Thoubha: The domestic violence fighter app helping the women of Kuwait

Domestic violence Kuwait
11 min read
19 January, 2023

Twenty-two-year-old A.M.* grew up in a physically, emotionally and sexually abusive Kuwaiti family. She realised that her father was sexually abusing her only when she read the legal definition of sexual assault. But at home, his behaviour was considered normal.

She moved to London with her family when she was 11 and reveals that it had become "difficult to report her parents" because her "father was a diplomat and thus enjoyed immunity.”

At 17 she escaped but her parents kept harassing her.

"To this day the 22-year-old continues to suffer from severe depression and lives in constant fear of being found by her abusers. And she is not the only one"

In 2021 she applied for asylum in the UK. “My claim was accepted in less than six months because I had so much evidence of the abuse,” she tells The New Arab.

A.M. went public with her story on social media the same year in hopes of being able to help other survivors seek protection and build a safer Kuwait. She also started the hashtag #KuwaitisNotSafe to amplify the voices of victims.

To this day the 22-year-old continues to suffer from severe depression and lives in constant fear of being found by her abusers. And she is not the only one. 

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However, unlike A.M., 32-year-old Farah Akbar could not break free and her story shocked and angered the country.

In April 2022, she was killed by a man that had been stalking and threatening her for months after her family had refused his marriage proposal. She had filed multiple police complaints but the harasser was always released on bail.

On the day of the murder, Farah was driving her children when her stalker rammed into her car, abducted her, took her to an unknown location and stabbed her in the chest. He then dumped her body outside a hospital.

With distressing stories like this becoming more apparent, a female-led grassroots organisation decided to launch an app called Thouba in hopes of not letting more Farahs be murdered by men. 

Thoubha, which was released six months ago, is the first of its kind in Kuwait. The free application is an initiative by Abolish 153 – an organisation founded in 2014 by five women activists to fight domestic violence in the Gulf country and to abolish article 153 of the penal code.

This retrograde law allows men to obtain reduced sentences and/or a fine for killing women found in the act of adultery.

‘It looks like a fashion news app in case the abuser is next to you’

Initially, the group announced the app with a subtle post on Instagram. “We wanted it to be word of mouth only, for victims so that abusers could not find out about it. But it did not work, the app did not reach enough people,” Sundus Hamza, Abolish 153 co-founder and the app project manager, tells The New Arab.

On 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, they decided to publicise it again. Someone commented on the news on a local blog: “I hope they are prepared for that thing to burn out of control. Their servers won't be able to handle it.”

As victims’ communication is often restricted by their abusers, the application is disguised to look like a fashion news platform, which Sundus explains is done on purpose, “just in case the abuser is next to you and you cannot ask for help.”

The content is in Arabic and English but they plan to add a Tagalog version as well to target the Philipino expats living in the country.

"The application is disguised to look like a fashion news platform in case the abuser is next to you and you cannot ask for help”

Navigating further on the app there is a hidden section, accessible only after signing up and typing a passcode, with documents about "the fundamentals of domestic violence, information on creating a safety plan, and other self and risk assessment tools to help determine the level of danger a victim is subjected to."

Sundus, who is also a lawyer, explains there are also self-help tools like grounding and breathing techniques to “help victims gain a bit of sanity to make the right decisions and eliminate possible lethal outcomes.”

“In 2019, Abolish 153 had already set up a hotline run by volunteers trained by like-minded organisations from Saudi Arabia, the country with the largest number of shelters in the region,” Sundus says. With the app, they added a live chat with volunteers who are trained annually to handle and deal with abuse survivors. The app also connects users with life coaches, national helplines, lawyers and doctors.

Abolish 153 also organises an annual charity art show where the proceeds serve to train volunteers and help survivors. However, the creation of the app was largely made possible thanks to a US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) grant.

The founding members of Abolish 153 and the app:, Lulu Al Sabah, Sundus Hamza, Sheikha Al Nafisi, Alanoud Alsharekh, Amira Behbehani.
The founding members of Abolish 153 and the app: Lulu Al Sabah, Sundus Hamza, Sheikha Al Nafisi, Alanoud Alsharekh, Amira Behbehani

A safe space for abuse survivors

Abolish 153 founders realised over the years that they needed an app like Thoubha as more and more women were privately messaging them on social media seeking help.

“Once we even had a case of a woman who had contacted us via a smart tv as she had no access to a phone. We know that people want to contact a hotline but cannot speak and so they message us instead,” Abolish 153 co-founder Alanoud Alsharekh says.

Others just need information. “They are not sure about the law, if what is happening to them is normal or can be considered violence. This is why the app gathers all documents and articles about domestic violence,” Alanoud explains.

People can obtain all the necessary information anonymously and the chat function allows them to write down questions.

Users who are not sure if they are being abused can take a quiz. There is a list of questions and it just takes one yes to find out if you are being emotionally, physically and/or sexually abused: Does your partner criticise your body? Or insult you and humiliate you in front of others? Or control your money? Accuse you of flirting or tell you what to wear? If yes, then you are being emotionally abused.

