Sparks largest LGBTQ+ movement in history of small Middle Eastern nation.
Maha al-Mutairi recently spoke her truth on a Twitter video. The 39-year-old Kuwaiti trans woman alleged sexual and physical abuse by officers in a Kuwaiti men’s prison.
Thanks to swift action taken by supporter Tareq Alkhudari, a Kuwaiti Bostonian, al-Mutairi’s situation wound up getting international attention.
The video shows al-Mutairi in tears as she makes her way to a police station. She talks about facing constant sexual and physical assault by officers while she was detained in a male prison in 2019. In Kuwait, it is illegal to imitate the opposite sex under the country’s criminal code, which states that “any person committing an indecent act in a public place, or imitating the appearance of a member of the opposite sex, shall be subject to imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or a fine.” After facing such charges four times in one year, al-Mutairi said she was instructed by authorities to surrender in person. That’s when she made the video, on the way to the precinct.
Two hours after she posted the clip, Shaikha Salmeen, an attorney in Kuwait, took the case pro bono and began to ask around for details.
“I knew for a fact after what she said in her video she won’t be safe,” Salmeen said. “Sadly no one else decided to help, as it would hurt their reputation.”
Al-Mutairi was contacted for an interview for this article, but was unable to respond.
“As sad and shallow it might sound, it is because she is under their radar at the moment,” Salmeen said. “After she exposed what usually happens to trans women in those kinds of places, they are literally waiting for her to slip so they can find something to charge her with. So I advised her not to. Better safe than sorry.”
Meanwhile, Alkhudari saw that the video was trending locally in Kuwait. He knew that if the buzz stayed there, it was unlikely that al-Mutairi, or other transgender Kuwaitis, would be helped. Alkhudari recently completed his bachelor’s in film and TV studies at Boston University, where he actively advocated for the LGTBQ+ community and people of color on campus, and figured he could help.
First, Alkhudari translated al-Mutairi’s videos and added English subtitles. He then created the hashtags #JusticeForMaha and #WeAreAllForMaha, all with a goal of applying international pressure. And it worked; the video trended globally, and after spending three days in prison, al-Mutairi was released on June 8.
Through the ordeal, the Kuwaiti LGTBQ+ movement grew larger and more visible, as it showed other closeted members of the community that they have allies, locally as well as globally. The video received “the encouragement and constant correspondence of many famous feminists and humanitarian activists around the world,” Alkhudati said, while Human Rights Watch has since urged the Kuwaiti National Assembly to repeal the contested sections of Kuwait’s criminal code.
Weeks later, the BU grad felt empowered by the support al-Mutairi and the cause are receiving. It was all worth the ordeal, he said.
“The emotional outrage and anger I felt blinded any possible consequences I could face,” Alkhudari told DigBoston. “All I wanted to do was help a woman not be sexually and physically abused. To receive death threats, rape threats, insults, and bullying didnt affect me or stop me.”
Alkhudari is also working to get Kuwaiti society to respect and recognize LGBTQ+ people but thinks changes will take a long time to come. Salmeen agreed, saying that politicians are afraid of losing votes if they take steps to protect the marginalized community.
“Laws should be made to protect people, and sadly that is not the case with a lot of outdated laws here in Kuwait,” Salmeen said. “Kuwait should stop playing the parents’ role in people’s life.”
“If it wasn’t for [al-Mutairi’s] bravery, none of this would’ve happened,” Alkhudari said. “It warms my heart knowing I helped in her release and in raising enough funds for her to live comfortably and safely here.”