DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Abrar Zenkawi was heading to the beach in Kuwait City when he saw a man waving and smiling in his rearview mirror.
In other places, this may have been benign road flirting. But in Kuwait, it’s a haunting routine that often turns dangerous. The man stopped beside her, moved a little closer, and finally entered her. Zenkawi’s car, which was transporting her nieces, sister and friend, flipped over six times.
“It is considered normal here. Men always drive too close to scare girls, chase them home, follow them to work, just for fun, ”said Zenkawi, 34, who spent months in hospital with a broken spine. “They don’t think about the consequences.”
But that may be changing as women increasingly challenge Kuwait’s deeply patriarchal society. In recent weeks, a growing number of women have broken taboos to speak out about the scourge of harassment and violence that plagues the streets, highways and shopping malls of the Gulf nation, in an echo of the global #MeToo movement.
An Instagram page has sparked a flood of testimonies from women fed up with being intimidated or attacked in a country where the penal code does not define sexual harassment and establishes few repercussions for men who kill female relatives for actions they consider immoral. A wide variety of news and talk shows have addressed the topic of bullying for the first time. And a journalist used a hidden camera to document how women are treated on the streets.
The spark may have come from fashion blogger Ascia al-Faraj, who took it out on Snapchat in January to her millions of followers after being stalked by a man in a speeding car. In such episodes, men often try to “crash” a woman’s car, but many serious accidents result, as in the case of Zenkawi.
“It’s scary, all the time you feel so insecure in your own skin,” al-Faraj told The Associated Press. “The responsibility is always on us. … We must have had our music too loud or our windows down. ”
Shayma Shamo, a 27-year-old doctor, tried to harness the momentum of al-Faraj’s viral video, creating an Instagram page called “Lan Asket,” which is Arabic for “I will not shut up.”
Shamo’s rage had been building for weeks. In December, an employee of the Kuwaiti Parliament was stabbed to death by her 17-year-old brother, reportedly because she did not want her to work as a security guard. It was the third such case, described as “honor killings,” to make the news in as many months. The National Assembly, made up exclusively of men despite a record number of female candidates in the last election, offered none of the usual condolences.
“The silence was deafening,” Shamo said. “I thought, okay, that could happen to me, and anyone could get away with it.”
Kuwait, unlike other oil-rich Persian Gulf sheiks, has a legislature with genuine power and a certain tolerance for political dissent. But restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus prevented Shamo from organizing a protest and forced her to take her complaints online, as women in the most repressive countries in the region have done. Recently.
Lan Asket’s account put sexual harassment, long shrouded in shame, in the spotlight.
From there, the conversation turned to traditional media. A well-known journalist for the state-linked al-Qabas newspaper went out at night with a hidden camera and captured motorcyclists recklessly trying to get her attention, men yelling sexual insults in the street and strangers pulling the hair of passersby: evidence for millions in Kuwait from the harassment that women described.
“It seems rudimentary, but we’ve never had these discussions before,” said Najeeba Hayat, who helped organize the Lan Asket campaign, which also trains bus drivers to report harassment, runs an advertising campaign to raise awareness and creates an app. which allows women to anonymously report abuse to the police. “All the girls have kept this on their chests for so long.”
As the movement gained traction, lawmakers were quick to respond. Seven politicians, from conservative Islamists to staunch liberals, introduced amendments to the penal code last month that would define and punish sexual harassment, including one calling for a $ 10,000 fine and a one-year prison sentence.
“Kuwait’s penal code does not cover harassment, there are only some laws that cover immorality that are so vague that women cannot go and report to the local police,” said Abdulaziz al-Saqabi, a conservative who was among the than amendments drafted.
But women’s rights activists, whose input was not solicited by lawmakers, are skeptical that the proposals will spark significant change, especially with the nation in the midst of a financial crisis. and with Parliament now suspended due to a political standoff.
Frustration is familiar to activist Nour al-Mukhled. For years, she and other women have fought to repeal a law that classifies the murder of adulterous women by their parents, brothers or husbands as a misdemeanor and sets the maximum penalty at three years in prison. Such leniency is still common throughout the Gulf, although the United Arab Emirates criminalized “honor killings” last fall.
Kuwait also has statues that allow kidnappers to evade punishment by marrying their victims and empower men to “discipline” their female relatives with assaults.
“In Kuwait, there can be no legal change without a cultural change, and this is still culturally acceptable,” al-Mukhled said. Only in August did Parliament pass a law that opened shelters for victims of domestic abuse.
But progress is happening outside of official circles, activists say. In recent weeks, a growing number of women’s collectives have emerged, in homes and in Zoom, a mirror of the custom of the “diwanyia”, gentlemen’s clubs that often lead men to the top positions. Women have also turned to Clubhouse, the fashion app that allows people to gather in audio chat rooms for conversations about sexual assault and harassment.
The horizon for equality may be far off, but activists say its ambitions are modest in the short term.
“Right now, the assassination attempt is considered ‘flirting,'” said Hayat, one of the organizers of the Lan Asket campaign. “We just want to be treated as human beings, not as aliens or prey.”