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Abolish 153 campaign seeks to rid Kuwait of archaic law

While so-called honour killings are rare, activists say its time to kill anti-women legislation ‘once and for all’

Image Credit: Supplied
Dr Alanoud Al Sharekh (top right) with the co-founders of Abolish 153 campaign.
Gulf News

Kuwait City: A campaign is gaining steam in Kuwait to abolish an outdated ‘honour-killing law’ which charges men who kill their female family members who engage in sex outside of marriage to get off with only a misdemeanour crime punishable by a three-year prison sentence (or less) and/or a maximum fine of 225 Kuwaiti dinars ($744, Dh2,840).

The contentious Article 153 was instituted 57 years ago and actually predates Kuwait’s independence from Great Britain.

Dr Alanoud Al Sharekh, a prominent rights activist from Kuwait and consultant at Ibtkar Strategic Consultancy, tells Gulf News that the law has nothing to do with Kuwaiti culture.

One of the founders of the Abolish 153 campaign which started in 2014, Al Sharekh says the law actually derives from Napoleonic Code.

“It’s actually colonial baggage,” she says, laughingly.

Indeed, Article 153 is a remnant of European influence in Kuwait, and was established at a time when the country was seeking to transform its legal system.

After signing the Anglo-Kuwaiti Treaty with Great Britain in 1899, Kuwait remained a British protectorate until its independence in 1961.

This relationship eventually led to the establishment of British Jurisdiction in 1925, which ran separately, but in parallel, to the country’s National Jurisdiction, a semi-tribal, Islamic legal system without written laws, procedures, or defined courts.

But British law eventually came under attack from Kuwaiti nationalists and Islamic scholars who viewed foreign jurisdiction as a reminder of protection and semi-colonialism.

The Kuwaiti government quickly turned to Egypt, commissioning one of its foremost jurists, Dr Abdul Razzaq Al Sanhuri, to completely overhaul the country’s legislative framework.

Within one year, Kuwait adopted an entirely new system, heavily based on Egyptian law (in turn derived from French civil code), and with complex, foreign, and unfamiliar legal principles.

Today, Kuwait’s legal system is an amalgamation of European, Egyptian, and Sharia; incidentally, it’s also described as increasingly inefficient and wrought with delays due to complex and lengthy codes that govern the entire legislative framework.

While the actual number of so-called ‘honour killings’ is very low — only one incident was reported between 2005-2010 when a girl was murdered by her brothers — Abolish 153 wants to get rid of archaic and backwards laws ‘once and for all’.

Abolish 153 is as much a response to Kuwait’s muddled legal history as it is a campaign to end violence.

Since its establishment, Al Sharekh and her co-founders managed to gain significant political traction.

After three years of diligent lobbying, Abolish 153 witnessed its biggest milestone in May 2017, when five MPs signed a bill to end the honour killing law, giving it urgent status within Kuwait’s parliament.

“None of the legislators we spoke to in parliament had actually heard of the law before,” says Dr Alanoud as she describes the challenges involved when working with the government and legislators.

Aside from reaching out to lawmakers, the campaign also polled more than 1,000 Kuwaitis to gauge public opinion towards the honour killing law.

The results showed that a staggering 83 per cent of the respondents had never even heard of Article 153 and 68 per cent supported getting rid of it. “We had to go through a similar process every time — explaining that an honour killing law does exist in Kuwait and how it’s inconsistent with our country’s constitution and Sharia.”

Prominent legal scholar and rights activist, Dr Fatima Al Hewail, agrees.

“A civil country, a humanitarian country, should not have this type of law,” comments Al Hewail, who is an assistant professor of international law at Kuwait University and a board member of the Kuwait Women’s Cultural & Social Society.

Al Hewail is also the first Kuwaiti female PhD holder in international private law and a vocal advocate for amending a variety of legislations that negatively impact Kuwaiti women and families, especially as they pertain to civil status and citizenship.

She’s doesn’t shy away from criticising the country’s legislative process either, which she describes as haphazard and subject to the whims of parliamentarians as opposed to the needs of the country.

“Laws need to be updated regularly according to a society’s needs — they exist to help us better manage our lives, and not just for punishment.”

Like Al Sharekh, Al Hewail believes in completely eradicating Article 153.

In her view, even if the law is rarely, if ever, applied, it contradicts Kuwait’s status as a country that supports the empowerment of women, especially since it ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1994.

But despite the growing support Abolish 153 has witnessed in the last three years, that hasn’t stopped critics from panning their efforts to remove the law from Kuwait’s penal code.

Alsharekh explains that even among liberal circles, she was questioned for choosing such a controversial issue, and had to mitigate concerns that highlighting the law could negatively impact the country’s reputation.

And while some religious clerics have condemned Article 153, including Hamdan Al Azmi, an imam from Kuwait’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and Dr Bassam Al Shatti, Assistant Professor of Faith and Advocacy in the Faculty of Sharia and Islamic Studies, former Kuwaiti MP and Salafist, Abdul Rahman Al Jeeran, has publicly expressed his support for the legislation.

But despite challenges, Al Sharekh remains optimistic.

Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia recently repealed a law that allowed rapists to avoid prison if they marry their victims.

“There is a movement in the Gulf and wider Arab world to remove violent legislations against women,” she says.

“The region is starting to focus on empowering women, and more people are beginning to understand that violent legislations are mechanisms of disempowerment.”

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