Xeina Al-Musallam took a deep breath and hit RECORD. “Okay, this is probably take 30, I think,” she said, looking around at the deep-green room papered in flower print, like a dollhouse. The art director and content creator was ready to speak up.
Al-Musallam’s feed typically feels like a mood board for a glossy fashion magazine: cascading walls of tropical plants, decadent outdoor tea parties, oversize hats. But on February 9, she had more to say than her usual coy captions, seamlessly switching between Arabic and English to get her message across. “Being on social media, if it teaches you anything, it’s that hate will always come your way,” she said in an Instagram story. “The world is about to start listening to us, so let’s not be quiet.”
A video posted by one of Kuwait’s most popular influencers has set in motion a quiet yet insistent conversation about sexual harassment that has rippled across the accounts of some of the Gulf’s biggest beauty-and-lifestyle-content creators. Their calls for an end to harassment, punctuated by the hashtag #لن أسكت or Lan Asket, which translates to “I will not be silent,” marks an abrupt departure from the aspirational content typical of the Gulf Arab lifestyle-influencer set. In a region averse to protest movements, the Lan Asket campaign is bringing an issue that Kuwaiti women have long kept publicly silent about to the fore.
One day in late January, Ascia Al Faraj posted a video from the passenger seat of her car. The influencer — whose Instagram page currently has 2.6 million followers — tearfully described being harassed by a group of men. In the video, Ascia (she is known in the region by her first name, which is also her Instagram handle) sends a clear message to her followers: Enough is enough.
The video has struck a chord with an increasingly online Gulf Arab population — more than 90% of people in the region use the internet. At the end of January, after seeing Ascia’s original video, 27-year-old physician Shayma Shamo set up a Lan Asket Instagram page linked to a Google form for anonymously sharing experiences of harassment, and accounts poured in. Before it reached 50 posts, the page had topped 10,000 followers. A full-page spread about the movement ran in Kuwait’s daily Al Qabas. By the end of the week, a member of Parliament had come forward to support building an app that would allow people to report cases of harassment to the Ministry of Interior.
Ascia, like Al-Musallam, is part of a thriving scene of lifestyle influencers who make their living as model-actor versions of themselves, hawking designer brands against the ready-built Instagram backdrops of Kuwait City and Dubai. Ascia’s nearly 3 million followers come to her Instagram feed for a carefully curated stream of content: witty monologues on putting an outfit together, perfectly lit coffee dates with her husband, behind the scenes footage of a regular Botox injection. But in Kuwait, Ascia, Al-Musallam, and other women in the public eye on social media risk more than just nasty comments by speaking up.
Fashion designer Najeeba Hayat, who has been vocal in her support of the Lan Asket campaign, said that despite achieving suffrage for women in 2005, Kuwait’s women’s movement remained blinkered by divisions of class and wealth, unaware of the true extent of violence against women in the country. “Harassment is not an issue of clothing,” Hayat told Rest of World. “Harassment is an issue of culture; it’s an issue of laws that allow these people to get away with it; it’s an issue of institutions.”
In Kuwait, women are taught to be vigilant against the actions of wayward men, and when reporting harassment, according to many of those who have spoken out in the past week, they are immediately questioned about the way they dress and their own conduct. For years, said content creator Al-Musallam, it’s been considered more shameful for a woman to admit she was harassed than for a man to be accused of harassment. “If you have a voice that reaches a certain mass of people, to them, you’re not a good woman,” said Al-Musallam. “A good woman should shut up and endure. Speaking up about this… you will have a bull’s-eye on your head.”
The backlash these influencers face has the potential to lower the follower counts that net them lucrative partnerships with brands. Countless women who have come forward to share their experiences under the banner of Lan Asket have been met with blame: Their comments sections are littered with messages about what they were wearing, why they went out in public, how they must have been asking for it. “We’re not just dealing with our generation,” said Al-Musallam. “We’re dealing with hundreds and hundreds of generations before us that put a lid on it, and still think you should — no matter the consequences.”
Oil-rich Kuwait is home to more than four million people, two-thirds of them expats, and has long been considered one of the most politically liberal countries in the Gulf. But despite years of calls for change, the country’s legal system still metes out lenient punishments for honor killings in its legal system.
Though slow, there had been some progress in recent times, before the Lan Asket movement began: Last year, a domestic violence law was put in place to give victims access to counseling and grant them restraining orders, after a pregnant woman was shot and killed by her brother for marrying someone outside her family’s community.
With the Lan Asket hashtag, social media has been a game changer, allowing women to get the word out and support one another. After Hayat was criticized for speaking up in support of the movement, she says she deployed a “viral strategy” inspired by the way Donald Trump used social media. Hayat urged her followers on TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat to “post vomit,” or overwhelm a comments section with their own content, anytime they saw comments blaming women for being harassed. “We’re clickbait,” Hayat told Rest of World. “So we used that to our advantage.”