The common factor in the persistence of female genital mutilation outside of Africa is the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, which holds the practice to be obligatory. The Maldives has been on a fast track here of late toward intensified observance of Sharia, and the government has already ruled with respect to Sharia’s criminal punishments that “there is nothing to debate about in a matter clearly stated in the religion of Islam.” As this report makes clear, that attitude threatens the bodily integrity of Maldivian girls and women.
When the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited the Maldives late last year, she urged that the practice of flogging women for having sex outside marriage – while very rarely punishing men for the same – should be abolished.
”This practice constitutes one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women,” she told local reporters then.
The response was as fierce as it was unexpected. The next day protesters rallied outside the UN building, carrying placards that read ”Ban UN” and ”Islam is not a toy” and threatened to ”Flog Pillay”. A website later promised to ”slaughter anyone against Islam”.
Similar protests have followed, and a growing religious divide between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims – constitutionally, all Maldivians are obliged to follow Islam – has led many to question the direction of religion in the Maldives and, in particular, the place of women in Maldivian society.
In an interview with the Herald, the Maldivian President, Mohamed Nasheed, conceded an emergent religious fundamentalism had changed the way women were viewed, and treated, in his country.
He said he was distressed by religious groups who campaigned for girls to be circumcised or to be kept home from school.
”We were a matriarchal society. Our inheritance, also, in the past was from women. But, with a new kind of radical Islam, the perceptions some of them have on women are not familiar to many Maldivians,” Mr Nasheed said.
Once again, wherever Sharia enjoys a resurgence, the observable effect is that tolerance decreases, harassment increases, and respect for human rights decreases.
Anecdotal reports suggest female circumcision is undergoing a resurgence in the Maldives, particularly on the outer islands, where local imams hold significant influence.
Shadiya Ibrahim, member of the newly formed Gender Advocacy Working Group and a long-time campaigner for women’s rights, said Maldivian society was growing more oppressive towards women.
”Being a woman is harder now. The religious Wahhabist scholars preach more forcefully than anyone else can. They have this backing of religion as a tool.
”No one can make the argument to have a more liberal, a more positive attitude towards women. Day by day, it is becoming harder for women to live in this country,” she said.
Ms Ibrahim said women were excluded from positions of power, from taking jobs and even from education, particularly beyond primary level.
The practice of flogging women for extramarital sex was common across the Maldives, she said.
”It happens everywhere. Normally, this punishment is given when you give birth, which is why it is almost always women. If you have 140-odd women being flogged, you have only two or three men.” The flogging is public and done with a paddle or a cane, and is intended more to humiliate than to cause serious injury.
Ms Ibrahim said flogging was accepted by many Maldivians, and there were other, more serious issues emerging, including a growing number of instances of sexual violence.
”This week, there have been two cases of a gang rape of [a] minor, one 16-year-old, one 12-year-old and, very often, while there is an effort to catch the perpetrators, eventually, the media will turn it into ‘the girl was wearing this’, ‘the girl had gone there’,” he said.
When you are a second-class citizen, if you are found out of your supposed place, you forfeit your right to protection. You are “asking for it.”
Domestic violence is common. A nationwide survey done in 2007 found one in three Maldivian women had been abused, sexually or physically.
Aneesa Ahmed, president of advocacy organisation Hope for Women, said a domestic violence bill before the Maldivian parliament would raise awareness of an issue rarely discussed in the Maldives. But the legislation has been stuck in parliament more than 14 months. Only five of the Maldives’ 77 parliamentarians are women.
Ms Ahmed said Maldivian women’s control over their lives was being eroded. ”Men in the Maldives feel that the women’s role is reproductive and in the home. That’s what women should do and that’s all we should do.”