Kuwait Court Overturns Law Criminalizing Transgender People

Struck-down Kuwaiti law banned 'imitation of the opposite sex' and set the maximum penalty at a year in prison or a fine of $3,300

An aerial view of skyscrapers in Kuwait City, last month.
An aerial view of skyscrapers in Kuwait City, last month.Credit: YASSER AL-ZAYYAT / AFP

Kuwait's constitutional court has struck down a contentious law long used to criminalize transgender people by forbidding the “imitation of the opposite sex."

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After weeks of deliberation and years of campaigning by human rights groups, the court ruled that the law policing people who dress and behave like the opposite sex was “inconsistent with the constitution's keenness to ensure and preserve personal freedom" because the law's terms were far too ambiguous. The article did not define how to determine the “opposite sex," allowing for “miscalculation" in criminalization, the court said.

The law had set the maximum penalty for cross-dressing at one-year in prison or a fine of $3,300.

The decision was hailed as a liberal counterweight to the conservative politics in Kuwait, a Gulf Arab sheikhdom where homosexual relations are criminalized with up to seven years in prison.

Amnesty International welcomed the overturning of the penal code's Article 198 as “a major breakthrough" for the rights of transgender people in the region.

Similar laws criminalize transgender expression across the conservative Arabian Peninsula. Throughout the Arab world, gay, lesbian and transgender people face legal and social discrimination and other formidable obstacles to living their lives openly.

“Article 198 was deeply discriminatory, overly vague and never should have been accepted into law in the first place,” said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa division, while urging caution about the decision's ultimate impact and enforcement.

Kuwaiti authorities “must also immediately halt arbitrary arrests of transgender people and drop all charges and convictions brought against them,” Maalouf added.

Transgender woman Maha al-Mutairi, for instance, was sentenced last October to two years in prison for “imitating the opposite sex online," Human Rights Watch has reported. She remains in detention at Kuwait’s Central Prison for men.

On Thursday, conservative Islamist lawmakers in Kuwait blasted the court ruling as shameful and vowed to fight it.

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