Kuwaiti women's fight against gender-based violence

Women in Kuwait tell police 'take us seriously, or more of us will die'
8 min read
06 May, 2021
The harrowing murder of Farah Akbar highlights the systemic issue of gender-based violence in Kuwait.
Kuwaiti women raise placards during a rally to denounce violence against women [Getty]

Kuwait has been shaken to its core by the heinous kidnap and murder of 32-year-old mother of two Farah Akbar in the district of Sabah Al-Salem in Kuwait City. Not only were people shocked and outraged that such a cold-blooded crime took place during the holy month of Ramadan, they were infuriated to learn that the man accused of murdering her was someone Farah and her older sister, lawyer Dana Akbar, had previously filed complaints against, however the police did not take them seriously.

The result – on April 20, Farah's harasser deliberately hit her car so that she had no escape, forcibly removed her in front of her daughter and niece, and took Farah to an unknown destination before stabbing her to death and dumping her body outside a hospital.

This all happened in broad daylight. In a distressing video clip that circulated on social media, we witness her older sister stood at the entrance of the hospital crying, "We told you he would kill her and he has killed my sister! Where is the government?"

Details have emerged that the man accused of Farah's murder had been stalking and harassing her for some time, after he had made a marriage proposal to her family which was rejected on account of Farah already being married.

After filing a number of complaints about him to the police, he verbally threatened to kidnap and murder her if she did not drop the case against him, and the police's failure to take action resulted in him carrying out those threats.

People across Kuwait have said that they will not be satisfied unless he receives the death penalty, the ultimate sentence which is carried out in Kuwait for first degree murder.

On April 24, women across Kuwait held a digital memorial service, using the hashtag "azaa' al-nisaa'" or "the women's memorial service" on social media, where they posted photographs of themselves dressed in black, holding placards with slogans such as "I am the next victim" as well as a list of the names of other women who have been murdered in Kuwait recently. 

There was a resounding message – that women in Kuwait do not feel safe anymore.

There was a resounding message – that women in Kuwait do not feel safe anymore

Activists, lawyers, and academics in Kuwait say that the failure to protect women from gender-based violence leads to their murder at the hands of their male harassers and abusers, and this is now a systemic issue in the country.

Dr Dalal Alfares, Assistant Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Kuwait University, told The New Arab, "The murdering and killing of women, specifically, is an ongoing systematic process that has been happening for a long time. Kuwaiti society and the state have been wilfully ignorant and turning its back on issues concerning gender-based violence that is directed towards women."

This denial that gender-based violence against women is a real issue in Kuwait has been reflected in recent days with public figures in Kuwait responding to "azaa' al-nisaa'" by saying that it isn't a memorial service for all women, but a memorial service for "all people," something that Twitter users in the country say equates to saying "all lives matter," deflecting from the real issue at hand and dismissing a growing list of victims of femicide.

"Several people don't want to view this issue as a women's issue and want to depoliticise the collective grief and momentum that's following the murder of Farah Akbar," explains Dr Alfares.

"Feminists in Kuwait have been paving the way to see this issue in a contextually intersectional way. The murder is not the first murder, unfortunately. There have been several instances of women from tribal backgrounds, from stateless backgrounds, from migrant backgrounds, and from trans and non-binary gendered backgrounds. We hear about these instances of violence on a weekly or even daily basis and our hearts sink with every name."

The murdering and killing of women, specifically, is an ongoing systematic process that has been happening for a long time

A lack of legislation that specifically targets and penalises gender-based violence against women, in addition to the prevalence of laws that enable such abuse – such as a law that allows a male kidnapper to marry their victim, or Article 153 that justifies the murder of a woman by her male family member if she was "caught by surprise" in the act of adultery, plus a discrepancy between the sentences given to men and women for the same crimes, in which men tend to receive lighter sentences  has allowed men, like the man accused of murdering Farah Akbar, to genuinely believe that they can get away with crimes as serious as kidnap and murder. 

"That murder, if we look at it as a singular, unique event, is the stuff of some noir movie; a hyperviolent crime disconnected to a social context that drives such horrific murders. To me, this was state-sanctioned femicide," says Kuwaiti journalist and writer Yousef Alshammari.

"This was a truthful reflection of our patriarchal nation. I hope we don't confuse this moment with an adopted obliviousness that what goes uncovered in Kuwaiti society is less horrific. In this case the murderer wasn't audacious at all. He was doing what he truly believed was his right to do, to exert all his deadly misogynistic power on a woman until her life is squeezed out of her in front of her children."

Doctoral researcher and writer Shaika Al Hashem adds, "It's a systematic failure. Access to protection and justice is succumbed to long, bureaucratic procedures and processes. The death threats preceding the atrocious murder were not taken seriously, as complaints filed by women are often times not taken seriously, unfortunately. Further, a lack of accountability and guarantee of getting away encourages perpetrators to continue committing violence."

One of the biggest challenges faced by women in Kuwait today, something which is continually highlighted by social media campaign Lan Asket  a platform where women in Kuwait can speak openly about experiences of abuse and harassment  is getting their complaints taken seriously by the police.

Women in Kuwait report that the police often equate harassment with "flirting," dismiss their concerns, and encourage them to drop their complaints and to leave things on good terms with their abuser or harasser.

Women in Kuwait report that the police often equate harassment with 'flirting,' dismiss their concerns, and encourage them to drop their complaints and to leave things on good terms with their abuser or harasser

Often, the harasser or abuser is merely asked to sign a pledge known as a "ta'ahhud" stating they won't do it again, a piece of paper that is not a restraining order and has no legal weight to it.

"I don't think I know a single woman in Kuwait who trusts the police to take cases of gender-based violence and harassment seriously," says Dr Al Fares.

"If you ask any woman what she would do if she gets beaten up, or harassed, or held captive by her family, she would reply, 'I don't know' or 'probably file a lawsuit'.

"If, in the rare case a woman does muster up the courage to file a report on a perpetrator, the police usually says 'this is a private family issue' and in a lot of cases bring in the perpetrator and inflict even more trauma on the victim by placing her in the same space as the violent attacker to 'solve the issue' and get on with it."

Women and activists across Kuwait believe that a social revolution is required [Getty]

So where does Kuwait go from now? In a statement released online by Lan Asket and the Women's Alliance, activists called on the government to take a number of immediate actions.

These include the implementation of the Domestic Violence Law, the opening of women's refuges, the creation of a telephone hotline to log women's complaints along with a process for dealing with them, training of police officers to better deal with cases of abuse and harassment against women, and the requirement of the presence of female police officers in such cases.

They also call on the government to monitor police stations to ensure that they are dealing with complaints of abuse and harassment seriously and effectively.  

I believe it starts with men and the people who uphold masculine privileges to start seeing the world through feminist lenses. They will be horrified to know what we experience

Some people in Kuwait are looking to the death sentence as a solution that will act as a deterrent to anyone else who may think they can get away with taking the life of a woman, but women and activists across Kuwait say that the solution is a lot more complex.

They believe that a social revolution is required, one that will eradicate a culture of shaming women who speak openly about their experiences of gender-based violence and who dare to go to the police to file a complaint against the perpetrator, who in cases may be a male family member.

"We keep asking for non-carceral justice and we're not being heard. We want an intellectual and social revolution that takes women seriously," says Dr Alfares.

"I believe it starts with men and the people who uphold masculine privileges to start seeing the world through feminist lenses. They will be horrified to know what we experience."

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020.

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA