Tagged: Maldives authoritarianism

The status of women in Maldivian society

by H Abdulghafoor

He took a mouthful of water and sprayed her face with his spit – at close range.

That is the action of the male Parliamentary Group (PG) Leader of the governing Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) against the female Deputy Leader of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), in the People’s Majlis of the Maldives on 24 February 2016.

The incident took place during a formal meeting of the Majlis that was broadcast live to the public.

This image exemplifies the condition of men and their attitude towards women in the current social context of the Maldives.

She reacted instinctively by taking a nearby glass of water and throwing it in his face. In that split second, the expression on his face showed his realisation that he had been brought down to the ground by a woman, in front of his male colleagues in the male dominated Majlis, where only 5 of the 85 members are women. That momentary come-down can be interpreted as a small victory for any woman degraded and attacked by a man in such a way.

Personal beliefs play a critical role in what people choose to do, or not do. Such beliefs shape their behaviour towards others. As a commentator in a news article about the incident responded – “How would Nihan react to a woman who argued with him if there were no cameras around? …. I feel sorry for his wife”. This is a valid point because the behaviour of men towards women in the public arena is very likely a reflection of attitudes and actions that may be practised in their private lives.

A strong perception of the inherently unequal status of men and women in Maldivian society is well established through the age-old system of patriarchy. It is also solidified through a questionable, perceived religious position that requires the elevation of men to a higher place from where they may rule over the lives of women. Religious sermons have provided a variety of explanations to uphold such a position. It will not do justice to the multiplicity of messages the Friday Sermon provides if one or two points are randomly taken. Nevertheless, it is useful for the purpose of this discussion, to try and provide a relevant and notable example. On 22 January 2016, the Friday Sermon said :

Muslim brothers! The husband is the person who has the highest level of responsibility to look after the family. He has the highest responsibility on all matters of the family. The husband has the highest responsibility to look after his wife. On matters relating to children too, the highest responsibility falls on the husband. [unofficial translation]

Notable also is the generally overlooked fact that the Friday sermon consistently addresses a male audience of “brothers”. In the Maldives where the State religion is Islam, the contents of the Friday sermon is produced and disseminated nationally by the government.

The extent to which men uphold the above State endorsed, perceived religious ideal is questionable. The lived reality of Maldives is that the country has the highest rate of female headed households in the world at 47% and has held the dubious record of the highest divorce rate in the world. The common practice of triple talaq (or verbal triple divorce) by the husband was only outlawed by the introduction of the Family Act in 2000, alongside the incomplete arrangement to partially establish the age of marriage at 18 years. Granted, these are developments towards a greater degree of social responsibility and accountability within the family. However, the degree to which they help to achieve stability and peace in the family and beyond, is open to debate in the prevailing context.

Two days prior to the spitting incident, on 22 February 2016, the Peoples’ Majlis held its first discussion on the newly submitted, first ever draft legislation on gender equality in the Maldives. The gender equality law (GEL) was submitted to the Majlis by Asma Rasheed, the only female MP in the Majlis representing the majority party PPM. As the PG group leader, MP Nihan endorsed the GEL with supportive fervour on the Majlis floor. That endorsement and his retrograde public behaviour towards his female colleague just two days later, was a moment which showed the public that a mask of deep hypocrisy had slipped and exposed what lay behind.

On 11 March 2015, allegations emerged from MDP MP Rozaina Adam that PPM MP Riyaz Rasheed had threatened to rape her and this threat was reported by MDP as being directed at both MP Rozaina and MP Mariya Didi, inside the parliament’s chambers. According to MP Rozaina, formal complaints were submitted to the Speaker of the People’s Majlis about these threats in March 2015, and also the recent attack against her by MP Nihan in February 2016. To date, she informs that she has received no responses to either of these serious complaints. There are no reports of any investigation or disciplinary measures being taken against these parliamentarians for such harassment of female colleagues in the workplace, in a public institution like the parliament.

During the parliamentary discussion of the GEL on 22 February, MP Mariya Didi provided some telling insights into the general attitude of male MPs towards female colleagues. She said

We see how female members are treated in this Majlis. Many a day, we see inside this Majlis, the only female MP in PPM’s parliamentary group coming to us after their PG meeting, with tears pouring from her eyes because of the way she is spoken to, and because she is not allowed the opportunity by her party to say what she wants. These are things that are happening before our eyes. [unofficial translation]

Harassment of women in the workplace is a particularly neglected area of continuing gender-based oppression in the Maldives. It is a clear sign of human under-development, and a serious absence of a civilising force within the education, human resource development and employment sectors.

The absence of accountability is one of the fundamental gaps that maintain this damaging status quo. An important high profile case in point is that of workplace harassment allegations made against the former President of the Civil Service Commission (CSC), Mr Mohamed Fahmy Hassan. The following summary of events from May 2012 to November 2015 tells a story of patriarchal impunity.

In the above case, a female junior employee made the unusually bold move to report a case of sexual harassment against her by a senior male employee of the State, in a position of great responsibility and authority. The performance of the State machinery to deliver justice can be seen in the unfolding events related to the case. One woman’s plight to seek redress for an injustice suffered had arguably resulted in another injustice to the public purse and the public psyche. Where can a woman go in the Maldives, to seek redress to an injustice done against her? The answer is clear. Nowhere.

Fahmy resign

Women’s protest calling to remove Fahmy from office – 2012. Placard says: “A sexual harasser in charge of 27,000 employees – oh my God!”

Today is International Women’s Day.

Women’s rights advocates around the globe are working in solidarity to push humanity towards the one common goal for equality of the sexes. They continue the long and slow uphill struggle to fight patriarchy, the insidious yet visible elephant in the room of human progress, which fights back to deny women their rightful place as equals alongside men.

In the Maldives, advocates work to find and establish spaces for women in the above described situation where the odds are stacked firmly against women. They work in a situation where a man considers it permissible to spit in the face of his female colleague in his workplace which happens to be the country’s parliament. They work in a situation where a male MP can threaten to rape his female colleague, without scrutiny or consequence. They work in a situation where the efforts of the brave woman who makes a stand against sexual harassment in her workplace are washed away by the power of patriarchal “brotherhood”.

Yet, what is assured on this International Women’s Day is that their work will not be stalled or interrupted. The GEL will be fought for and won through the efforts of the rights-minded women and men who work towards this cause, with the same determination that achieved the country’s first Domestic Violence Prevention Act back in 2012. The spirit and commitment which brought the random act of male triple talaq to an end, through the Family Act 2000 is evidently alive and well. These efforts will be supported by the rights-minded citizens who seek the establishment of a more just society. A society in which such legislation will one day bring relief and redress against the excesses, injustices and impunity of the patriarchal “brotherhood”.

Gender equality is a fundamental issue of justice.

It is an issue of social stability, meaningful human coexistence, unity and peace.

To perpetuate inequality and injustice on the basis of one’s sex, which is in fact an accident of birth, is an affront and indignity to human intellect in the 21st century.

Gender equality is the rights way ahead.

It may be the road less travelled, but the one that must be taken.

Reflections on the Maldivian democracy

Maldives Sunset

by Daniel Bosley

Maldivian democracy. Democracy in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s unique. 360,000 people. 90,000 sq km. 187 inhabited islands. Coconuts. Coral reefs. Transmitting the desires and needs of the people to their elected officials in this environment? It’s difficult.

The features of the Maldives’ recent democratic endeavours have also been unusual in many ways. Unusual in that they have been televised and written about across the world. Unusual in that massive increases in global tourism and the age of digital media have raised the profile. For most who have read about the problems facing ‘that place that their friend went to on holiday that one time’, it is all very new.

For half of the Maldives too, the explosion of politics in the past decade must seem unprecedented after three decades of calm dictatorship (supplemented by the occasional enhanced interrogation). Those under the age of 40 will be too young to remember any similar upheavals.

Looking at the documented history of the country, it is clear many of the modern characteristics of its politics are new. Most noticeably, political violence is now endemic, compared to just a few short years ago when any act of violence would set tongues wagging in many mouths in many islands (there are reports that any angry outbursts in the past would prompt police intervention).

The answer to why these traits have occurred is probably the same as that which solves 9 out of every 10 such puzzles. Money. These days, there’s a lot more of it in the archipelago. Tourist arrival statistics now have 7 figures and resorts have 7 stars.

The stakes are higher, but is the game all that different? Are the basic problems facing Maldivian democracy new?

Foreign media accounts of the recent political turmoil are usually fairly superficial, with few even willing to look back as far as the failure to secure judicial independence post-2008 as the key to the current chapter of ‘_____ in Paradise’. Insert the words ‘judicial independence’ in there and then try and sell it; the likelihood of a successful pitch is about the same as any foreign outlet having the time or resources to look any further into the national context.

But contrary to the necessary reductivism of international coverage, many of the current traits have been seen before. The fact that the average Sultan’s reign lasted just 8 and a half years suggests that messy power transfers are not a modern phenomena. Those observing through aftermath of the country’s first written constitutions in the 1930s noted that new institutions were quickly dominated by a tiny and nepotistic elite, while a number of leaders were soon hounded out of politics (and the country) – accused of moving forward too fast for the general population.

For the lazy analyst, the above details could be copied and pasted into a text discussing recent travails, with cries of nepotism and oligarchy following the spectacular ending of President Mohamed Nasheed’s presidency, which had been deemed too liberal by another decidedly undemocratic rent-a-mob.

Additionally, the political polarisation that has split the country down the middle in the age of multi-party politics has been seen before. ‘Unique’ anecdotal cases such as the physical division of islands along party lines in recent times, can be found frequently in more historical accounts. Feuding between wards, families, and towns are frequently cited as having inspired ‘fanditha’ attacks, arson, and even a dividing trench dug across one island. Attempts in the 60s to have elected atoll chiefs were short-lived due to the local factionalism the process exacerbated.

