"We have become the shelter and sanctuary": Inside Kuwaiti women’s campaign to abolish the law permitting ‘honor killings’

Wednesday 20 February 201908:31 pm
“I don’t know why I sometimes get the feeling that the relationship between the Arab male and the Arab female is a real estate relationship, in which all the facets of real estate relationships are applicable; inspection, payment of fees, and ownership”. This was a famous saying of the departed poet Nizar Qabbani: one that summarises what many women go through in some Arab societies. Many years have passed, yet the critical issues facing women remain unresolved. Women who fight for their nationality to be granted to their children. Women who fight to choose their own husbands. Women who fight to defend civil marriage. Women who fight to gain their inheritance rights. And others who fight simply to stay alive. Take for instance the struggle of Kuwaiti women to remove the 153rd article of the Kuwaiti Penal Code, which should be classified as a humanitarian struggle, rather than just being a feminist cause, and which aims to stop the killing of women. For the law grants the woman’s “guardian,” her father, brother, husband and even her sun or cousin, the right to kill her under what is known as an “honour killing.” Article 153,  which according to a 2016 national survey
?s=21">conducted by the Kuwaiti Society for Human Rights, is unknown to 85% of Kuwaiti society, stipulates that “those who are surprised to find their wife in a compromising position of adultery [flagrante delicto], or was surprised to find his daughter or mother or sister in flagrante delicto, and proceeded to kill her immediately or kill those who fornicated with her, or killed both of them, will be punished with a period of imprisonment that does not exceed 3 years or by paying a fine that does not exceed 3,000 Rupees ($45 USD), or by one of these punishments.” It is noteworthy that according to a poll conducted on Twitter last September by the semi-official Kuwaiti
">Almajlis account which counted 23,000 participants, 54% of Kuwaitis oppose cancelling this law. Amongst those who are asking for its abolition is the Kuwaiti journalist, writer and volunteer humanitarian worker Arwa Al-Waqyan, who described the law to Raseef22 as “prejudicial and unjust to the woman,” and its continued existence an “embarrassing matter.” She says that the law encourages violence and killing, adding: “No person deserves to have their life shed simply because of a mistake, because the paths to forgiveness are many, and killing does not match the spirit of forgiveness which should mark our societies.”

The concept of honour

The feminist Kuwaiti activist Kareema Karam is one of the founders of the campaign #Kuwaiti_Women_Against_Violence. In an interview with Raseef22, she attributed the continued existence of Article 153 today as stemming from patriarchal and tribal societies, which she states consider a “reproductive organ between a woman’s thighs as [their] honour.” Karam believes these societies venerated the man and considered the woman as being created only for his service. While society tells a woman to “forgive him… be patient” if her partner cheated on her, it incites the man to kill the woman if she committed the same offence or was suspected of doing so through her behaviour. “The crux of our struggle is the man’s outlook vis a vis his female relatives’ genitalia,” she said. Karam points out that the most recent victim of Article 153 was a Kuwaiti girl who was killed by her brother last December in the neighborhood of al-Salmy, allegedly because of “family disagreements.” The case was closed and not pursued by the media, she says, citing the existence of hundreds of similar murder cases described as honour crimes that are languishing in obscurity. Whilst she has not lost hope that the law will be abolished, Karam predicts that change will be difficult, necessitating protests and the unification of feminist ranks as well as all those who reject its presence in the legal code. The Kuwaiti parliament, she said, is occupied by secondary and superficial matters, so no one pays much attention to the law.

A campaign to abolish Article 153

The case of Article 153 was first brought up in 2005 by Dr Al-Anoud Al-Sharekh, a researcher, academic and activist – at the time when Kuwaiti women were first granted their political right to run for parliament. Little progress was made towards the abolition of the article until 2015, when a campaign was launched alongside Sheikha Al-Nafeesy, Lulu Al-Sabah, Sundus Hamza and Amira Behbehani. https://www.instagram.com/p/Bg6WrZjASi6/?utm_source=ig_embed The catalyst behind launching the campaign after almost a decade was the case of a Kuwaiti student stabbed 16 times by her father, who justified his action as an honour crime. It later emerged that the reason for his actions was that his daughter was not answering his calls, an action that he felt was a sign of disrespect. Accordingly, she had committed an “act that was in violation of honour.” The subsequent campaign succeeded in spreading awareness about Article 153, Dr Al-Sharekh told Raseef22, as well as helping to discover other legal articles that permitted violence against women – all in the absence of a law that protected women or provided a sanctuary to those subjected to violence in Kuwait. In a blunt indictment of her government, Al-Sharekh says that the security of the family and protecting abused women was not amongst its list of priorities. Since the campaign was launched, there have been some successes. The campaign succeeded in May 2017 in passing a draft law calling for the abolition of the article, signed by five representatives of parliament: Omar Al-Tabtaba’i, Abdelwahab Al-Babteen, Ahmed Al-Fadl, Yousef Al-Fadala and Safa’a Al-Hashem. The proposed bill Al-Sharekh reports has been marked as “urgent”, and is now awaiting the allocation of a date to be voted on in parliament. Kuwait is an oil-rich Arab country of almost 1.3 million citizens another 3 million more are expat labourers and their families. It has long been considered the country with the most liberal social and political traditions within the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), at least until the rise of tourism in Dubai and Qatar. That is the reason why Al-Sharekh expresses her “strong surprise and condemnation of the presence of anti-humanitarian articles in an enlightened country such as Kuwait”. Nonetheless, since the campaign has been launched Al-Sharekh says that Kuwaiti society has become more conscious of the issue, while other voices have joined the call for the article’s abolition. Still, much work remains; the absence of official statistics concerning the number of victims of honour killings continues, despite the request by the campaign’s founders of the Ministry of Justice to provide these numbers, according to Al-Sharekh. In the absence of the state, organisations such as Al-Sharekh’s have had to fill the void. “We have become the shelter and sanctuary of abused women and those under threat and this is a daily motivation, even if it is a substantial material and legal burden,” Al-Sharekh said. She added that the campaign has provided aid to up to 100 cases from across all the different demographics of Kuwaiti society, even though this was “the responsibility of the state.” In addition to its legal mission, the campaign also aims to simultaneously spread cultural awareness by organising art galleries, poetry nights and domestic and regional conferences, as well as a recent theatre play that sheds light on the suffering of the abused Kuwaiti woman. “Violence against women is a cultural issue which carries an outlook which views women as inferior,” says Al-Sharekh, making such endeavours all the more crucial. Ironically, this specific legal clause appears to have been a foreign introduction. Al-Sharekh said Article 135 was originally part of the French colonial legal system (namely, Article 337 of the old French Penal Code). “It is not of our customs and contradicts the Shariah, constitution and human rights treaties,” she says. “We refuse to reduce from the stature of Kuwaiti women with such obsolete clauses.” The scale of the challenge is significant. A study surrounding violence against Kuwaiti women compiled by Dr Fatima Al-Salem, a member of the teaching committee in the media department in the College of Social Science, found that 51.2% of women of the subject sample had been subjected to some form of violence, as she revealed in a forum held on the subject which also hosted the founders of the anti-article 153 campaign as guests. According to the research, “physical harm” topped the list, while “verbal abuse” lay at the bottom of the rankings, with “psychological violence” in second-last. The study further asked participants who they considered to be the main proponents of violence against women. Half of abused women reported husbands or fiancés; 20% named an ex-partner (divorcee), and 13% cited a brother, father or relative.
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