Violence against women has become our culture


by H Abdulghafoor

Thank you Gender Advocacy Working Group (GAWG), for providing an important summary of some of the fundamental issues contributing to the prevalence of violence against women in the Maldives.

It is a social scourge of epic proportions. Not just in the Maldives but elsewhere in the world too.

Why is this happening?

The simplest one word answer is patriarchy.

That age old cultural elephant that has always remained firmly in the room!

Listen to the survivors – get the real picture

The comment to the GAWG article by reader, “Call me Samiya” is a clear account of a survivor’s experience from which every reader must learn and appreciate the complexity of the issue. It is a powerful testament to the strength of this survivor of intimate partner violence, which deserves our greatest respect. In the Maldives, research shows that 1 in 5 women who have ‘ever been in a relationship’ experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner.

As “Call me Samiya” says, it takes great strength to disclose such painful personal experiences so publicly, even to “trusted” duty-bearers such as the relevant authorities. Sadly, survivors’ efforts are too often ignored by such duty-bearers, leading her to question from her own experience – “Who is there to help people like us?” This is an extremely valid question.

Women who try to get out of abusive marriages are made to wait years, for the court system to make a decision on their request for divorce. The authorities appear to think they can “reconcile” an abusive husband and a battered wife through an ad-hoc court facilitated “counselling” session, when divorce proceedings are initiated by a woman. The justice system does not have the capacity, including the necessary human empathy, to support such cases. The implementation of the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (DVPA-2012) is fraught with resistance from duty-bearers, due to alleged conflict of “belief”! Concern has been raised at social sector discussion forums of the refusal of some magistrates to issue Protection Orders to prevent abuse, as mandated by the DVPA-2012. How can justice be served when duty bearers can choose whether or not to apply the law based on individual whim and transient “beliefs”? Notably, the vast majority of magistrates in the Maldives are men.

When a survivor of violence shares their experience, the public has a great responsibility to listen, understand and work to ensure that relevant authorities respond appropriately to address the issue. Violence prevention and seeking redress for survivors require a collective, public effort, especially in a system as dysfunctional as ours.

What social system – what social cost?

Systemic failure is also public failure.

The case of Samiya is yet another indicator of the failures of a society and system of governance that have become so sickeningly inept and incapable to provide social protection services.

There is no room to dispute GAWG’s article.

Samiya was failed by the so-called “system” in the same way young Ibthihaal and many others before them (most we never even get to hear about?), were catastrophically failed, and allowed to suffer and die in horrific circumstances – in small communities where “everyone knows everyone”!!

Let us consider this reality.

In Samiya’s case, she leaves behind three children with a father so sick in his mind one must question his ability to be a father to any child.

In reality, these children have lost both parents at once, in unbearable circumstances.

How will they cope with this tragedy?

How will their wounds heal? Will they ever heal?

What scars will they carry for the rest of their lives because of the complete failure of the social and governance systems (described in the GAWG article) responsible for their care?

Who can they trust now?

Most importantly, will the cycle of violence be allowed to repeat, through neglect of these children who have known and experienced such horrific family violence? Research indicates that children exposed to violence are more likely to fall victim to, or become a perpetrator of violence. Studies show that exposure to violence within the family adversely affects the brain development of children, in the same way as when children are ‘directly subjected to physical violence.’

Who will help these children to overcome their trauma and become productive citizens?

What family security can they expect to enjoy in their most vulnerable and formative years?

The questions are endless.

What kind of father abuses and inflicts horrific harm on the mother and primary carer of his children?

On the other hand, how has this man become what he has become?

What has happened to him in his past that turned him into this?

Patriarchy – the elephant in the room

Certainly, socialisation into the patriarchal mind-set of the perceived dominant and “superior male” plays a pivotal role in turning men into things far removed from human. The culturally well-guarded fundamental concept of the inherent inequality of the sexes, of male superiority, breeds nothing but insecurity among men – who frequently fail to live up to the so-called “provider and protector” that society requires them to be. In short, this inequality breeds deep insecurity, which too often manifest in unspeakable horrors. Yet, it is “the system” – both social and governance – that upholds this inequality as a fundamental “norm” in the Maldives.