Despite the seemingly idyllic surrounds, people in the islands have the same need as all people to create an identity by finding an ‘other’ to push against. In a country with little or no cultural, ethnic, or religious heterogeneity (and, thankfully, with little propensity for violence), it is hardly surprising that people will (ab)use politics to satisfy these human egotistical urges.

But at heart, many (particularly older) Maldivians seem to know that they are watching a reboot rather than a sequel to the political drama, and while international headlines wail about new crises, most locals roll their eyes in apathy, or let out an exasperated chuckle. Despite taking part in the soap opera – to alleviate boredom as much as anything – they know that current cast members are interchangeable. They know that most of the root causes will not suddenly disappear by simply sacking the lead actor (although using a different talent agency occasionally might be a good thing).

That a progressive young leader is transformed into a curmudgeonly despot is not a new story anywhere, and the recent transformation of VP Adheeb from a reportedly mild-mannered young man to the country’s favourite scapegoat begs more questions about the system than the individuals in it (Dr Jameel’s recent transformation may yet be attributed to amnesia…or maybe an evil twin).

Questions and answers

As the Maldives’ political landscape looks set to continue its monotonous cycle of purge and coup, it will require new thinking to redirect the political currents that traditionally move jobs, privilege, and land from one side of the island to another with each new set of leaders. It is these predictable beyfulhun monsoons that create grasping kleptocrats and dictators.

Both leaders and voters should be encouraged to think beyond short-term (corruption, political prisoners) and medium-term problems (judicial independence) to long-term (democratic consolidation, rule of law, stability) issues in order to break the country out of a pattern that is becoming too harmful to continue.

Engaging democratic citizens will not make great headlines (‘Engaging voters in Paradise’, anyone?). It is a slow process that must start with providing people adequate representation, and an ability for introspective thinking about themselves, their community and their leaders; national pride without nationalist xenophobia, loyalty without patriarchy, public service without quid pro quo.

Any journalist working in the Maldives should also aspire to assist this process, building trust and making information accessible for the analysis of the individual reader – not telling them what to think by funneling facts and manipulating the narrative.

It is at the level of political engagement that Maldivian democracy faces particular systemic problems. Many people simply don’t take political science seriously for the same reason anti-intellectualism exists in working class communities around the world; they have not been convinced of the long term effect politics has on their lives. The rapid transition from small communities of fishermen to citizens of a modern democratic nation is particularly tough for these reasons.

In order to draw people into politics and create a thriving democracy, more politicians must try to get into the heads of the people they represent (without moving the furniture about while they’re in there). Short term populism (and bribes) may win a vote, but only a long term vision of people’s wants, hopes, and needs as Maldivians will bring long term stability that leaders crave and the country needs. Indeed, with the changes the society has undergone in recent decades, such an appraisal of the nation is desperately needed.

Until people are truly engaged, blatantly illegal activity by those in office and brazen kleptocracy will not result in the groundswell of outrage many expect. Apathy is the enemy of accountability. Additionally, constantly lobbying foreigners to force through changes from the outside is a poor substitute for home-grown remedies.

A disengaged electorate is made worse by the continuing dominance of a few patriarchs, who in turn have always danced to the beat of bodu beru from Male’. Disillusionment with distant leaders is not unique to the Maldives, but the physical disconnect between Malé and the atolls has always been extreme.

The current gap between politicians and those they claim to represent, however, will not foster the type of engagement upon which a democratic culture can flourish. Presidents in the elite bubble continue to buy votes and rent crowds while convincing themselves that they are very popular (a questionable method of polling); literally dragging their supporters along rather than asking them to follow. Meanwhile, MPs occupy spaces in the Majlis, nominally with the intention of representing an island constituency, and yet few spend any time with their voters beyond the time it takes to count the ballots.

An outsider can never truly know a community as its permanent members can, and a distant member of the elite will struggle to understand the wants and needs of their electorate. The fact that every atoll in the country has its own ‘representatives’ suggests they should be represented in the embodying-their-values-and-needs-in-the-Majlis sense of the word, rather than the enjoy-your-football-field-see-you-in-5-years meaning. This unnecessary aloofness misses a vital opportunity for local leaders to articulate and to translate Maldivian democracy to their voters; to find that sweet spot between dry theorising  (sorry about that) and a man on a podium calling his opponents heretics.

Lists compiled by social scientists have included over 500 different types of democracy, but every single one them has to meaningfully involve the people in decision making (rather than as a fig leaf for oligarchy). The Maldives’ current leaders are quick to point out the unique nature of the country, and to try and mould such a place to perfectly fit western models would represent the worst type of orientalism (in Edward Said’s sense of the word).

Indeed, Maldivian democracy could well end up with it’s own unique position in academia, but without the engagement of the electorate it will remain an oxymoron. Rather than patronising patrons telling people what they want (or more often what they should be afraid of), Maldivians should be asked what they want from their democracy and given the informational tools to answer by their leaders and their media.

The new character of Maldivian politics is only adding greater urgency to older and deeper problems surrounding its democracy growth. Without asking the right questions, however, it will be hard to develop long-term answers.

About the author: Daniel Bosley is a British journalist working in the Maldives’

Photo: Daniel Bosley

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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