The murder of Farah Hamza Akbar shocked and angered Kuwait. Kuwaitis took to social media to express their anguish and anger with a murder committed in broad daylight. Farah and her family had filed complaints against her would-be murderer, saying he had harassed and threatened her for more than a year. But the complaints were not taken seriously. On April 20, the suspect allegedly kidnapped Farah, stabbed her and left her to die in front of Adan Hospital. The man is now charged with first-degree murder, a crime punishable by death in Kuwait.
The brutal killing led to national outrage, with Kuwaitis protesting, taking to social media demanding stricter punishment for gender-based violence. Farah’s killing is not an isolated incident. Earlier, in December, Fatima Al Ajmi, a 35-year-old pregnant Kuwaiti woman, was shot dead by her brother in the ICU of a hospital while undergoing treatment. The cause of the murder was Fatima’s marriage, which took place albeit with the approval of her father and a brother. However, one of her siblings was against the marriage as the boy belonged to another tribe.
Al Ajmi is said to have been first shot in her house in the presence of her one-year-old child. She was later rushed to the hospital for help. But her brother managed to enter the ICU and fired at her killing her. Ironically, the murder of Fatima Al Ajmi happened a few weeks after the National Assembly passed a long-awaited domestic violence draft law, a big win for women’s rights in Kuwait. “The killing and harassment of women is very concerning,” says Ghadeer Ali Al Khashti, a PE teacher in a secondary school in Kuwait. Ghadeer was an active participant in one of the protest marches organized after the killing of Farah Hamza Akbar. “There should be powerful laws in place that can act as a deterrent,” says Ghadeer, member of the Women’s Football Committee in Kuwait and former member of the Kuwait Taekwondo national team.
“Domestic violence is widespread and is a priority for women in Kuwait, “observes Sahar Bin Ali, a women’s rights activist who organized a protest against the killing of Farah Hamza recently in Kuwait City. She also shares the challenges posed by the stigma associated with sexual harassment, which prevents women from lodging complaints. “Unfortunately, there are no official statistics from Kuwait, and even if there is, many women will not be included in that statistic because of social restrictions, as well as the refusal of the security authorities to register many cases with illogical arguments, such as this is a family affair. Or they will say, you will have a bad reputation if anyone knows you have been harassed,” rues Sahar.
She says that government should protect women by not refusing to register any case against any criminal, taking these cases seriously, not considering any case as a family affair but as criminal cases, and imposing strict penalties for crimes. “There are many visible and insidious cultural practices that dominate over “civilized” behaviour in our region, and many centres around women being of a subservient status to men,” Dr Al Anoud Al Sharekh, a leading women’s rights activist and co-founder of Abolish 153 had said in an earlier interview when asked about the culture of violence in society. “It is in our media, our curriculums and our legal system. We are part of the wave that is challenging it but for many standing up against traditions carries too high a price.”
Farah Hamza Akbar and her family did stand up against the harassment. They lodged complaints that went unheeded. “There have been many other crimes previously as well, “says Sahar. “Unfortunately, most of them involved killings by one of the family members, which means there was prior violence towards those murdered women, but they did not receive adequate protection. Even the punishments did not satisfy the women, but rather made them feel insecure and made the men unafraid to commit a criminal act.” Ghadeer Al Khashti has faced her share of harassment on social media. “I have faced a lot of harassment and violence in my life. I am used to it on social media. I have had people following me in cars and threatening me on social media. Harassment like this needs proper laws, and it must stop.”
The harassment increased after Ghadeer participated in the recent protest. “After the protest, I received a lot of hate messages and hate mails from men making fun of me and my appearance. Some messages that said ‘You are next’ carried undertones of sexual violence.” The protest against Farah Hamza’s murder in front of the National Assembly saw angry and distressed citizens and women’s rights activists rub shoulders with members of the National Assembly. “There was meaningful interaction between women and men, as well as members of the National Assembly and the media, which is important, but what is more important is that our demands are considered,” says Sahar Bin Ali.
Ghadeer was happy to meet women who joined the protest to show their support. “I was so proud to meet women who came together in pain, sorrow and grief about what had happened to Farah,” she says. “We stood together to show our support for one another.” It is still not a level playing field for women in Kuwait, and much still needs to be done. Earlier this year, Kuwaiti women launched a ‘Me Too campaign’ to protest against official inaction over harassment using the hashtag Lan Asket, which is Arabic for ‘I will not be silent.’ The pace of progress in women’s rights is slow but steady, and change is ongoing, keeping optimism alive in the hearts of seasoned women’s rights activists in Kuwait.
By Chaitali B. Roy
Special to the Arab Times