by Azra Naseem
Salafis and other religious conservatives in Male’ have openly begun pushing to have Maldivian girls declared women at puberty. This change would allow the marrying off of young children to other children or to older men, turning paedophilia into conjugal rights in the name of Islam.
The conservatives’ campaign has been launched opportunistically, on the back of the shocking news that a young girl of 11 gave birth at seven months last week.
kuda kujjaku vihaigen ulhey khabaru media thakun kiyamun eba dhey, namaves kuda kudhin maabandu vaakameh alhugandakah adhi engifa eh neh...— ali rameez (@aliramyz) November 2, 2012
Media is reporting a child has given birth. But I have no knowledge that a child can give birth…
ey muslim kamah dhauwa kuraa meehunneyve! ALLAH ge shariath ga kujjaa boduvanee e kujjaa baalighu vumun, 16,18, 25 vegenneh nooneve.— ali rameez (@aliramyz) November 2, 2012
Ey, you who claim to be Muslims! In ALLAH’s shariath a child becomes an adult when she has her periods, not when she’s 16, 18, 25
Unfortunately, sexual abuse is, and has always been, rife in the Maldives. An unpublished UN Study conducted in 2009 found that almost one in every seven secondary school age girl in the Maldives have been sexually abused at some time in their lives.
This shocking statistic is one bolstered by a justice system heavily biased against women in the meting out of punishment for sexual offenses. This is partly what Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, was getting at when she criticised Maldives’ continuation of flogging as a punishment.
The arrival of religious conservatives and their ideologies has seen a stark rise in the number of young girls being married at puberty. Reports of a young girl kept as a sex slave emerged in 2009. Although difficult to verify in the absence of serious research, reports of many other girls in such predicaments abound. Education authorities have also expressed concern about children being kept away from school on ‘religious grounds’, and of parents denying children vital vaccination for similar reasons.
Officially, successive governments and society itself have mostly chosen to remain silent on the prevailing culture of child sex abuse. What is different this time, and even more frightening than the silence itself, is how openly the religious conservatives are now using this rampant abuse to purvey their ideologies to the masses.
The success these ideas have come to enjoy in Maldivian society becomes evident from the general public’s response to news of the girl’s rape. A large number of commenters on online editions of the country’s most popular newspapers either question whether an 11-year-old can even be regarded as a girl if she is biologically capable of giving birth; blame the girl; or see it as a miserable failure in the mothering of the girl.
Below is a selection of comments left in Haveeru, under the report, 11-year-old gives birth at seven months on Feydhoo [Dhivehi]:
We have to think about this from all angles..how do we know it was done by force…these days from the time they come out of their mother’s womb girls behave in a way that makes such things likely…Maybe she was sexually abused…best establish the truth fast…
How can we tell if she is telling the truth. Punishment for fornication should be given if the man cannot be produced or if he denies it. these type of things can be stopped by giving people the punishment they deserve.
This is not something new in the Maldives!!! That girl, too, has only now said she was abused.
What is there to say, If what that girl is saying is true police should openly or secretly find the man or child who did this and punish him severely and please also reveal the reason why she hid this for so long. This is to discourage such behaviour in the future.
And here are some from Sun.mv, under article 11-year-old gives birth on Feydhoo [Dhivehi]:
It is the child’s parents or guardians who should be blamed most for this. The person who abused her must also be found and punished. There is no way any of them can escape blame for this
This has happened because it could happen biologically…I also blame the girl…where was her mouth when she was being forced? Where were her parents? 11 is not an age when one should know to tell one’s parents…only thing left to say is Subhan’Allah [Glorious is God]
The baby will be in Grade 3 when this girl is twenty…Tut-tut
Investigate the matter and punish those who deserve punishment. Even if she is 11, we know she is an adult from the fact that she gave birth. It is too early to say whether it is rape or fornication.
Shouldn’t read..shouldn’t write…shouldn’t do…all destroyed!! What upsets me is not the birth…nor that she is a schoolgirl..! What upsets me is not that she is eleven either..! What upset me is that the innocent child born out of wedlock will have no one to call a father…! O the tragedy of it. Whether done by force or in peace, this must be remedied. “I give up” ==can only say Subhan’Allah [Glorious is God]
If only a picture of the girl had been published, this news would have been so perfect…
This is the state of the nation. The result of mothers not fulfilling their responsibilities and engaging in political activities instead. This is the bitter result of women and mothers abandoning religious responsibilities and neglecting their wifely duties by spending day and night on the front rows of protests. This child’s guardian has been extremely negligent in looking after the child.
And here are some comments left on Minivan News, the country’s most liberal newspaper, and often a main target of religious conservative commenters:
In a society where such ideas have taken root widely—the evident success of the extremists in the Maldives—their campaigns to normalise sexual relations with young girls in the name of religion should not be treated lightly.
These ideas are in sharp contrast to the universal values the State has signed up to under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other such treaties. As Party to the Treaty, the State has an obligation and a duty to respond, to at least very publicly rebuke those peddling such ideology, and clearly demonstrate to the public that the government does not share their views.
Without such a clearly identifiable stance by the government, with only one side providing information that it declares is ‘the right Islam’, the conservatives’ mission to recruit as many to their cause as possible becomes easier.
The problem is exacerbated by an extremely weak civil society. Except for the usual suspects—individual bloggers opposing extremism, and democracy activists left with Twitter and Facebook as the only places of free assembly—there has been little said.
The only opposing statements from elected politicians have come on the social media, and that too from a few. DRP MP Rozaina Adam has been most vocal among the few exceptions:
An 11 year old doesn't get pregnant by herself! This is child abuse we r talking abt here n authorities need 2find out who is responsible.— Rozey MP-AdduMeedhu (@Roxeyna) November 2, 2012
People should stop using religion as a shield to protect themselves after abusing and impregnating children. Nobody is buying it!!!!— Rozey MP-AdduMeedhu (@Roxeyna) November 5, 2012
The view that young girls should be considered adults once they reach puberty should be forcefully and boldly countered by the government; and, given the absence of any opposing views in society, the government should also facilitate dissemination of other views within Islam itself to guide the people.
Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, currently the President, was an ex-UNICEF man. The combination of his past and present jobs gives him a unique authority to speak on the issue, and to caution people against embracing such values in the name of Islam. He has chosen to ignore the matter.
Then, there is, of course, the Human Rights Commission. It, too, has issued no statement, said nothing.
The Attorney General Azima Shakoor, too, is in a place to make a difference. She came out against the religious conservatives who reportedly kept a young girl as a sex-slave in 2009. She, too, has chosen to ignore this matter; too busy, perhaps, pushing the death penalty forward with the warning that it maybe applied retroactively.
The Human Rights and Gender Minister Dhiyana Saeed has also chosen to ignore the matter. Even when she did speak in connection with the incident, she did not use the opportunity to address the use religious conservatives are making of the incident.
This silence makes the government complicit in the promotion of ideas that directly contradict the universal values the State has committed itself to delivering to the Maldivian people.
This is a silence that cannot be justified by excuses such as ‘we won’t give them publicity’. The purveyors of extremist ideologies in the Maldives do not need the government as their oxygen of publicity, they are on all available media platforms daily.
By ignoring them, the government is ‘burying its head in the sand and leaving its thinking parts exposed’, and deliberately facilitating further regression in the Maldivian society.