January 10, 2012

Annex 1

Gender Difference and Social Anxiety: A Note on Identity and Terminology

The transgender individuals interviewed for this report self-identified in various ways that do not always parallel Western understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. In addition, terms prevalent in Kuwaiti society to describe gender and sexually non-conforming individuals sometimes do not reflect the way these individuals self-identify.

Transsexual or transgender are not widely used terms in Kuwait, although most individuals Human Rights Watch spoke with self-identified as transsexual (in two cases as “she-males,” using the English term) and expressed a desire to transition hormonally, surgically, and legally into women.

The term commonly used in Kuwait for non-conforming biological men is “ jins thalith” (“third sex”), or “jins ”for short (simply “sex,” used as a noun, “jounous” in the plural). Most individuals we spoke with regard the terms as derogatory. People used the term jins thalith to describe a variety of gender and sexual difference in biological men, referring generally to non-normative behavior or presentation: this can include effeminacy, homosexuality, transsexuality and transgenderism, or a combination thereof.

This fluidity was also reflected in the self-conception of individuals with whom we spoke. While many self-identified clearly as transsexual, others were unable to express any clear-cut identity and would best be described as transgender, although they did not self-identify as such. Nor did they necessarily identify as gay. Such individuals were usually effeminate, sometimes used female hormones, and presented themselves as male or female, depending on the situation, without necessarily expressing a consistent  gender identity. Their sexual preference was usually towards men.

Homosexual Kuwaiti men use either the English term gay, its neutral Arabic equivalent “mithly,” or the term “louti” (a reference to the People of Lot). While for many gay rights activists this term is derogatory, some homosexual men used it as a descriptor.

The terms “boya” (an Arabization of the English word boy, “boyat” in the plural) or the less common “jins rabi’” (“fourth sex”) refer women or girls whose mannerisms and gender presentation is masculine. In recent years, a moral panic emerged in several Arab Gulf states, including Kuwait, over the phenomenon of boyat, which many contend is a form of deviance, moral degeneracy, or a pathology.[123] An elaboration of how Kuwaiti and Gulf Arab societies generally view boyat illustrates the anxiety caused by any transgression of gender norms.

The term boya is generally a description of any form of overt female masculinity, and does not automatically include homosexuality. While many boyat do identify as lesbian, others maintain that they are not. Such identities can be situated within a larger global trend of increasingly hybridized sexual and gender identities. Boyat challenge social norms of acceptable female behavior and gender roles, in the sense that they defy presentations of the body that Kuwaiti society deems legitimate for women. This defiance encompasses the sexual use of their bodies insofar as attraction to women is considered a characteristic solely of men.

Several mainstream Kuwaiti talk shows that deal with political and social issues across the region and in Kuwait itself have addressed the issue of boyat, decrying its spread and warning that masculinization of women may lead to deviant behavior such as homosexuality.[124] The homosexual component, while implicit, is not necessarily the most important aspect of their behavior; rather, attraction to women is seen as a natural attribute of masculinity. Concern about transgression of gender norms is far more salient in public discourse about boyat. One psychologist advocated treatment for female masculinity early on so that it does not lead to homosexuality.[125]

The visibility of both boyat and transgender women as identifiable markers of gender transgression has led to the vilification of both and the legal sanction of transgender women. The fact that female homosexuality is not a criminal offence does not make it socially acceptable.  Both public and medical discourse in Kuwait often portray boyatas manifestations of female teen rebellion against traditions and values embraced by Kuwaiti society.[126] Media reports commonly characterize them as violent or predatory. When arrests of boyat do happen, they are often for crimes such as public disturbances or aggression, rather than for imitating a member of the opposite sex.[127]

The types of opinions expressed in Kuwaiti media and the frequency with which they are articulated are proof of the currency and seriousness of gender transgression from the perspective of the general public and policy makers. Interestingly, there has not been the same amount of media attention or public outcry directed against gay men. In Kuwait specifically, the lion’s share of media attention has gone to boyat, transgender persons, and male effeminacy generally, and the latter two especially after the passing of the amendment to article 198.

[123]Amelia Naidoo, “Shedding light on the ‘Boyat’ phenomenon: Conference separates fact from fiction on the issue”, Gulfnews.com, April 21, 2011, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/general/shedding-light-on-the-boyat-phenomenon-1.796816 (accessed December 22, 2011).

[124] CNN, “Gulf Boyat,” online video clip, YouTube, May 21, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FwAl_x9xDU, (accessed June 24, 2011).

[125]Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Naima Taher, Kuwait City, Kuwait, February 12, 2011.

[126]Dalal S. Almubayei, “Articulations of Identity within Kuwaiti High School Cliques: Language Choices in Boyat and Emo Filipino Youth Groups,” PhD. Dissertation, University of Texas at Arlington, 2010.