Justice for Maha: Under pressure, Kuwait frees trans activist

International outrage helped bring about the release of Kuwaiti transgender woman Maha al-Mutairi on Monday, June 8, after she was imprisoned for “imitating the opposite sex.” Before her release, her criticism of police abuse and her call for transgender rights went viral online.

Maha al-Mutairi is a Kuwaiti trans woman who was imprisoned for her gender identity and abused by the police. International outrage secured her release. (Photo courtesy of Change.org)
Maha al-Mutairi is a Kuwaiti transgender woman who was imprisoned for her gender identity and abused by the police. Online petitions demanding justice helped secure her release. (Photo courtesy of Change.org)

By Bridget Stauss 

A Kuwaiti transgender woman was imprisoned last Friday (June 5) for “imitating women” and for speaking out against the abuse she experienced at the hands of Kuwaiti police. Maha al-Mutairi, 39, spent three nights in prison, where police allegedly spat on her, verbally abused her, and sexually assaulted her, according to a report from Human Rights Watch. While detained, police told Maha that “People all over Kuwait are rallying against you.”

On the contrary, her video and imprisonment generated widespread international outrage. LGBTQ advocates across the world mobilized to donate, protest her detention, and fight for her release. Maha was released without charges on June 8 and is recovering from the abuse she suffered while imprisoned.

Kuwait is a small Middle Eastern country on the Persian Gulf. (Map courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency)
Kuwait is a small Middle Eastern country on the Persian Gulf.

Shortly before Maha turned herself in to the police on June 5, she posted an emotional video to her Snapchat story, which was later shared across various social media platforms by LGBTQ activists. In the video, Maha vehemently criticized Kuwaiti police for the abuse she endured in 2019, when she was imprisoned for seven months alongside cisgender men for “impersonating the opposite sex.”

Like many Kuwaiti transgender women, Maha was beaten, raped, and psychologically tortured at the hands of the police. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report detailed similar accounts of degrading and humiliating treatment of transgender women, such as being stripped and paraded around police stations, being forced to dance for officers, sexual humiliation, verbal taunts and intimidation, solitary confinement, and emotional and physical abuse that could amount to torture.

In her Snapchat video, Maha made an impassioned plea for the dignity of Kuwaiti trans women. “I am the first transgender person in Kuwait to publicly announce she is a woman,” she stated. “I am not afraid of anyone.”

Maha al-Mutairi spoke to her Snapchat audience about police abuse prior to turning herself in on June 5th.
Maha al-Mutairi spoke to her Snapchat audience about police abuse prior to turning herself in on June 5th. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Activists say that violence and discrimination against the LGBT community in Kuwait has worsened in the last decade; imprisonments like Maha’s are common among transgender women and gay men. Transgender women are routinely arrested for violating Article 198 of Kuwait’s 1960 Penal Code, which criminalizes the “imitation” of other sexes, limits the gender expression of LGBTQ Kuwaitis, and codifies police-sanctioned abuse. Article 198 complements Article 193, which penalizes consensual sex between two men with up to seven years in prison. In 2017, 76 gay and bisexual men were deported during Kuwait City’s “moral crackdown.”

Though officials released Maha, transgender women in Kuwait continue to be harassed, abused, and arrested under Article 198. Human Rights Watch is calling for the Kuwaiti National Assembly to repeal this outdated and abusive law and is demanding the end of state-sanctioned anti-LGBTQ violence.

Bridget Stauss, the author of this article, is a senior at Amherst College studying history and international relations. 

Related articles:

Malaysia: 17 transwomen arrested, seek $ to avoid prison

Botswana activists deplore anti-trans attack

Official Pakistan agency pushes for trans rights

Meet Vera, a Nigerian transgender woman living a ‘fake life’

Written by Bridget Stauss

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