To mask this systemic hypocrisy of the “superior man”, Maldivians have created a society where blame is laid thickly on the victim of violence – usually the woman.

Victim-blaming is all pervasive and seriously toxic.

Her actions, her inaction, her looks, her clothes, her walk, her talk – or just about anything she does or is perceived to have done, is used to detract from the reality of the violent insanities of the “superior man” against her.

Let’s consider Samiya’s case.

She is blamed, either directly or indirectly, for being “silent” about her abuse. Even women’s NGO Hope for Women is not exempt from succumbing to the overwhelming tendency to identify the victim’s culpability in what happened to her. This begs the question about the level of effort made to understand and appreciate the situation of the victim of this horrific crime.

What do we imagine Samiya’s mental state to be when her internal organs are brutalised and bleeding? Didn’t Samiya seek medical treatment from her local hospital? Didn’t the healthcare provider advise her to seek treatment in Malé because they did not have the capacity to treat her – thereby, literally abandoning their responsibility towards her, despite her desperate situation? Doesn’t that same duty-bearer have a medical and legal responsibility, let alone a moral responsibility, to assess her condition in a manner worthy of a health-care provider and report to the authorities as required by law? By presenting herself to the local hospital, had Samiya NOT TOLD someone about her condition, through her very actions?

What exactly are we expecting Samiya to have done in her condition, while she was miserably failed by one of the most important duty bearers mandated to assist people in her situation? Are we expecting her to scream from the rooftop, when her lived reality is systemic abandonment, marginalisation and neglect?

Samiya was not silent. Duty bearers were silent on Samiya. The community was silent on Samiya.

By diverting attention to her action or inaction and directing our energies completely away from the criminal element and criminal actions responsible for this horror, isn’t society simply trying to absolve its collective guilt for being silent about the real injustice of this preventable tragedy?

It is indeed an acute lack of empathy that drives the conversation blaming the victim of violence for being “silent”. A quick read of “Call me Samiya”’s comment might help the reader to get a glimpse of the lived reality of intimate partner violence. It is ironic that in their statement in response to Samiya’s case, Hope for Women felt compelled to provide generic advice to victims of violence against remaining “silent”. Yet, they failed to acknowledge the failure of the relevant health-care provider to assist Samiya when she actively sought assistance.

Patriarchy is indeed an insidious beast.

It is the greatest curiosity that the “superior man” is exempt from accountability for his actions – for it is readily accepted that it must be the provocations of the female victim that leaves him with no control over his own criminal actions. The result is a society where the violent “superior man” roams free and operates with impunity. The question prominent in many minds would be whether the perpetrator of the crimes against Samiya will be free to re-offend at his leisure, following his brief period of remand? After all, so many others do just that, in the injustice system of the Maldives.

A further irony is that men are held up as “protectors of women” when in reality many fail so completely so frequently – resulting in the grim statistic we have, that 1 in 3 women is subjected to physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime.

What we must remember also is that this violence mainly happens in the sanctity of the home.

Much of this is perpetrated by members of the family.

Isn’t the home where every man, woman and child seek and expect to find respite, refuge and security every single day and night?

Isn’t the family, in the home, supposed to be the safest place for every man, woman and child?

Reflect and change – act on it

Samiya’s case must not be forgotten.

This case must be etched in our collective memory forever. This is a civic responsibility.

To stop such horrors from happening in our small communities, parents and teachers must reflect on their own active roles in producing the women and men of our society. They must reflect on the colour coded gender stereotypes and divisions they maintain and promote, superficially in pink and blue. At a deeper level this is used to solidify socially constructed ideas of inherent inequality between the “lesser” female and the “greater” male. This dangerous stereotype of discrimination serves to stunt the ability of children to view each other as dignified human beings of equal worth, regardless of the lottery of birth that is their sex.

