On a warm evening in late April 2013, I was sitting at a Starbucks in Kuwait City across the table from a thirty-one year old woman. Even though “Reem” had undergone male-to-female surgery almost a decade earlier, legal barriers prevented her complete transition to womanhood.
Reem still wore a bulky suit and tie every day to her office to conceal the fact that she was now a woman. When she would go out as herself, she would have to borrow her sister’s ID; luckily, they have similar features.
At the time, I was visiting Kuwait on behalf of Human Rights Watch (HRW) to determine whether the Kuwaiti government had taken steps to end abuses against members of the transgender community, which HRW had documented in its 2012 report, They Hunt Us Down for Fun.
The report focused on violations against transgender women committed by the police. Although the Kuwaiti media has reported about the arrest of a small number of transgender men, HRW found these incidents happen with significantly less frequency than those of transgender women.
According to several lawyers and transgendered individuals, transgender men and boyat—a term commonly used in the Gulf to describe masculine women—generally escape police scrutiny because police fear being accused of harassing women, a charge that is taken very seriously in Kuwait. Women also generally enjoy more flexibility in their dress and presentation, and it is more difficult to define what constitutes gender transgressive dress for women than for men.
To bring Kuwait in line with its international obligations, the situation facing transgendered women in the country must be improved. The first place to start is the law.
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