The Maldives is a small island nation in the Indian Ocean known mostly by outsiders as a popular honeymoon destination. While tourists stroll around in bikinis, cocktails in hand, on the islands inhabited by Maldivians alcohol is prohibited and veils are a common sight.
If you look back at the history of the country, it wasn't always like that: Compared to neighbouring countries, Maldivian women have long enjoyed a relatively high social standing. Early Arabic records mention that before converting to Islam, the islands were ruled by a queen. Even after their conversion to Islam, the Maldives had several sultans but the queen retained her clout, as observed by merchants such as Sulaiman and Al Masudi in the ninth and early tenth centuries. When the Arabic travel writer and cartographer Al Idrisi visited in 1150AD a king was on the throne but he noted that “his wife administers justice, and speaks in public unveiled … This Queen, on solemn feasts and other great occasions, appears in public along with her Maids of Honour, with great array of elephants, trumpets and flags. Her husband and the Vazirs follow her at a certain distance.” He continued to explain that the Queen “acted as arbitrator among the people and did not veil herself from them. She issued many orders and her husband, although he was present, did not interfere.”
But today much of the political, economic and religious power lies in the hands of men, even if the country doesn’t fare badly in contrast to neighbouring countries. The Maldives has often been described as moderate or liberal in its practice of Islam, particularly with regards to women. Historical records indicate that women never veiled their faces, chose their own partners, and that marriage could be easily annulled if both parties so desired. Wearing any form of headscarf has historically been a free choice for women in the Maldives and has had multiple meanings. For example, some women wear the veil because of religious beliefs and their desire to demonstrate piety, or as a fashion statement. Older women often wear a veil once their hair started to go grey.
Reflecting its relatively low levels of gender inequality, the Maldives boasts equal levels of primary and lower-secondary enrolment among boys and girls and there is no evidence of discrimination against girls in access to health. Life expectancy is also relatively equal and the literacy rate in the Maldives, among both men and women, is 98 percent, the highest level in the region. Women are visible in public life – a number of cabinet members have been women, there are now prominent female judges, and popular female musicians and artists. In general women have not been segregated from men, although in terms of their clothing and their ability to move around at night, they face more restrictions than their male counterparts.
But instead of improving its record on gender justice, the situation has become more complicated for women over the past 15 years. This is largely to due to political changes, global influences and a shift in the practice of Islam in the country, whose form has changed radically in recent times.
Long-serving President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who assumed power in 1978, set himself the task of creating a national identity for a modern Muslim society. Gayoom's state-controlled, rather moderate political-religious discourse later shifted, however, emerging as a more fundamentalist movement that increasingly influenced the lives of Maldivian citizens, from the allocation of public posts to the most private relationships. More and more households began to follow a strictly patriarchal corporate ideology, while women's freedoms were increasingly restricted.
It is important not to equate the political movement of Islamism with the religion of Islam. Islam as a religion has played an important role in the Maldives for centuries without women being oppressed per se. Only now, with the strengthening of fundamental Islamic movements, is the equality of women and men is being questioned.
The strengthening of Islamism has several reasons. The surge of Islamism in the Maldives from the early 2000s can be read not just as resistance to western influence but as resistance to dominant norms and structures created during the long rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Gayoom’s oppression of alternative interpretations of Islam contributed to its radicalisation as a form of resistance. Moreover, in the Maldives, as elsewhere, fundamentalism has become a popular means to rail against a lack of perspectives.
The clearest catalyst for a sudden shift in gender relations was the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. The massive wave struck the islands on 26 December 2004, injuring and displacing thousands of people, destroying homes, infrastructure and livelihoods. In the immediate aftermath, some groups suggested that the tsunami was a result of Allah’s wrath due to immorality. Women’s bodies in particular became a target, with a number of people blaming the tragedy on women not wearing the buruga (veil). Blaming women for the tsunami was not unique to the Maldives; examples from Aceh, Sri Lanka and Southern India indicate that similar notions of women’s ‘immorality’ were cited as reasons for the tsunami.
The tsunami gave new ammunition to Islamist preachers. It thrust the Maldives into the international spotlight. Soon after, both the United States and the European Union expressed serious concerns over the lack of democracy and freedom under President Gayoom.
Global ideologies such as democracy are often assumed to offer potential gains for women. But a number of scholars have suggested that the negative impacts of ‘modernisation’ contributed to a cultural crisis, enabling the development of conservative discourses which oppress women.
The current political insecurity in the Maldives has its roots in a complex intersection of authoritarian political regimes, climate change, globalisation, and democratisation. In many cases throughout the past decade, women’s bodies have been the site upon which these competing discourses have been fought. According to the CEDAW committee there is concern about recent reports of an increase in early marriage and the practice of polygamy in the Maldives. Access to sexual and reproductive services also remains limited, especially outside of marriage. Violence against women remains a problem and many, including formed Maldives Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Farhanaz Faisal, have challenged the practice of flogging as a punishment, disproportionately affecting women, many of them victims of sexual abuse. In January 2018, a women’s rights organization, Uthema, criticized the government for failing to carry out adequate investigations into hundreds of cases of sexual assault. One of the most visible changes afoot is the increasing numbers of women wearing the veil. While in itself the veil is not a sign of oppression, within the global climate of Islamism the dramatic increase in veiling represents another example of women’s marginalisation from public life.
Despite these challenges, women remain at the forefront of political and social justice movements pressing for democracy, climate justice, human rights and an end to violence against women. For example, in 2012, Aneesa Ahmed received the International Woman of Courage (IWOC) award by the U.S. Department of State for her work addressing domestic violence. She and numerous other courageous Maldivian women are fighting ceaselessly. Although backward-looking groups try to push Maldivian women into the shadows, their power and resilience has the power to spark positive change.