Content warning: abuse, sexual violence and sexual harassment
I don’t put much time or effort into writing tweets. I just ramble, then press Tweet — as simple as that. That’s why I end up with a lot of typos and regrets a few moments later, which leads to many incidents of “Tweets aren’t loading right now. Try again.” Whatever thoughts that were in these tweets go into the back of my brain and rarely recur.
Three years ago in June, I decided to tweet two words. I thought that typing the 10 characters in these two words would be easy; I’d just type them quickly and then press Tweet. If there was a typo, or if I felt dumb about it afterward, I’d simply delete it. There was nothing serious to be worried about. So I typed “Happy” in a matter of seconds. It was as easy as I expected. But I stared at the screen for an hour after I typed a P followed by an r.
What if someone saw? It took me another half hour to type an i and a d.
I could get harmed. I eventually typed an e and finished the tweet.
I deleted the tweet two minutes later. A friend of mine texted me, saying, “are you dumb? DELETE NOW” after he saw it. I’m expecting a similar text after he reads this column.
I’m not sure what “pride” I was addressing in that tweet. The pride I know is always lurking. When it isn’t, it’s only visible to certain people in certain spaces and geographies. It’s a demon, a threat. The pride I know is punishable by imprisonment and torture.
The pride I know is also policed and terrorized. Maha Almutairi, a Kuwaiti transgender woman, posted a video of herself two weeks ago that immediately went viral. In this video, she was sobbing, accusing police officers of arresting and raping her after being placed in a jail designated for men. One day later, Almutairi went missing. And what horrific crime did she commit? She violated Kuwait’s “public morality” laws.
Kuwait, like many other countries, polices and terrorizes transgender and queer people in the name of “public morality.” I read more than 40 criminal reports in the past few days from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. All of them had alternatives to the phrase, “We harass, arrest and torture transgender and queer people in the name of public morality and decency laws.” They’re “preserving public morality,” or they’re “protecting the state’s general system and decency.”
One law that continues to dehumanize Almutairi and many others in the name of public morals is Kuwait’s Article 198, an amendment to preexisting public decency laws. Kuwait’s National Assembly passed Article 198 in May 2007, and it states that whoever “(imitates) the opposite sex in any way” would face a year in prison and/or a fine of approximately $3,600.
Perhaps the simplest problem with such laws is their arbitrariness. There are no parameters or specific descriptions of what a person “imitating the opposite sex” looks like. The parameters, therefore, get to be defined and interpreted according to the police, who often abuse their power.
In 2012, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “ ‘They Hunt Us Down for Fun’: Discrimination and Police Violence Against Transgender Women in Kuwait,” which documents the condition of Kuwait’s transgender community before and after the passage of Article 198. Before May 2007, transgender women could access various governmental services without the law dismissing or denying their gender identities. But this all shifted when Article 198 passed. In addition to violence and discrimination from the public, Kuwait’s brutality against transgender women expanded to make use of the police and prison systems.
In one testimony recorded in the report, Amani, another Kuwaiti transgender woman, said, “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?”
A lot of cases like Amani’s go unnoticed. Without these cases in the public eye, they end at the hands of the abusive officer. But even if entire countries start talking about the case, that attention still wouldn’t guarantee the victim’s survival.
No “viral” case has ensured the safety or dignity of the victim. Not #FreeMaha. Not #FreeAmani. And even if these victims are freed, months and months of silence follow until another transgender or queer person is assaulted or tortured.
Authorities have established this dominance and control over transgender and queer people, and they wield their power to devastating effect: surveilling, tracking and quite literally hunting them.
In September 2017, Sarah Hegazi, an Egyptian lesbian activist, raised the rainbow flag during a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo. At the time, she and her friends “were proud to hold the flag.” But Hegazi didn’t know she was seen as “a criminal — someone who was seeking to destroy the moral structure of society.” She was later one of 43 gay, lesbian and transgender people who were tracked and violently arrested by Egyptian authorities for allegedly “promoting sexual deviancy and debauchery.”
Hegazi spent three months at a women’s prison. The two women who shared the cell with her were ordered to not talk to her. She was not allowed to perform outside exercises with other prisoners. Most horrifically, other detainees were allowed to beat and sexually harass Hegazi after they were given the reason for her arrest.
I woke up this Sunday morning to news of her suicide. The last thing I knew about her story was her fleeing to Canada, battling the severe post-traumatic stress disorder and depression the three months in prison had caused her. But the system that had ripped away everything she loved — her job, her family, her country, her pride — still haunted her thousands of miles away.
So the pride I know is suppressed. It is loathed and humiliated. The pride that I know of, however, is loud. It disrupts and haunts governments and their followers. The pride that I know of will become seen and visible. And I’m not sure how many deaths and arrests and assaults and rapes will happen until this radical transformation of the pride I know is achieved.
Khaled Alqahtani writes the Wednesday column on decolonization. Contact them at [email protected]