Five thousand women are murdered annually by their fathers, sons, brothers, or husbands in so-called honor killings. Or at least that’s the most widely cited number, derived from a UN estimate in 2000, the last time an official study was done. The real number, according to experts like Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini, who has covered the subject for over 20 years, is likely much larger. Honor killings are often considered an internal family issue; they’re a highly sensitive topic, and few outsiders want to get involved.
Kuwaiti curator and art advisor Lulu M. Al-Sabah is not one to shy away from the subject. She is a founding member of Abolish 153, a campaign aimed at eliminating an article from Kuwait’s penal code that is apologetic to honor killings and building coalitions across the GCC and the Arab world to abolish similar laws. This week her Dubai space, JAMM Art Gallery, opened the second edition of Abolish 153, an exhibition designed to raise awareness and funds for the campaign.
A homicide is an “honor” killing when the (usually female) target is thought to have damaged her family’s reputation. Her sins may include being the victim of rape or incest, refusing an arranged marriage, leaving home, committing adultery, getting pregnant, or renouncing her faith. The idea that “blood cleanses honor” persists globally, but in some places these premeditated murders are, if not explicitly legal, then effectively condoned through shockingly lenient sentencing.
Often erroneously associated with Islam, laws across the Arab world in fact derive from the influential penal codes of the Napoleonic Empire, which treated crimes of “passion” lightly. In Kuwait today Article 153 of the penal code punishes murderers of a family member who has committed adultery with a maximum of just three years jail time or a fine (currently 14 Kuwaiti dinars, or roughly $46).
The inaugural Abolish 153 exhibition, held last May at Contemporary Art Platform in Kuwait City, marked ten years since Kuwaiti women earned full political rights, including the right to vote. But that sweeping achievement remains tarnished by Article 153, which threatens women’s lives and diminishes their autonomy, reducing them to dependent subjects whose actions are significant only in so much as they impact their families’ reputations.
Musa Al Shadeedi, His Look, 2016, Print on paper. Courtesy of the artist, Abolish 153, and JAMM Gallery, Dubai
Can art play a role in fighting a law so sinister and unrecognized?
Al-Sabah thinks so. “I believe that art is an effective medium to instigate social change, especially in environments where taboo topics are swept under the carpet,” she says. “Art that tackles issues such as gender inequality, domestic violence, murder, adultery, etc. can be portrayed in what appears to be ‘a safe field’ (art) yet it allows for conversations, increased awareness, and serious debate.”
Abolish 153 brings crucial visibility to the archaic and brutal law. “By hosting exhibitions with artworks that tackle the issue of honor killing, we create a valid reason to have this issue brought up in the media,” says Al-Sabah. “As such, art is a tool to reach our goal of abolishing these laws across the GCC and beyond.” Indeed, a number of local newspapers featured the 2015 exhibition. “A lot people don’t even realize that this law exists and when they do they cannot believe it.”
The latest show features over 40 new artworks commissioned from 11 Kuwaiti and Middle Eastern artists. Their work touches on the subjects of visibility and representation, justice, reproductive freedom, and human rights. Artworks range from explicit meditations on the Article 153, as in Tareq Sultan’s sculpture portraying the scales of justice balancing a human liver, to broader reflections on the representation of women, as in Musa Al-Shadeedi’s prints that collage Ingres’ 1814 painting La Grande Odalisque onto a photograph of a veiled figure.
Maha Al-Asaker, (both) Untitled, 2016, Photography. Courtesy of the artist, Abolish 153, and JAMM Gallery, Dubai
New York-based Kuwaiti photographer Maha Al-Asaker shot tightly cropped images of flowers and naked body parts, which she obscured under a translucent white material. The flowers act as analogues for the female body. With her abstracted imagery, the artist says she’s challenging how the topic of sexuality is covered up: “I was trying to speak as a Kuwaiti woman who doesn't have a say on her body. The body is a very sensitive topic in our culture. We are allowed to chit-chat with our friends about it, but not our parents or family members.” The work hints at lingering taboos—not unlike the topic of honor killings itself. Al-Asaker says that before she was approached to make work for the exhibition, she didn’t know about Article 153. “I believe that Kuwait treats women equal to men on many levels: work, education, and political rights too. I was surprised that this law is there. I never knew it existed in Kuwait.”
