Since a change in the law in May of 2007, life has become even more difficult for transgender women in Kuwait. What was once a rather generic public decency law was altered to stipulate that anyone “imitating the opposite sex in any way” could face one-year imprisonment, fines or both. The new law now criminalizes physical appearance, which has been left up to the interpretation of individual police officers.
The amendment to article 198 of the Kuwaiti penal code has led to torture and sexual abuse of transgender women. Police officers have been abusive in their arbitrary determinations of whether an individual’s appearance constitutes imitation of the opposite sex. Attempts to conform to the new law have offered little respite. Transgender women have reported being arrested even when they were wearing traditionally male clothing. Others have been harassed and beaten for having a soft voice or smooth skin.
Amani, a transgender woman from Kuwait City, explained to Human Rights Watch, “They hunt us down for fun. They don’t want me to dress like a woman so I don’t. I wear a dishdasha [traditional Kuwaiti male garment] now. I cut my hair short. After all that I was still arrested, beaten, and raped for having a smooth, feminine face. What can I do about my face?”
Several reports have surfaced of police using the law to blackmail transgender women into sex. Sexual harassment and sexual advances by the police were commonplace before the passage of the amendment, but now that the law provides officers with the power to imprison gender non-conforming people, many have been forced into sex.
This abhorrent torture, sexual violence, and indiscriminate detainment of transgender women in Kuwait is an outrage and in violation of international laws. The government of Kuwait has an obligation to ensure the protection of its residents from such attacks. As a signatory to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Kuwait’s government ought to be aware that sexual violence committed by police officers acting in an official capacity constitutes torture.
We join the voices of many human rights organizations who are calling upon the Kuwaiti government to repeal the amendment to article 198 and investigate allegations of police brutality. Police abuse and violence against the transgender community cannot be tolerated in Kuwait, or anywhere else.