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Kuwaiti trans woman got 2 years in prison for 'impersonating the opposite sex'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Impersonating the opposite sex online. That is the charge that got Maha al-Mutairi, a trans woman, sentenced to two years in Kuwaiti prison earlier this month. She's previously been arrested numerous times and alleges that on one instance in 2019, she was sexually assaulted by Kuwaiti officers. Today she's once again in police custody as she awaits an appeals hearing scheduled for October 31. Badriyyah Alsabah is a Kuwaiti activist and research and policy fellow with the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth. She joins us now to talk about Maha al-Mutairi and the importance of her case for Kuwait's LGBTQ movement.

Thanks so much for joining us today.

BADRIYYAH ALSABAH: Thank you so much, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: To start with, would you just tell us a little bit about Maha al-Mutairi and who she is?

ALSABAH: So Maha al-Mutairi is a Kuwaiti citizen. She is 40 years old, and she is a transgender woman. And she gained popularity across multiple social media platforms starting in 2014 and 2015.

MCCAMMON: And what does she mean to the LGBTQ community in Kuwait?

ALSABAH: So Maha is something of an icon in the ways that her story has reached such a wide audience. She is someone who is living her life unapologetically within the constraints of a very, very difficult system. So she really does stand out as someone that the community looks to for inspiration and to support as well.

MCCAMMON: I want to talk about the case against her. What exactly are the laws that authorities accuse her of breaking?

ALSABAH: So the specific articles of the Constitution that are being used against Maha criminalizes imitating the appearance of a member of the opposite sex, and this is within the group of restrictions on privacy and on a person's free choice of dress. There's also Article 70 of the telecommunication law, where a person who misuses telephone communications may be imprisoned for up to a year and fined about 7,000 U.S. dollars.

MCCAMMON: I understand you grew up in Kuwait. Is this a pervasive problem in Kuwait?

ALSABAH: So I would say that it is a widespread problem in Kuwait, especially in terms of gender representation. So one of the issues here is under this article of the penal code, there are no specifications. There is no criteria as to what is deemed imitating the opposite sex. It can be anything from appearing in what is deemed to be feminine attire, moving in a feminine way. So the criteria is really, really wide and completely up to the discretion of the police, and it's herein that the issue really lies.

MCCAMMON: Looking ahead to Maha al-Mutairi's appeals hearing this weekend, what are the possible outcomes there?

ALSABAH: So there are a few possible outcomes when it comes to her hearing. There is a possibility that she will be imprisoned for two years. There is a possibility that the initial fine of about 3,300 U.S. dollars can be increased, and there is also the possibility that she would be able to pay the fine and hopefully be released. What's actually quite interesting about all of this is GID, which is gender identity disorder, is actually recognized by the Kuwaiti government. So her lawyer may try to weave in that rhetoric and that logic.

MCCAMMON: What is the larger significance of this case for LGBTQ people in Kuwait?

ALSABAH: I think first and foremost, representation. There is someone who has been brave enough to come out unapologetically. So seeing the ways in which that is interacting with the laws of the land, I think, is inspiring people to do more. I think also the international reach of this case and, for example, Human Rights Watch and other large orgs and agencies have picked this case up as one to act as both a warning and a nod to the future in which hopefully some of these articles can be amended or even repealed to create a more livable society for queer people in the Middle East.

MCCAMMON: Badriyyah Alsabah is a Kuwaiti activist and research and policy fellow with the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth.

Thanks for speaking with us.

ALSABAH: Thank you so much, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.