Farah Salem, Untitled (from the Cornered series), 2016, Photography. Courtesy of the artist, Abolish 153, and JAMM Gallery, Dubai
Kuwaiti artist Farah Salem merges performance with photography. In her series Cornered, women are photographed curled into boxes set within different landscapes. She says she developed the work out of frustrations from her personal experience as a woman, who can find herself boxed in by societal and internalized constraints alike. “We end up getting so stuck in the box and we forget how to get out,” she says, “we even become comfortable in our discomfort sometimes. Many of us forget to speak up, or do something.”
Considering the experience of living where a law like Article 153 remains on the books, Salem went on:
I think with a law like this existing all women feel unsafe, including myself. Yes, for most of us our families love us and would never do anything to hurt us, but this still exists…which means there is a possibility, if not for me, perhaps for other women… With a law like this men might feel entitled to do such a thing—the law supports it after all, they have nothing to fear. If this kind of law exists then it promotes other forms of violence against women.
Zahra (Zouz The Bird) Al-Mahdi, also from Kuwait, echoes this sentiment:
The matter is not so much about what the law allows, but the mentality that made this law a part of the general social logic. I come from a fairly conservative background, but I am exposed to a large multiplicity of Kuwaiti communities. And I must say, that I feel gender inequality (both latent and manifest) in multiple forms that fit into the heterogeneous Kuwaiti pattern.
For Abolish 153, Al-Mahdi illustrated a series of Impregnation Capsules, which build on her earlier work likening the role of women in her culture to horse breeding. “I started illustrating dissected bodies in order to show the unfamilliar and rather grotesque side of our own persons. This strikes even harder with female/feminine bodies, being the symbol of both beauty and fear.”
Zahra (Zouz The Bird) Al-Mahdi, Impregnation Capsules 1 & 2, 2016, Illustration. Courtesy of the artist, Abolish 153, and JAMM Gallery, Dubai
Who will Abolish 153 reach? Al-Sabah says her dream audience would be the women who are actually affected by the law—“our next step is outreach programs”—particularly those who would be willing to build coalitions and work with them. On holding the show in Dubai rather than Kuwait, she says, “we also want to target the international community because not only is this law against the constitution and against Islamic law but it is also against various international agreements that these countries have signed. No country can consider themselves progressive while such laws exist and I feel that international pressure can help accelerate the process of abolishing these laws.”
Fifty percent of the proceeds from artwork sales will go toward the campaign, and on May 16 a third Abolish 153 exhibition will open for a three-day run in Kuwait, timed to commemorate the 11-year anniversary of Kuwaiti women acquiring political rights. Despite these decade-old gains, Al-Sabah is realistic about the challenges moving forward: “Even though women have the right to vote, there isn’t a single female in the current parliament, which consists of 50 MPs. To abolish this law in Kuwait, we would need 25 MPs to back us up. This is difficult in the current circumstances.”
Amani Althuwaini, Volition, 2016, Acrylic on MDF. Courtesy of the artist, Abolish 153, and JAMM Gallery, Dubai
Under these conditions, an exhibition like Abolish 153 may seem a small gesture. And, indeed, the campaign is working on other initiatives, such as a survey to gather empirical evidence to influence lawmakers. Nevertheless, art offers a critical platform to those fighting for human rights and an end to honor killings. Farah Salem speaks candidly about the realtionship between art and justice: “I simply like to bring awareness which I hope will trigger something in people to shift their consciousness and take some sort of action that will better humanity. I feel that’s my role. I might not have the financial or the political power, but I have another way of voicing the truth to inspire those who have the power to make a change.”
Learn more about the Abolish 153 campaign and sign the petition here.
(Image at top: Farah Salem, Untitled (from the Cornered series), 2016, Photography, Courtesy of the artist, Abolish 153, and JAMM Gallery, Dubai)