To access the app a civil ID number is needed. “It is for security reasons. In case there is an emergency and immediate intervention is needed, all details are there,” Alanoud says.

Official figures show that more than half of Kuwaiti women have experienced some form of violence in their lives but according to experts, the actual number is much larger as many cases go unreported due to social pressure. If complaints are filed, they might not be taken seriously by the police, as stated in a 2020 Human Rights Report.

A country with no shelters for abuse survivors

Among the functions, the app also redirects the users to the Fanar shelter, a government structure opened in 2017, which at the moment results ‘not operational’. According to Alanoud and media reports, the shelter was secretly active in "an empty building surrounded by water and dirt."

“There is a lot of resistance from some political figures to let the shelter work properly,” Alanoud says.

Horrifying details about life in the building were made public in 2021 on A.M.'s social media account when she described the story of Maryam Aldehaani, another abuse survivor.

Maryam was beaten and locked by her family in a room for over two months. When she went to the police she was covered in blood and bruises. She was then transferred to the Fanar shelter.

"“Don’t be spoiled, every woman got hit by her husband once in a while,” is one of the most common pieces of 'advice' given by the shelter staff to the survivors"

According to Maryam’s reports, the residents were “starved for days and made to eat ice cubes to curb hunger. She was also threatened with being returned to her family or sent to a psychiatric hospital. Ultimately she was blamed for the abuse she suffered and was told that she deserved it.” 

Sundus spoke to some victims who confirmed these rumours. “Don’t be spoiled, every woman got hit by her husband once in a while,” is one of the most common pieces of 'advice' given by the shelter staff to the survivors.

The family protection law that has never been applied

With the lack of effective national initiatives to combat and end violence against women, it is independent groups like Abolish 153, Soroptimist Kuwait and Eithar, that actively support and deal with abuse survivors.

Alanoud says the most significant achievement of Abolish 153, besides raising awareness about the issues of domestic violence and honour killings, has been the approval of the Family Protection Law which they advocated for five years.

On August 2020 Kuwait’s National Assembly approved the long-awaited law which offers protective measures against domestic violence for women and families.

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“It was a watershed moment because there is finally legislation but unfortunately it has never been applied,” she adds.

According to the activist, “internal dynamics to apply the law haven’t been worked out yet as there are people actively lobbying to stall it. There is a lot of internal resistance.”

For Sundus, “some ministers have managed to bury the law in their drawers in an attempt to appease certain members of the parliament and their constituencies.”

"One MP did not even want to discuss the family protection law as he was convinced family violence was part of Kuwaiti tradition and culture"

On top of that, for Human Rights Watch, the law is filled with voids: “It provides penalties for violating protection orders, but does not set out penalties for domestic violence as a crime on its own. It also does not include former partners or people engaged in relationships outside of wedlock.”

Finally, in 2021 Kuwait's male-only Women, Family and Children's Affairs Committee unanimously agreed that femicide was not a legislative issue but a societal and educational one, adding that preventing violence against women and the abolition of article 153 was not their responsibility but the government’s.

“One MP did not even want to discuss the family protection law as he was convinced family violence was part of Kuwaiti tradition and culture,” the activist adds.

‘Honour killing is not a Kuwaiti tradition but a colonial appropriation’

With only two women in parliament, issues like gender-based violence don’t seem to concern the National Assembly. “It is frustrating to see how some MPs’ priorities are to stop parties, yoga retreats, marathons or concerts from happening or to segregate universities which are already segregated instead of targeting harassment, honour killings and protection of women,” Alanoud points out.

In the past, Kuwait University admitted that the segregation law was not fully implemented due to the large number of students enrolled. To address the issue last month five MPs proposed a draft law to develop university facilities to ensure segregation.

When it comes to concerts and parties, according to the self-appointed Parliamentary Negative Phenomena Committee, they go against the ‘customs and values of Kuwait’ and encourage gender mixing.

Despite the challenges, the grassroots movement continues to work to scrap article 153 from the penal code and to raise awareness about it locally and internationally. According to the group, some MPs did not know article 153 existed.

“We made this article a conversation point for everybody in Kuwait and we educated people about it. We want Kuwaitis to know that the article is not Sharia-compliant and is not part of our tradition. It is instead a colonial – Napoleonic – appropriation,” Alanoud concludes.

Along with Abolish 153's awareness activities, Thoubha will be an additional tool to encourage more people to report abuses. In the future, the aim is to upgrade the app so that requests for help can be processed more quickly and effectively.

A study by the Kuwait Human Rights Society showed that 860 violent cases have been filed in 2022, double the number of previous years, a sign that the awareness efforts of groups like Abolish 153 are bearing fruit.

* Not using the full name for security reasons and for protection 

Vittoria Volgare Detaille is a journalist and translator with a focus on the Middle East. After having studied Arabic Literature, she collaborated with the United Nations and with the Italian Press Agency ANSA. She has lived in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and Kuwait for more than 10 years