Parents, teachers and society at large must stop branding their boys as the “superior man”. For inside every “superior man” is a frightened and confused human who is trapped in a social cage with a label he did not choose. A cage in which he is forced to conform to a demanding socio-cultural stereotype of high expectations and MAN-ness, under the heavy weight of which he invariably, pathetically breaks. Why would a society bring up its boy children to fail so badly in this way? As primary carers of children, why would women subscribe to such stereotypes, and bring up their sons to become violent failures against their daughters?

This culture of inequality which breeds violence has to be denounced. It has to be stopped. It must be decisively, actively and collectively rejected.

Social well-being cannot be achieved if violence against women continues to be our normative culture. In order to lift the scourge of violence against women in the Maldives, society must let go of the patriarchal myth of the “superior man” and grab hold of the real key to achieve a non-violent way of life. That key is the responsible practice of valuing and treating boys and girls equally without discrimination; valuing men and women as equal in dignity, worth and rights.

Nothing less than this reality check will do.

Because there is no such thing as the “superior man”.

    Maldives 2016 and beyond: a clash of futures


    Maldives ends 2015 poised at a decisive moment for its future. Two visions for the country grip, and divide, the population at a deep level. The vision of Maldives as (a) a rights-based democracy where life is chaotic but vibrant and thriving, or as (b) an autocracy that enforces strict Islamic Sharia and takes people away from modernity and its complexities to a simplified world ordered in centuries long gone.

    The fault line is invisible, it is often unspoken, but it exists, informing and governing people’s beliefs, their practises, and perspectives; curbing or allowing what people are able to say, think, and do. Stemming from, feeding into, and reifying, this major division are other interconnected issues of ideological and socio-economic conflicts. There are divisions between secularists and adherents to the constitutional stipulation demanding a nation of Muslims and only Muslims; between Islamic schools of thought; between the rich and the poor; the educated and the uneducated; the landed-gentry in Male’ and ‘the islanders’; the rebellious activists and the obedient followers; the ‘good Muslims’ and the ‘bad Muslims’; even the spurious division between the political and the a-political; and, particularly, an alleged division between Maldivian and un-Maldivian. These divisions, and their agitations for legitimacy often at the expense of the other, defines much of life—how it is seen, heard and lived—in Maldives at present.

    Framing life

    An example of how these visions and divisions frame not just people’s understanding of how and why events happened, but also how they see unfolding events is 7 February 2012, when the country’s first democratically elected government came to an end. Most of 7 February’s public events are recorded on television and radio. Many events occurred live on camera. But whether a Maldivian, witnessing the same events as they occurred, saw President Nasheed’s resignation as forced or voluntary depend on which of the two visualisations of Maldives they had previously embraced. The same videos, the same facts, the same images, when put together by mind-sets on two sides of the divide tell two vastly different stories. And, depending on their narrative, what happened on 7 February—the end of the first democratically elected government led by Nasheed and Maldivian Democratic Party—is concluded as (a) a good thing; or (b) a bad thing. Those who see it as a good thing work to keep the current government in power; those who do not want a return to democracy.

    This frame can also be observed in the perspectives from which the events of 8 February are viewed. On that day Maldives Police Service (MPS) and its SOs, unleashed brutal force against those who saw Nasheed’s resignation as having been made under duress. It was all documented, the beatings, the blood, the chasing after Nasheed on the streets of Male’. Whether one sees the force as violence—or justifiable and proportional response—depends on whether one wants Yameen’s autocracy, or democracy with MDP. The perspective that Maldivians adopted to view the events of 7 & 8 February 2012—in favour of autocracy or democracy—has shaped and formed the present condition in which we find ourselves: at a cross-roads between freedom and submission. Freedom to be a person with rights as defined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and to be governed by the rule of law, or submission to political dictatorship, more likely than not accompanied by religious hegemony of Revolutionary Islamist thought.

