by Alanoud Alsharekh

‘Karima’, part of the Abolish Article 153 exhibition at FA Gallery, Kuwait City, 2016

According to statistics released by the Ministry of Justice’s Statistics and Research Department there were 447 registered cases of violence against women between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2016, in which only 76 offenders were found guilty. We do not know if the motives behind those assaults or beatings were disciplinary, but we do know that many more women do not turn to police stations or hospitals to document the violence practiced against them. They are held back by fear or shame or lack or alternatives, especially since, by legal and communal consensus, husbands, fathers and brothers are allowed to ‘discipline’ female kin if they transgress or disobey.

The repercussions of disobedience vary as widely as the spectrum for behaviour that should be punished: disrespecting male kin or elder females, smoking cigarettes, communicating with members of the opposite sex outside of morally sanctioned relationships; the list can be as endless as the disciplinarian’s imagination. In legal terms, many disciplinary tools have a direct impact on individual freedom, for example: families can report ‘wayward’ youngsters to the authorities so that difficult cases are locked up in governmental social care homes until a guardian consents to releasing them. Girls who leave their homes without permission can be reported for ‘absconding’ at local police stations, forcing them into a life on the dark margins of society where they cannot work, marry or move on without a guardian’s consent to drop the charge of absconding, regardless of their age. Based on a contested translation of a Quranic verse, Sharia law allows husbands to beat their wives for ‘disciplinary reasons’ as long as they do not cause grievous bodily harm, and this has widely informed social and legal practices because it remains unchallenged by mainstream scholars and traditionalists.

Many of these practices are defended in the name of tradition, and many exist within a vacuum of legal assistance, medical aid and the support infrastructure necessary to protect the most vulnerable women and children, a vacuum that has enabled those who would physically and emotionally harm them in the name of guardianship.

At the more extreme end of the spectrum is the ultimate disciplinary act: the threat of death that is meted out only on women, as the right of a male kin enraged by an adulterous or sexual transgression, which is sanctioned by law. Article 153 of Kuwait’s penal code is an ‘honour’ killing law that treat these murders as a misdemeanour and punishes male perpetrators with a maximum of a 3-year prison sentence or a  (KD 15) fine. This article exemplifies gender biased tyranny, and as a law, clearly violates at least three articles of Kuwait’s constitution:

Article 9: The family is the corner-stone of society. It is founded on religion, morality, and patriotism. The law shall preserve the integrity of the family, strengthen its ties, and protect under its support motherhood and childhood.

Article 29: All people are equal in human dignity, and in public rights and duties before the law, without distinction as to gender, origin, language or religion.

Article 34: (1) An accused person is presumed innocent until proved guilty in a legal trial at which the necessary guarantees for the exercise of the right of defence are secured. (2) The infliction of physical or moral injury on an accused person is prohibited.

Besides being in direct opposition to many international and regional human rights agreements that Kuwait has ratified, this article is also in flagrant disregard of the Islamic sharia’s governance of accusations of adultery, or ‘zina’, which requires four male witnesses to plainly see the act of sexual consummation, as well as a confession from the adulterer. What is more disturbing is that the punishment for ‘zina’ in Kuwait’s penal code, which does require witnesses and a confession, is a maximum of five years imprisonment or (KD 24) . The ultimate act of discipline (killing) is therefore not related to the adulterous act itself but to who is committing it, and the right of men to control the actions of female relatives and react with impunity and little fear of consequence.

Some MPs’ resistance to civil society attempts to abolish this article, a basic contravention of the basic tenets of human rights, which continues and is not in fact derived from Arab or Islamic tradition (see page 169 of Fournier, McDougall and Dekker’s article ‘Dishonour, Provocation and Culture: Through the Beholder’s Eye?’ (in the Canadian Criminal Law Review) for a discussion on the ‘transplantation of the French honour crime excuse [to] the Middle East’), is symptomatic of the male entitlement that social and legal practices have created. This in turn has generated other laws that encourage violence by not punishing male perpetrators, such as allowing kidnappers to marry their female victims as an alternative to jail time if the female’s guardian consents.

Another consequence of the continued existence of this legislation, and the conspiracy of silence around ‘disciplinary violence’ against women and children, is the lack of government-backed networks to protect and empower the most vulnerable demographic in Kuwait, such as shelters, 24-hour helplines and a trained police force that treats male aggressors as criminals rather than ‘disciplinarians’. It also means that violence will continue to escalate in Kuwait (at alarming rates according to a 2014 study commissioned by the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs[4]), and little progress made in terms of female economic and political integration. The absence of a law that explicitly prohibits domestic violence, alongside the persistence of male guardianship over basic rights like marriage, disempowers Kuwaiti women on a daily basis. Without a comprehensive overhaul of entrenched ‘disciplinary’ practices, and the introduction of punitive measures against those who would harm women, it will be difficult to implement plans to improve gender inequality in Kuwait. The fact that 12 years after gaining their full political rights there is only one female MP in the National Assembly, and the embarrassingly low number of female ministers in the Cabinet, is a testament to that.

Alanoud Alsharekh conducts research on socio-political, cultural and security issues in the Arabian Gulf and is the director of the Abolish153 campaign to end honour killing legislation in Kuwait and the GCC. She has published several widely on gender and kinship policies in the GCC, including her books The Gulf Family and Popular Culture and Political Identity in the Arab Gulf States. She tweets at @AAlsharekh

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