Sex abuse, harassment & inequality for women is routine in Kuwait
Law aids the abuse of women by men & protects male abusers
London, UK – 6 September 2021
By Aryam Marafi
Kuwait is typically known for being a modern, “democratic” country, with wealthy citizens that live luxurious lifestyles. Being a Kuwaiti woman, I can tell you that our reality is far from this, whatever the government may claim. The law enshrines the second-class status of women, enables our abuse and protects our male abusers.
I grew up in a physically and sexually abusive Kuwaiti household and had wild dreams of leaving my family after finishing school to pursue higher education and to travel the world. Even as a child, I couldn’t imagine a future living with my family because I was completely miserable. Physical abuse was very common in my family, and I lived in constant fear. It felt like I was always waiting for the next time they would hurt me. But there was nothing I could do and no one that I could turn to for protection.
My parents were also violent towards domestic workers. On more than one occasion my father beat our driver, and once he beat a family member’s driver as well. I’m now horrified to remember that at the time I thought this was funny since violence was so normalised in our household. I remember when both my parents teamed up to beat a family member’s maid simply because she took too long to open the door for them.
As I grew older I could see through my parents’ hypocrisy. When my mother cried at an advertisement for a child abuse charity and pitied the children, I called her out for being a child abuser herself. When my father excused his excessively controlling behaviour as a way of protecting me from men, I pointed out that he was the one sexually abusing me. I only realised that my father was sexually abusing me when I read the legal definition of sexual assault. I broke down in tears. His behaviour was always justified and excused in our household.
There was no way for me to get help because until recently my father was a diplomat. When I threatened to report my mother for abuse, she laughed at me and bragged about their diplomatic immunity, so I doubted that any agencies in London could help me, considering my family’s power and connections. These are people who receive invitations to Buckingham Palace, so why would anyone try to help me?
My parents were also very strict and controlling, and as a child I hoped that they would change as I grew older, so I’d be granted more freedom. Sadly, I was very mistaken, since any attempt at having a conversation with them about moving out resulted in me being screamed at for being disrespectful. My parents believed it was inappropriate and shameful for me to leave the family home.
With a scholarship to study medicine, I ran away from home at 17. My father threatened to terminate my scholarship and my mother threatened to kidnap me. They made repeated attempts to contact me and even contacted my friend’s mother when I slept over at her house, even though I did not inform them of this visit. My parents hid my passport from me for months following a series of lies: there was, they said, an error that needed to be fixed, so they sent it back to Kuwait. The passport was lost in Kuwait. Then it was found but the embassy in London kept my passport on a ‘curfew’. The justification? Because of the journalist Khashoggi’s assassination, they claimed. I was stalked to find out where I lived, and the Kuwaiti embassy even sent a letter to my university to ask for information about me. They would not leave me alone to live my life when all I wanted was to be safe and happy.
This summer I was supposed to go back to Kuwait with my family to get a new passport and visa since my father’s diplomatic contract in London had ended. Due to my parents’ history of abusive behaviour, I knew that I would be at risk of abuse or worse if I returned to Kuwait. Fearing for my safety, I contacted lawyers and a domestic abuse helpline to ask for help in my situation, but I did not receive any help from organisations in Kuwait. Even if my parents did not harm me in Kuwait, as a woman I still need my father’s signature for essential legal documents such as a civil ID, which I’m not likely to receive.
Remaining in the UK where human rights are valued and there are services that can support and protect me is my best chance at guaranteeing my safety, so I applied for asylum. As an asylum seeker, I risk losing my scholarship, but I prefer to jeopardise my education than my safety.
Despite everything, I’m still overwhelmingly privileged compared to other survivors of abuse in Kuwait. Since sharing my story publicly on Instagram, dozens of survivors have shared their experiences with me. The lack of sexual education in Kuwait means that sexual abuse survivors often don’t understand what happened to them. Female survivors describe being trapped by archaic male guardianship laws that force us to rely on our fathers or husbands for essential things such as approval of medical treatment and renting property. If these ‘male guardians’ are abusive then victims are helpless.
Many women are unable to leave their abusive households because landlords and even hotels are not permitted to rent property to women without the approval of their male guardians.
The restrictions caused by male guardianship laws can seriously harm women’s health. Women need a male guardians’ signature to approve medical surgeries, which treats us as if we are incompetent to make our own decisions about our bodies and well-being. In cases of life-threatening and emergency surgeries that are time-sensitive, male guardianship laws seem even more trivial, unnecessary and potentially dangerous to women’s health.
If a woman of any age were to seek psychological help in Kuwait to support their mental health, they risk being detained in a ‘rehab’ facility without any good reason, due to lack of mental health-informed care, and they can only be released by a male guardian.