    This is not to say that the divide is always so clearly cut and clearly separate from each other. Not everyone who has joined MDP are democrats; not every democrat has joined MDP; and nor is everyone who wants an autocracy a latent Jihadist. There are many intersections where the two main divisions merge and the picture becomes somewhat murky. Not all members of MDP are in the party because of its stated commitments to democracy, some are there because it is the largest party with most members, and therefore most popular. And MDP has not always stood up for the principles of democracy it aspires to. The same way, there are autocrats who do not want Saudi-religious hegemony in Maldives, but are too concerned with their own ambitions within the regime to discuss it in the open. There are both autocrats and democracy supporters who fund and facilitate the Wahhabis, the Salafis and other Revolutionary Islamists. There are billionaire resort tycoons from both sides who assuage their religious guilt for profiting from the sale of non-Islamic products by donating to the Salafi and Wahhabi missionaries. Similarly, several MDP MPs have voted for extra-legal amendments to the Constitution. Essentially, there are people who weave in and out of the two divides, with nothing but greed and ambition guiding them.

    At the level of the Executive, Yameen is only interested in extending his term. Being a man of less than average religious inclination, he does not care what persuasion of Islam becomes dominant in the Maldives as long as he can continue as ruler. He will stay on whichever side allows him the longest leash. Saudi Arabia and China, with no demands to conform to universal values of democracy, make the perfect partners. Like the Saudi Royal family whose lives within their courts and abroad remain unmoored by Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, Yameen and his extended family and supporters can continue to enjoy access to Western education and social freedoms while the rest of the population is left to grapple with the consequences of outsourcing religious thought to the Saudis. Yameen has no friends left in the world of democracy, so he pursues a realist foreign policy where his allies are favoured according to how unlikely they are to ask him to conform to universal ideals of democracy that weaken his power. Democracy comes with conditions attached; it requires playing by supposedly universal rules and values based on a charter of human rights. Autocracy comes with no such requirements. Yameen is not worried by the religious unity agreement with Saudi Arabia and its effects on the people, he is concerned about the money it brings and the likelihood of it lengthening his tenure.

    At the grassroots level, too, lines sometimes get blurred between democracy supporters and those who want autocracy. This happens most where there is a deficiency in knowledge about democracy itself. The idea of fighting for a system of long term benefits for everyone  is not sustainable without the ideological conviction that makes the long wait worthwhile. Sadly, the thriving civil society sector which came into its own during the fight for democracy and during the transition period, is now almost dead, deliberately stifled by the current autocracy. Registering an NGO involves cutting through huge amounts of red tape, only to be turned away for no reason except the authorities do not like its purpose. Only a couple of NGOs have survived, with skeleton staff and a skeletal budget. In the absence of a strong civil society, the task of democratisation falls on MDP, the leader of democratic thought in Maldives. This is not an ideal scenario for whatever else it is, it is first and foremost a political party. While MDP has been, and still is, in a position to mobilise large support in an impressively short period of time for any of its causes, its recent focus has not been on strengthening democracy in general, but on securing the party as one that still fights a specifically Nasheed-led battle for democracy. Lately, MDP has shown little energy and will to also take the lead to re-energise democracy at grassroots level. Given the full-frontal, all guns blazing attack  on the party by Yameen and his cronies, and the increasing apathy of the general population, this is not entirely surprising.  The result is that while there is coordinated efforts being made by the autocrats and the Islamists to get the public to accept their ideological and political stances as the ‘correct’ way; the ‘right’ way; the ‘Islamic’ way; there is considerably less such efforts being made by democrats to explain why democracy is such a good thing for the Maldives.

    The political and ideological divisions also affect people’s perception of how just the Maldives justice system is. Those wearing democracy goggles see a justice system gone entirely haywire, lost touch with rule of law, and have empowered autocracy. Those who see autocracy as the best way to govern Maldives see the judiciary as an arm of the government, and not a separate branch of the State, thus justifying in their mind its injustices. In terms of the Islamists, they have chosen to ignore the injustices of the current system, which being also common law-based, is not worth even bothering about. Apart from pushing for Shari’a as the only way forward, they do nothing.

