices. Link