DUBAI : Abrar Zenkawi was cruising toward the beach in Kuwait City when she saw a man waving and smiling in her rearview mirror.
Elsewhere, this may have been a benign highway flirtation. But in Kuwait, it’s a haunting routine that often turns dangerous. The man pulled up beside her, inched closer and finally drove into her.
Zenkawi’s car, carrying her toddler nieces, sister and friend, flipped six times.
“It’s considered normal here. Men always drive way too close to scare girls, chase them to their homes, follow them to work, just for fun,” said Zenkawi, 34, who spent months in the hospital with a shattered spine. “They don’t think about the consequences.” But that may be changing as women are
increasingly challenging Kuwait’s deeply patriarchal society.
In recent weeks, a growing number of women have broken taboos to speak out about the scourge of harassment and violence that plagues the Gulf nation’s streets, highways and malls, in an echo of the global #MeToo movement.
An Instagram page has led to an outpouring of testimony from women fed up with being intimidated or attacked in a country where the criminal code doesn’t define sexual harassment and lays out few repercussions for men who kill female relatives for actions they consider immoral. A wide variety of news and talk shows have taken up the subject of harassment for the first time. And one journalist used a hidden camera to document how women are treated in the streets.
The spark may have come from fashion blogger Ascia al-Faraj, who vented in January on Snapchat to her millions of followers after being hounded by a man in a speeding car. In such episodes, men often try to “bump” a woman’s car, but many serious accidents result, as in Zenkawi’s case.
“It’s terrifying, all the time you’re feeling so unsafe in your own skin,” al-Faraj told The Associated Press. “The responsibility is always on us. … We must have had our music too loud or our windows down.”
Shayma Shamo, a 27-year-old doctor, sought to seize the momentum of al-Faraj’s viral video, creating an Instagram page called “Lan Asket,” Arabic for “I will not be silent.”
Shamo’s rage had been building for weeks. In December, a female employee of Kuwait’s Parliament was stabbed to death by her 17-year-old brother, reportedly because he didn’t want her working as a security guard. It was the third such case – described as “honor killings” – to make headlines in as many months. The National Assembly, all-male despite a record number of female candidates in the recent election, offered none of the customary condolences.
“The silence was deafening,” Shamo said. “I thought, OK, that could happen to me, and anyone could get away with it.”
Kuwait, unlike other oil-rich Persian Gulf sheikhdoms, has a legislature with genuine power and some tolerance for political dissent. But restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus prevented Shamo from staging a protest and forced her to take her grievances online, as women in the region’s more repressive countries have done recently.
The Lan Asket account thrust sexual harassment, long shrouded in shame, into the limelight. AP