On April 20th, 2021 a gruesome murder shook Kuwait and the shock quickly reverberated among women especially across the Arab world, igniting outrage and solidarity. The murder of women at the hand of their male counterparts has been an unaddressed and growing pattern lately in Kuwait. However, unlike the previous femicides, which were either familial or at the hand of intimate partners, Farah Hamza Akbar was murdered by a harasser who had been stalking her for over a year. Akbar’s murder was labeled the Sabah Al-Salem Murder after the district where the atrocity took place.
It was the Sabah Al-Salem Murder and the perpetual silence from the authorities that finally drove women to unleash their bottled-up rage beyond the social media sphere and to protest in Irada Square on April 22nd. As the silence and indifference from the authorities continued, a virtual mourning under the hashtag #Virtual_3aza was held on Saturday, April 24th, organized by a coalition group of women called Bas Kwt (Enough Kuwait). This event was followed by the release of a signed, written statement by local NGOs, civil society and student unions which was published in the local media highlighting six main requests of the government. The purpose of this statement was to lobby and push for immediate policy changes and legal reforms. The first of the six requests was the active implementation of Law 16/2020 Protection Against Domestic Violence, which was enacted in August 2020.
Femicide Continues and Laws are Inactive:
Kuwaiti women had felt a sense of hope when Law No. 16/2020 was passed. Unfortunately, it was premature hope because a few weeks after the passing of the bill, an outrageous murder took place in a public hospital. The victim, Fatma Al-Ajmi, who lay in the ICU after being shot by her brother for exogamous marriage, met her fate at the hand of her nephew who was adamant to end what his father had started. Her case has been called the Salwa Murder. Between the months of September to December 2020, Kuwaiti women still clung onto false hope that maybe the government would sense the urgency to protect women following the Salwa Murder and thus expedite the process for passing the executive regulations of Law 16/2020. Executive regulations are issued following the enactment of a bill and it is what activates the bill and guides the assigned entities on the implementation process. However, the women’s hope was in vain when on December 19th, 2020, another femicide took place. Shaikha Al-Ajmi, a security guard at the National Assembly, was stabbed to death by her brother. Hers was labeled the Al-Riqa Murder.
The timeline between the Salwa and Al-Riqa Murders was a turbulent one for Kuwait as a whole. Changes in leadership were taking place with the passing of the late Emir Sheikh Sabah. National Assembly elections were about to take place, and the country faced a fiscal crisis and a global pandemic. The new year did not bring with it the promise of a new start either; the government submitted its resignation to the emir two weeks into the new year, and by February, the emir issued a decree to suspend parliamentary sessions for a month. Month by month, the hope of ever seeing the enforcement of Law 16/2020 further dimmed.
However, activating Law 16/2020 cannot – stand alone against the looming threat of further femicides and other forms of gender-based violence. Cases of violence must not be examined only by the type of violent act but also must track the network of relationships which govern, support, and enable violence, whether institutionally or among social groups. A thorough and cohesive examination of the phenomenon that nurtures and feeds the systematic domination and discrimination governing women’s private and public lives must take place. In this short essay, I will share a brief summary of my findings from previous interviews I had conducted for a research project with victims of violence in Kuwait and offer a snapshot of the issues facing a legal system operating in the neopatriarchal context of the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) and the Arab world.
The Brotherhood Pact’s Influence on Police Responses and Gender-Based Violence
In 2019, The New York Times published an interview with Judith Butler entitled, “When Killing Women Isn’t Crime.” According to Butler, femicides and violence against the feminine gender is a way to show that “very existence of women’s lives [is] something decided by men, a masculine prerogative Butler goes on to explain that this masculine prerogative is what creates a form of brotherhood pact amongst men, which guarantees impunity, or as Butler put it, “they look the other way,” when a crime against women is being committed. This so-called brotherhood pact was evident when Farah Akbar’s sister filed a complaint at a number of police stations against the perpetrator who was sending out death threats prior to the murder but to no avail. At the last police station, the prosecutor’s response was they should simply file another case to give weight to the previous case at court filed and eventually dismissed them despite evidence of death threats.
The brotherhood pact and what happened with Farah’s sister is quite common in police stations amongst victims of gender-based violence. In interviews I conducted with victims of domestic violence and rape, whether with Kuwaiti women or migrant women in Kuwait, the most common response was that the police did not take domestic violence or violence against women seriously when reported by women, especially women who were not accompanied by a male chaperone. Other responses showed that officers were not gender-sensitive or lacked knowledge of relevant laws. Some officers were indifferent despite physical evidence and even went as far as telling the victim that these were family issues and thus should be settled in private. Some victims said they did not file cases because they knew it was pointless and the path to justice was too long, while others feared for their reputation or the reputation of their family and/or tribe, especially victims of incest. Migrant women, especially domestic workers, feared deportation or being incarcerated especially if they are raped by their sponsors. These responses indicate that any feminist agenda that aims to eliminate violence against women and promote gender equality needs to take into account multiple factors.
