Words by M.
Design by Lina A.
On February 16th, 2022, the Kuwaiti Constitutional Court overturned Article 198. After fifteen years of living in terror, the Kuwaiti trans community can now venture out in public without fearing rapacious authorities who abuse the vague amendment to physically assault, degrade, persecute, and imprison members of the trans community, many of whom have been treated like a punching bag for years.
In 2007, Waleed Al Tabtabaie, a Salafist MP with an appalling track record of restricting social and personal freedoms under the veneer of “protecting Arab and Islamic communities from alien phenomena,” formed a parliamentary committee for the Study of Negative Phenomena Alien to Kuwait. Once Islamists comprised a majority in Parliament, MP Al Tabtabaie proposed amending Article 198 of the penal code. “The amendment was voted unanimously by an Islamist majority without inviting any stakeholders, such as medical or social specialists, civil society, or any governmental entities,” and was amended “without consulting the medical establishment, constitutional lawyers, religious scholars, and most importantly members of the community.”1 The wording of the entire legislation was highly vague and open to interpretation, resulting in arbitrary enforcement, sexual violence, humiliation, and grotesque human rights violations.
Article 198 was instantly enforced by the police and the judicial system. A ferocious wave of arrests hit the trans community within the first few months—their mere presence in public was a crime. I revisited conversations with Rana*, a trans woman in Kuwait, to discuss the law’s ramifications. “It felt bizarre,” she said. “A switch was turned off. Prior to [Article] 198, we would go to the police who would help us file a complaint against those who wronged us in public. After 198, those same compassionate policemen were arresting us in public, blackmailing us into non-consensual sex, shaving our heads, and transferring us to the Criminal Investigation Unit where the abuse intensified.” It is worth mentioning that Kuwait is a signatory member of various international treaties and conventions upholding fundamental human rights principles.
The law has led to the erosion of trans women from social spaces. “Prior to 2007, you would see trans women out in malls, banks, hospitals—they were visible in the public sphere,” said Ahmad*. “Their existence became a crime.” Unfortunately, many trans youth in Kuwait are under the impression that society was more accepting prior to passing the law because of a lack of legal basis. At that time, life was slightly easier for trans women. They faced marginalization in the public sphere, and many were cast out by family. In the early aughts, I vividly remember an older Kuwaiti man dressed in traditional clothing confronting a trans woman at a coffee shop in broad daylight. He thwacked her knees with a cane and inveighed against homosexuality by quoting a weak Hadith and referring to her as a cursed “Looti.” She stood her ground, pulled the cane from his hands, called the police, and prevented him from leaving the café by blocking the door with the same cane he used to smack her knees. Law enforcement showed up in less than an hour and managed to arrest him. After the law was amended, a legal basis existed— civilians took advantage of the law by blackmailing and abusing trans women in public. Rana* ponders, “What can you do? Nothing. You are under your abuser’s mercy.”
Due to devastating levels of economic discrimination and the threat of imprisonment, many trans women resort to sex work to make ends meet
Due to devastating levels of economic discrimination and the threat of imprisonment, many trans women resort to sex work to make ends meet. Many of them are on dating apps offering their services to cover their rent, food, hormone treatment, backstreet breast augmentation, and FFS. Ironically, my trans friends who do sex work profess the majority of their regular clients are openly transphobic in public. It is the police officers who arrest them and judges who pass down heavy sentences.
Not all members of the LGBTQ community welcomed the overturning of Article 198. Ahmad*, a closeted cisgender gay man who recently moved back to Kuwait from California, believes GID is a malady. “Do what you want, but not in public,” he said. “If you want to dress up, why not do it abroad on vacation? This is not San Fran; the majority are traditionally religious.” Many in the region hide their sexuality/identity visage beneath a veneer of heteronormativity. Like most people in Kuwait, Ahmad aims to perpetuate societal gender norm behavior that serves their interests; trans women pose a threat to hegemonic masculinity.
Why hasn’t the law been challenged for fifteen years? Saleh, a prominent social researcher, replied, “First of all, many lawyers did not want to risk their reputation by challenging the amendment. Secondly, prior to 2014, it was impossible to appeal the amendment because the Constitutional Court did not accept appeals.” Searching for a non-polarized lawyer who would appeal the amendment took years. It was Maha Al Mutairi’s case that catapulted the cause to the forefront. It received attention from international NGOs and civil society. “It was an opportunity, an auspicious time to mobilize with other members of the community and grab people’s attention on the transgressions of 198,” said Salah.
Shockingly, there are calls from current liberal MPs such as Muhanad Al Sayer to reinstate the amendment and double the fine. I started questioning where a disorganized and fractured community should go from there? Due to security reasons, there are no openly gay advocates in Kuwait.
Design by Lina A.
Many would argue that a cohesive community in Kuwait does not exist. We are divided along class, ethnic, and gender lines. At friends’ gatherings, I’ve heard statements echoed similar to Ahmad by cis-gendered gay men of privileged upbringings and positions of power. Ahmad states, “The community all over the world is classist to its core; the entire rainbow-waving gay identity is seen from a western lens. It does not represent us nonbinary and queer folks— it is merely a commercialization of queer culture that serves an abusive capitalist structure.” Trans women and effeminate gay men from the merchant and ruling families do not get humiliated and imprisoned by the police compared to the stateless and those with tribal family names. Violence, humiliation, and threat of arrest are aggravated by one’s positionality of social class and citizenship.
“Remember, you are walking on eggshells in Kuwait. Do not push hard—it will backfire,” said professor Maydaa. The main issue we should tackle after the repeal of 198 is to break the stereotype. The Kuwaiti media has vilified transgenders and reinforced negative stereotypes by portraying them in a joking manner and as a serious threat to morality and religious tradition. Trans women come from all walks of life. Social media should be utilized to amplify trans voices and break the stereotype portrayed by the media. In addition, the Ministry of Health recognizes GID as a medical condition; trans women should organize towards changing their gender on their identification card.
Charbel Maydaa, a distinguished LGBTQ activist from Lebanon, said, “it is time for the trans community in Kuwait to be visible, to amplify their voices. It is vital the community organizes and pushes for more rights.” We have the right tools to incrementally push for change, such as access to media, international NGOs, and advocates abroad. What we lack is the most valuable part—a unified and well-organized community and a clear goal to target.
* Interviews were conducted individually between the 22nd and 27th of February 2022. Due to security reasons, pseudonyms were employed to protect the identity and confidentiality of the author and interviewees from Kuwait.