Abrar Zenkawi was heading towards the beach in Kuwait City when he saw a man waving and smiling in his rear view mirror.
Elsewhere, 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.
Here it is considered normal. Men are always 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 situation. #I also 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 hit a woman’s car, but many serious accidents result, as in the case of Zenkawi.
It’s scary, you feel so insecure in your own skin all the time, al-Faraj told The Associated Press. The responsibility is always on us. We must have had the music too loud or the windows low.
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, in 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 case described as honor killings to make headlines in as many months. The National Assembly, made up exclusively of men despite a record number of female candidates in recent elections, 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 sheikhs, 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 region’s most repressive countries have recently done.
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 on the street and strangers pulling the hair of passersby offering evidence. millions in Kuwait from the harassment that women described.
It sounds rudimentary, but I’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 that enables women to report anonymously. abuse the police. All the girls have kept this on their chest 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 a few laws that cover immorality that is so vague that women cannot go and report it to the local police, said Abdulaziz al-Saqabi, a conservative who was among those who drafted the laws. amendments. .
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.
The 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 of three years in prison. That leniency is still common across 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.