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In 2007, the National Assembly in Kuwait amended article 198 of the penal code, criminalizing ‘imitating the opposite sex in all forms’. The article stipulates a penalty of up to a year’s imprisonment and/or a fine that could reach KWD 1000 for imitating the opposite sex in any way.
On Wednesday 28 December 2021, 14 years after the introductionof the abovementioned law, the law was sent to the Constitutional Court to decide its constitutionality. This was because of a request by a suspect in a criminal trial who stated that the law violates the rules of the Kuwaiti Constitution. The assessment committee approved his request and recognized its seriousness, given that the suspect had a direct interest in contesting the law.
The conventional notion of an unconstitutional law is that it violates certain articles in the Constitution. In a legal framework, I find the law against the imitation of the opposite sex unconstitutional because of its vagueness as per the following five grounds:
1. The violation of human dignity:In articles 29, 30 and 31, the Constitution states that the people are equal in human dignity. They are equal before the law in terms of public rights, andfree ofsegregation because of race, origin or religion. The Constitutionalso states that personal freedoms shall be guaranteed, and it is prohibited to violate people’sdignity. However, the imitation law canbe interpreted indifferent ways.This leads to confusion and humiliationdue to misunderstandings by the police.
I recently represented a 17-year-old juvenile who had long hair and was stopped by the police in the Salmyia area while he was walking on the beach. The police arrested him, transferred him to the police station and shaved his head because of the imitation law! I filed a case against the police,given that they had violated both the criminal code and constitutional law. The police ended up paying KWD 2000 in compensation to close the case. I asked them why they had conducted such a senseless act.They replied that they thought the youth’s appearance was illegal as per the law. This is the outcome. Shaving the long hair of any man that appears to be imitating the opposite sex! The imitation law opens the door to systematic human rights violations.
2. Contradiction of the precise normative status of criminal law:The crime of imitating the opposite sex is perplexing and complex when enforced by the police. It contradicts article 32 of the Constitutionwhichstates there shall be no crime or penalty except according to law. The problem with this law is that it has no precise normative status, as ‘imitating the opposite sex in all forms’ is not a clear description of a particularcrime. It raises questions about what constitutes such imitation.Men withlong hair? A woman witha short haircut? A man wearing a necklace? Wearing certain clothes? Such practical questions causeinconsistencies in applying the law, leading to severe human rights violations. There are no normative dimensions in applying such a law. Thus, it is against the proper construction and objects of criminal law.
3. Lack of legal standards that must be applied systematically,leavingpolice to act according to their whims:Criminal law entails logical reasoning that stipulatesthe perpetrators must conduct a crime with the intention (state of mind)of violatingthe law. The pressing question here is what is the nature of the physical activity that leads tothe imitation crime? No agreement can be reached on this point. In previous cases, suspects have beenpersecuted because of their fashion sense, outfits and hairstyles. This shows howintensedisagreement can arise regardingapplication of the imitation law, manifesting the need for a drastic amendment.
4. The vexing problem of insecurity and instability:People should be protected by the law and State, not threatened. The State must ensure security as per article 8 of the Constitution. However, imitation crime puts the public in an insecure and unstable position because of the vagueness of the law.
5.Contradiction of the constitutional principle of plurality: The imitation law advocates one way of looking at society and its traditions as per religious individuality. While every community has its traditions and idiosyncrasies,according to the preface of the Constitution, the State must support the welfare of the plurality, maintaining the unity and stability of the country as a whole, not upholding the ideologies of the few. Observing people’s appearance through this one-way lens contradicts the fundamental rights of freedom and equalityas stipulated in article 7 of the Constitution.
Overall, crimes as unacceptable behaviours are classified not because of an ideological or collective decision based on conservative socio-religious and tribal values, but because of the seriousness of,and harm caused by, the conduct. The imitation law exemplifiesthe opposite. It harms us,the people, because of its ambiguity and vagueness. This is reported by many international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which have documented increasing reports of violence (torture, raping and beating) against suspects of the law of ‘imitating the opposite sex’. Since the legislature did not consider basic freedom in societal contexts on different levels, the constitutional court must protect the people from such obscure laws and enlighten us with its constitutional opinion that refrains the controlling authority (police) from humiliating people.
There are diverse passengers with different cultural backgrounds on the Kuwaiti ship. It is time to challenge the dogmatic gender and cultural biases and to curb the orthodox, parochial approach. I strongly advocate sustainable diversity in law against discrimination and violence to move human civilization forward, rather than the current religious individuality. Icall for unity in diversity and pluralism, the heart and elixir of every society. There is no other way to move forward as a diverse society on the same ship. It is time to repudiate such law and to re-establish together the principle of plurality.
By Dr Fawaz Alkhateeb
Attorney and assistant professor at Kilaw
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