I struggle with severe depression and c-PTSD. My parents have told people that I am crazy and that I ‘imagine things’ because I’ve spoken out about the abuse I’ve suffered. This puts me at risk of being sent off and trapped in one of these establishments.
Gynaecologists and other reproductive health professionals can even refuse to give women health check-ups or treatment without their marriage certificate. It seems that visiting a gynaecologist is tied to being married and sexually active, which is an absurd and uneducated assumption to make.
This means that I, as an unmarried woman, cannot receive any medical support for my PCOS (a common hormonal disorder that affects menstruation and fertility) in Kuwait. I would have to suffer without any treatment until I was married.
Women are, of course, not allowed to get married without the approval and signature of their male guardians, which means that in Kuwait I would need my father’s permission to get married, even though he is a sexual predator and has abused me my entire life.
According to Article 153 of the Kuwait penal code, if a man catches a female member of his family in a sexual (zina) act with a man and kills her, it is treated as a misdemeanour punishable by a maximum of three years jail time and/or a small fine. Sometimes it is just a derisory token fine of about £34. This lenient punishment gives a green light to femicide.
Moreover, false claims that adultery occurred can be used to get lenient sentences for the murder of women. A well known lawyer recently exposed a former MP for using Article 153 as a defence in a murder case, even though no adultery has taken place. This law facilitates the murder of women and protects the murderers from proper punishment.
Additionally, Article 182 allows men who kidnap or rape women to escape criminal conviction and imprisonment punishment by marrying their victims, which is a disgusting legal loophole that allows men who perpetrate sexual violence against women to get away with it.
Even when female survivors tell people about abuse, the abuse is typically dismissed and covered up in the name of ‘protecting the family reputation’. A survivor tells me that when they confided in their father about being molested by a police officer, their father beat them and grounded them as punishment. They did not receive help, even after reporting it.
It is quite common for women’s experiences of abuse and violence to be dismissed by authorities in Kuwait. Recently, Farah Akbar reported to the police that she was being sexually harassed by a man who was pressuring her to marry him. The predator was stalking her and repeatedly threatened her. On one occasion, he attempted to kill her by ramming into her car. As is typical in Kuwait, Farah Akbar was laughed off by police officers, who told her not to take the predator seriously. They even released him from custody. Unfortunately, because of the authorities’ negligence and the culture that enables such misogynistic behaviour, Farah Akbar was subsequently kidnapped and stabbed to death by her predator during Ramadan, one of our holiest months of the year. Even when we protested this injustice in Kuwait, there were some men online who hailed the murderer a hero and even encouraged killing the women who participated in the protest.
A teacher from Kuwait describes how, when she reported signs of abuse in her students to social workers, it was dismissed. She says: “Abuse in all its forms is so engrained in the culture and seen as a private family matter”.
This is yet another example that highlights the authorities’ incompetence and indifference regarding cases of abuse and violence. If authorities can’t be trusted to take us seriously as survivors, then it is clear that Kuwait does not care about our safety.
It’s important to note that a large number of survivors are men, so any efforts to improve safeguarding services must be inclusive of male survivors. Male survivors have shared their own experiences of abuse, typically sexual abuse, with me, but they also share concerns of being dismissed and disbelieved. The legal persecution of the LGBTQ+ community is another obstacle that prevents those survivors from receiving support for abuse, since many of those contacting me for help, or to share their own experiences of abuse, are LGBTQ+ themselves. They are members of a community that is at a greater risk of suffering from sex abuse because of their non-heteronormative identities and social disapproval of their sexuality. Perpetrators know that many are too afraid to report their abusers in case they are arrested for being LGBTQ+.
If you are a domestic worker (they are not granted citizenship status), it becomes even more difficult to report and seek help for abuse. Domestic workers will usually be sent back to their abusers after going to the police station to report abuse from the family they are working for. The family can legally report them for ‘absconding’, even if it is for the victim’s safety.
Recently, domestic worker Jeanelyn Villavende was killed by the abusive Kuwaiti family that she was employed by. The autopsy revealed that she had been suffering from physical and sexual abuse for months prior to her death, but of course there was no way for her to receive help in Kuwait. If human rights were valued and there were adequate services to address abuse and violence in Kuwait, then her death could have been avoided.
I understand that it’s not easy to talk about these issues, but we need change, and I will continue to advocate for those who are still suffering abuse in Kuwait.
Please SIGN this petition urging the creation of safe shelters for abuse survivors in Kuwait: https://chng.it/cJVMGBGr
Follow Aryam Marafi on Instagram: @aryammara