For example, the GCC and Arab countries today have a neopatriarchal structure. Following decolonization, this neopatriarchal structure began to hegemonize when an implicit understanding formed between nationalists, tribalists, and religious groups, and when combined with class further enhanced the standard patriarchal power structure. This morphed patriarchy cemented the gender hierarchy whereby the male is positioned as “the symbolic father figure” at the top of the pyramid. Accordingly, men were socially conditioned to believe they are entitled to power and control, especially in relation to women. Violence became a signifier of control against deviation from the norm. This was normalized and reproduced in relations between siblings in private homes where more power is given to the brother(s) over his sister(s), irrespective of the age hierarchy, as well as in marital relations and more widely in social institutions.
Colonial Roots in the Language of Law
Understanding the neopatriarchal framework means that feminists face difficult challenges with respect to the legal reforms, for they are obliged to operate within what is permissible in the institutionalized gender hierarchy. For instance, actions taken towards perpetrators are still governed in accordance with the laws that Law No. 16/2020 must follow such as the Penal Code and the Personal Status Law. Thus, Law No. 16/2020 is just another expression of the gender hierarchy.
To illustrate, whenever femicide takes place in Kuwait in recent years, social media becomes bloated with a cry for abolishing Article 153 of the Penal Code, even when the murder has no relation to honor killings. One of the most contested articles of the Penal Code, Article 153 stipulates “that any man who surprises his mother, sister, daughter or wife in an unsavory sexual act with a man and kills her or him or both will be treated as committing a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of 3 years jail time and/or a fine of 3000 rupees (KD 14).” Article 153 is actually not unique to Kuwait and not derived from Sharia (Islamic Law) as many believe it to be. In the GCC, the very same article is found in the Penal Codes of Bahrain as Article 70, UAE as Article 334, Oman as Article 252. Outside the GCC in neighboring Arab countries, it is found in Jordan as Article 340, Lebanon as Article 526, Syria as Article 548, Algeria as Article 279, Egypt as Article 237, Morocco as Articles 418-424, and Iraq as Article 309.
This is not coincidental. Colonialism brought with it so-called “civilized tools,” where the European judicial system was replicated in the colonized countries. The French Civil Code was the most common code and is still widely used in the MENA region. In her seminal book, Sex, Law and Sovereignty in French Algeria 1830-1930, Judith Surkis pointed out that “gender and sex directly shaped diverse aspects of colonial policy, from land law and personal status to exceptional penal law.” It comes as no surprise then that in the 1810 French Civil Code, Article 324 of the Penal Code stipulates that “He who catches his spouse, his female ascendant, female descendant or his sister in the act of adultery or illegitimate sexual relations with a third party and commits unpremeditated homicide or wounding against the person of one or the other of them may be exempted from liability.” While this article was abolished in 1975 in France, the neopatriarchal system in the Arab states chose to reserve it as it is aligned with their preferences of maintaining the gender hierarchy.
Rethinking the Feminist Project
Maintaining the gender hierarchy means that the challenges facing the feminist struggle are, in the words of Drucilla Cornell, “not only against the subordination of women but more broadly construed, feminism is both a political and ethical struggle against hegemonic meanings and institutions that deny the being of anyone as fully human.” The hegemonic meanings and institutions are so placed to justify the crimes and violence against women. The laws and police responses in relation to female victims of violence are carried out so as not to conflict with the norms or challenge the status quo. The cases are handled and closed as case-by-case while casting a blind eye on the necessary socio-cultural changes that are required in parallel to legal reform in order to truly bring about a positive change.
Pointing out these challenges and obstacles in the hegemonic neopatriarchal system is by no means meant to discourage progress, but rather to invite those who are committed to real change to rethink the feminist project. It is an invitation to shed the privileges we were born with, to move out of our comfort zone, and to begin to think with intersectionality. We need to reconsider the feminist project as a struggle against systematic oppression, inequality, and injustice that varies across different groups in society and to form coalitions and alliances with these groups in order to challenge the neopatriarchal hegemony instead of it challenging and silencing us.
Shaikha Al-Hashem is a writer and researcher from Kuwait focusing on women, migrant workers, and political economy. Shaikha is also a Ph.D. Candidate in The European Graduate School, in the Philosophy, Art and Critical Theory (PACT) Program. Her specialization is in women and gender studies. She tweets at @AlHashemShaikha.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.