Maha al-Mutairi has known the risks for decades. As an openly transgender woman living in Kuwait, she has faced physical and verbal abuse from the public and has been called into the police station on numerous occasions for “imitating the opposite sex,” which is illegal under Kuwaiti law.
On June 5, Mutairi was called into the police station again. Police didn’t tell her why they wanted to speak with her, but Mutairi knew what to expect. This time, she wanted the outcome to be different. On her drive to the police station, Mutairi took out her phone and began filming.
“All this because I’m trans?” Mutairi, 39, cried in the video. “This is not your business. This is between me and God. God made me like this. I wish that I felt like a man deep inside. I’d pay all the money in the world to feel like a normal man. Why would you do this to me?”
In the video, Mutairi goes on to allege that when she has previously been called in by police, they’ve raped and sexually assaulted her in jail.
“When you imprison me because I’m trans, then I get raped and sexually assaulted by people with high authority and by cops, what do you call that?” she said. “When you imprison me in a men’s prison and as I’m sleeping in my cell, I get groped and sexually assaulted by policemen … What do you call this?”
Those allegations caught the attention of Shaikha Salmeen, a lawyer in Kuwait.
“The LGBT community, in general, here in Kuwait — everyone knows everyone”
“The LGBT community, in general, here in Kuwait — everyone knows everyone,” Salmeen said. “So, when this video was posted on Snapchat, every friend of mine, they’re just like ‘Shaikha, try to do something. Please, do something.”
Within hours, Salmeen jumped on Mutairi’s case, pro bono. Mutairi had already been placed behind bars, so Salmeen says she went to the jail to see what she could do to help. It was a Saturday, and when she first arrived, many officers were off-duty. Salmeen says the receptionist confirmed that Mutairi was an inmate on record, and advised her to come back the following day when more officers were in the office.
Salmeen returned the following day but says she met continued obstacles.
“Before I even gave them the name, as soon as I entered the door, I said, ‘Hello, I have a client here.’ [The officer was] like, “[Mutairi’s] not here.” I was like, ‘I didn’t even give you the name,’” Salmeen said. “So, apparently they knew about the movement.”
That movement was the work to free Mutairi, and it was exploding. #FreeMahaAlmutairi started trending in Kuwait.
One human rights advocate, Tareq Alkhudari, helped Mutairi's video go global.
“I couldn’t just not do something,” Alkhudari said. “The first thing that I did was translate her video to English and add subtitles.”
Within hours, Mutairi’s video went viral. Nearly 1 million people tuned in, some 95,000 people signed a petition for her release, and others donated more than $13,000 to a GoFundMe page to support her.
Mutairi later told her lawyer she had no idea any of this was happening while she was detained. She alleges that officers were trying to break her spirit with verbal abuse.
“They told her that no one knows where you are, and no one cares,” Salmeen said. “They did not tell her about the huge movement that’s happened. They did not tell her that there’s a lawyer that has come asking for you. They did not tell her any of that.”
Meanwhile, Salmeen kept working on the case, while Alkhudari and other advocates were sharing Mutairi’s story. On Monday, June 8, Salmeen says it was the public’s anger and social media support that got Mutairi out on bail. When Mutairi was released and realized the masses had rallied around her, she was overwhelmed.
In a video posted on social media, Mutairi thanked those who supported her.
“When I got out from prison I never thought I’d see this much love and this much acceptance — from my country, Kuwait, and internationally. Thank you so much, thank you so much, thank you so much,” she said. “Sorry it took me a while to record this video. I felt so emotional when I saw the posts of people who are protecting me and demanding my rights.”
Mutairi is safe now, but her lawyer, Salmeen, says her client endured abuse during her three days in detention. Officers allegedly spat on her and took turns touching her inappropriately.
“They didn’t even give her a mattress or a blanket. She slept on the floor,” Salmeen said. “The only thing they fed her was little pieces of cheese and a can of juice. From working as a lawyer, I know this place is the filthiest place in the country.”
The Criminal Investigation Department of Kuwait’s Ministry of Interior did not respond to a request for comment. Salmeen says all charges against Mutairi have been dropped, and Mutairi hasn’t yet decided if she’ll press charges for the alleged abuse.
“Maha and her other fellow trans women, they’re just like, ‘This is our life. We’re used to it by now.’ ... It just broke my heart that they think this is the norm.”
“Maha is almost 40. And she’s been facing this for more than 20 years. She’s just tired of this life,” Salmeen said, adding that Mutairi and other trans women in Kuwait have become accustomed to this treatment. “Maha and her other fellow trans women, they’re just like, ‘This is our life. We’re used to it by now.’ Yesterday, I was sitting with them. They were laughing and making jokes about the insults and the sexual harassment and the bad treatment they’re used to [facing] in those places. It just broke my heart that they think this is the norm.”
Salmeen says it’s clear that her client is not alone. Since Mutairi’s case went public, Salmeen has received over 100 messages from gay and trans people in Kuwait who say they’ve suffered similar abuse from authorities.
“So, it can’t be a coincidence that all of those people are just fabricating stories,” she said. Salmeen believes that if more people come forward with allegations — and more people beyond the LGBTQ community support them — this moment could be a turning point for Kuwait.
“This is huge … the biggest LGBT movement happening in Kuwait, in ever. Let me tell you this much,” she said.
"People are changing their ideas, getting educated and talking.”
Tareq Alkhudari, the human rights advocate, agrees, adding that he’s hopeful because “people are changing their ideas, getting educated and talking.”
“Even if people talk about it negatively, that’s still a good step, because you’re acknowledging the existence of these people that had no image or light being shed [on them],” Alkhudari said. “People didn’t know these people existed before, is what I’m trying to say. And because they know now, that’s a very good step.”
Both Alkhudari and Salmeen acknowledge that equal rights for Kuwait’s LGBTQ community will take years of advocacy to be put into law. Their immediate priority is safety and abolishing the law that criminalizes “imitating the appearance of the opposite sex.” Article 198 of the Criminal Code was amended in 2007 from a generic public decency law and now allows authorities to persecute and abuse transgender women, according to Human Rights Watch.
“That article is very vague and blurry. Because, like, who gets to decide by just looking? Clothes are not very definitive of this gender and that gender,” Alkhudari said. “There’s still that hetero-normative idea of the masculine and the feminine. What people believe to be a man and a woman and that’s it — there’s nothing in between.”
Supporters have called for the abolition of Article 198 following Mutairi’s case. But Mutairi may not stick around to see those results. She’s considering seeking asylum in a country where she can live without fear.