    Both MDP and members of the remaining few civil society organisations rooting for democracy are also restricted in their actions, and scope of activism, by the government and Islamist narrative that encourage depictions of democracy and Islam as incompatible, and therefore to be discouraged. Democracy is portrayed as detrimental to development: why resist government plans to move entire populations into apartments in a reclaimed residential area called Greater Male’ when it means having a bridge that connects everyone to Male’, the capital? Demanding respect for the fragile environment over so-called development is, the public is told, a folly of democracy standing in the way of development. Hence the disbanding of local councils, the deliberate disintegration of the structure of local governance that was shaky to begin with. At the same time, many Maldivians are being persuaded to leave the country and join foreign wars for an Islamic Caliphate precisely because it favours democracy and, therefore, has become ‘a land of sin’. The voice that disagrees has been silenced as Un-Islamic, however mired in Islamic thought and jurisprudence their expressed thoughts may be.

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      Male’ and its discontents


      by Azra Naseem

      Male’, the capital of Maldives. Less than six square kilometres of land on which 150,000 people live, crammed into small apartments in thousands of high-rises determinedly cemented into low-lying land just one metre above sea level. Over at least 25,000 motorbikes zoom about on its narrow lanes, weaving in and out of lines of hundreds of unnecessary cars, status symbols choking the earth. People spill over onto the busy roads, forced to face oncoming traffic in the absence of a walk-able pavement. Children cling desperately to the hands of their parents, are belted onto motorbikes, or are being driven in another unnecessary car. A leisurely stroll to school without fear of traffic on speed is not an experience the young in Male’ have ever known. Male’ folk talk loudly, move largely in groups, and almost everyone is connected to the world with a Smart Phone. People look the same but are somehow different, dressing to belong to one or other clan of the times. Men wear beards, some as Salafis, some as hipsters. Many women could be from the streets of New York while others could have stepped out from a Saudi home. People argue, laugh, have coffee, cry. They eat Supari, spit loudly, read poetry, eat lovely fish curries and cupcakes, protest, and keep a rolling conversation going on around the streets, and on social media. Male’ is rarely quiet, always busy and looks like it may topple over any minute. The ‘sunken island’, some have called it.

      Most residents of Male’ today come from everywhere in the archipelago. One third are Bangladeshi workers. Their presence in Male’, Maldives’ (mal)treatment of them, and their impact on the life of Maldivian economy and culture is a story in itself, for later. Lives of Maldivians themselves in Male’ are hard, its trajectory and flow controlled largely by exorbitant rents beyond reach of ordinary Dhivehin. Years of development with a narrowness of focus that excluded islands far from, or regarded as unimportant by Male’, have forced people to move to the capital. Many formerly thriving islands are now desolate, their houses—both poor and well-off—abandoned by families forced to pack their bags and head to Male’. From the island of Vaikaradhoo, 13 families emigrated to Male’ last year alone. Local newspaper Haveeru tells a story of abandoned lives of people who left for Male’, and people who have been abandoned by those who left for Male’.

      The high demand for property in the capital has created the sharpest of divisions in the socio-economic makeup of Maldives today: the divide between people with land in Male’ and those without. Things are about to get worse with the new 15% property tax all—even first-time— buyers must pay. On top of the new tax, all buyers have to also shell out for a 6% GST, which brings taxes to 21% of the value of the property. An added burden, which must also fall on the buyer, is the 20% deposit required to secure a home loan that would put the property within reach. Haveeru calculated that any prospective property buyer in and around what the government is calling the Greater Male’ Area, must have 41% (MVR 820,000) of the average property price set at around MVR2 million. In a country where the average salary is around MVR5,000, buying property is a dream well beyond reach for almost everyone.

      Thousands of land-owning Male’ people, all of whom inherited their houses or plots before land became gold, have moved to neighbouring countries: often Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, and Singapore; or to Australia, the UK, the US and, sometimes, the Middle East. Their houses in Male’ are in turn left to be rented by the thousands flowing in to Male’. The rental income pays for not just their children’s education but also covers their own rental homes in the countries they have relocated to. Such moves are not always motivated by desire; most often it arises from a necessity. Those who leave have better access to education, health, sanitation, and human freedoms than all other Maldivians. People in Male’ have less. People in the islands lesser.

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