How a viral video helped Kuwait’s trans women get their fight back
A defiant video by Maha Al-Mutairi about her experience as a trans woman has inspired people to believe that change is possible, says her lawyer
Maha Al-Mutairi was tired. Tired of being arrested and thrown in jail, tired of the sexual assault and rape she had been forced to endure while inside a men’s prison. Tired because her best friend, another transgender woman, had killed herself by jumping off an eighth-floor balcony.
For Al-Mutairi, a 39-year-old transgender woman, enough was enough. It was time to tell the world her story. It was time to share her pain.
On 3 June 2020, as she headed to a police station to turn herself in for allegedly contravening Kuwait’s ban on “imitating the other gender”, Al-Mutairi broadcast her story on Snapchat.
Her message was raw.
“When you imprison me because I’m trans, then I get raped and sexually assaulted by people in high authority, and by cops, what do you call that?
“When you imprison me in a men’s prison and, as I’m sleeping in my cell, I get groped and sexually assaulted by policemen, what do you call this?
“Why do you throw me into a men’s prison? It’s filled with sexual assault.”
“God made me like this,” she continued. “I wish that I felt like a man deep inside. I’d pay all the money in the world to feel like a normal man.
“My trans friend was imprisoned multiple times for the same accusation, for being trans. But the last time she was released, she went home and killed herself because she couldn’t live as trans in her own country.
“My poor friend died because of you. Why do you do this to us?”
The video has been watched more than a million times on Twitter alone, and sparked outcry against Kuwait’s transphobic laws.
Resigned to oppression
Al-Mutairi, who served seven months for contravening Kuwait’s strict anti-trans laws, was released from prison in October 2019. She was on her way to the police station tpo hand herself in because she knew it was only a matter of time before she would be arrested again.
Shaikha Salmeen, Al-Mutairi’s lawyer, represents a number of trans women in Kuwait. “The sad part is when I have talked to the ‘girls’, it’s like they have given up on life,” she told openDemocracy.
Salmeen said that many of the transgender women she has worked with were resigned to their oppression. We’re going to get caught, her clients would tell her. All of us will be in prison at some point in our lives because we chose this life.
“It’s so crazy,” Salmeen added. “Some of these women have even undergone a full medical transition. They have had hormone treatment, even bottom surgery. But because their ID says ‘male’, they get sentenced. So a woman with every female sexual organ is sentenced to a male prison. You can only imagine what she faces from inmates who have been in there for ten or 15 years.”
According to Salmeen, there are at least 25 trans women in Kuwaiti jails, some for prostitution or drugs-related offences. “Kuwait is a small country with a really small population. For us to have 25-plus trans women in male prisons, it is a huge deal,” she said.
Why do you throw me into a men’s prison? It’s filled with sexual assault
“And it’s not just their fellow inmates,” said Salmeen, adding that Al-Mutairi claims to have been raped by a high-ranking prison official.
Article 198 of Kuwait’s penal code, the law prohibiting “imitating the appearance of the opposite sex” is vaguely worded. The law, which was passed in 2007, leaves it up to the police to decide if an offence has been committed.
“Leaving a law up to the interpretation of police in Kuwait is very risky. Many officers have huge insecurities and often abuse their power,” said Salmeen. “If a policeman is from a very religious background, he will think [that] me having short hair is ‘imitating the other gender’. Whereas a liberal, open-minded policeman would think even a man wearing a dress is just a fashion trend.”
For members of Kuwait’s trans community, the law is just one barrier towards acceptance. According to Salmeen, many come from underprivileged backgrounds. Trans women are often bullied at school by both students and staff; some decide to leave home after graduating from high school, rather than continue their education. She said that some trans women undergo risky backstreet breast augmentation, often putting them at risk of contracting infections. In some cases, such surgery is funded by sex work, which leaves them hugely vulnerable to violence and blackmail.
“No one would hire them to do a proper job,” Salmeen said. “Not the government, not private [companies]. Some are lucky enough to [work for] cool, open-minded Kuwaiti employers, but not everyone is this lucky. Many girls lose their jobs when they go to prison.”
According to Salmeen, police officers are – ironically – a common source of business for trans women sex workers. At other times, she said, bored officers will phone a trans woman and insist they come to the station for a ‘talk’. Salmeen said that trans women targeted in this way are abused verbally at first, then physically if they talk back.
The man accused of rape by Al-Mutairi is, Salmeen claimed, notorious for doing this. His fellow police officials know about his behaviour but think it's justified, she said – the attitude among many officers is that trans women are ‘asking for it’.
Change the law
Al-Mutairi’s video has brought fresh attention to the plight of trans women in Kuwait. But her own situation remains unresolved. When she arrived at the police station, she was charged – not with imitating the other gender, but with misuse of her mobile phone, because she mentioned the police and the interior ministry in her Snapchat video.
After she went into the station, Al-Mutairi was missing for three days. “I kept visiting them, even giving them her actual legal name – her male ‘dead name’ – and they kept saying ‘we don’t have anyone under this name,’” Salmeen said.
When Al-Mutairi was eventually released, Salmeen was there to collect her. The lawyer believes that her client was treated better than on previous occasions because of the attention she attracted.
Salmeen said that the Ministry of Interior “went to jail to take other trans women’s statements”. “I do not know where the case will go, or if it will go somewhere, but at least they took a step. They heard their voice on this huge, huge accusation and they are taking it seriously.”
Salmeen said that trans people need to fight for a change in the law before they can achieve wider acceptance in Kuwait. One route would be for campaigners to highlight the vagueness of the penal code, and argue that the ban on “imitating the other gender” should be struck out by the country’s constitutional court on the grounds of freedom of expression.
If that fails, another option would be to highlight the position of influential Islamic religious authorities in Saudia Arabia and Egypt, which regard transgender identity as a medical condition. This could at least lead to prison sentences being replaced by medical or psychiatric care.
“A lot of girls go through the whole medical transitioning process, but the court does not allow them to change their [identity] documents,” Salmeen said.
Salmeen said she never expected Al-Mutairi’s case to have had such an impact in Kuwait or abroad. She knows of religious conservatives who have expressed sympathy; she was surprised to find that even her own aunt was touched by the story.
“[These are] baby steps, but we are going to get there,” Salmeen said. “[Trans people] are going to be treated as equal human beings. I hope I am going to be alive to witness that.”
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