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DEVELOPMENT: Women Adamant for Change as the Maldives Struggles to Reform

Feizal Samath

MALÉ, Jun 24 2010 (IPS) - Authorities in the Maldives view women’s issues as a core human rights problem and are keen to tackle them head on, but cultural and religious issues often stand in the way.

“No doubt the government of President Mohamed Nasheed recognises many problems and is willing to tackle them, but there’s limited ability to do so because of deep-rooted cultural and religious issues,” according to a Maldivian journalist, who declined to be named.

Member of parliament Eva Abdulla, who belongs to Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – which won power in May 2009, thus ending the 30- year-old reign of dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – said the government firmly believes in affirmative action policies benefiting women.

“The President has called for gender mainstreaming in both formulating and implementing government policies,” she said. She stressed, however, that lack of staff and resources are undermining Nasheed’s good intentions.

Particularly worrying, she said, is the growing religious extremism in the Maldives and its impact on the lives of Maldivian women, who comprise around 48 percent of the country’s population of around 340,000.

“Religion is all too often used as an excuse to limit women,” she added.

Originally Buddhists, Maldivians were converted to Sunni Islam in the mid- 12th century.

Abdulla believes the government and civil society as well as the media need to proactively engage in dealing with the rise in extremism and take tangible steps toward tackling “the adverse affect this will have on the lives of women in the country.”

While women have equal opportunities and there are some very strong females at leadership levels, they are rarely at the top, according to local journalists who spoke to IPS.

Workplace issues such as sexual harassment persist. Recently, the chief executive officer of the state-owned Bank of Maldives fled the country following allegations of this nature, they added.

Still another issue confronting women is domestic violence. Spousal rape is not a crime, and reporting of rape is rare, according to women’s rights advocates in the Maldives.

Maldives has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, with 10.97 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations. Little wonder it is common for women in this small island nation on the Indian Ocean to be married four to five times, since Islam permits divorce and marriages are not considered as a family affair but an individual choice, according to female activists.

But the biggest worry in recent months, they said, is that religious extremism is taking root and having a serious impact on women.

“Religious lectures are growing and there’s some government support for these foreign preachers (who speak in such events),” said a female journalist and activist.

The journalist, who declined to be named for fear of incurring the wrath of extremist groups, said that in one of these gatherings, Jamaican-born Canadian Muslim preacher Bilal Phillips proposed that Sharia laws be the foundation of governance, and cited the need to increase religious education, for women to cover themselves fully, and promote polygamy.

“These extremists want women to be restricted to the home,” said a female judicial activist as she puffed on a cigarette while garbed in denim pants – looking and sounding every inch the epitome of liberalism – while three other women, who shared her views, looked on in agreement.

The activist added that she and her colleagues were deeply concerned that the government’s inability to tackle extremism could eventually subjugate women.

She and her group told IPS that while the Maldives is a 100 percent Muslim country, it did not mean “we must have 100 percent Sharia laws here.” They also expressed fear that extremism from some Islamic fundamentalist countries has begun to spread to small nations like the Maldives.

They claimed the Adaalath Party, a member of Nasheed’s MDP coalition and the main, stridently religious party in the government, has been supportive of extremist views being propagated in the Maldives.

President Nasheed conceded that religious extremism is an issue but said that since the country has been fed on a diet of religion for more than 30 years, it is not easy to turn it overnight into a liberal Muslim society.

He told IPS that his government hopes to anchor itself to a religious-oriented middle ground. “Let the country go along with (the prevailing view) for awhile and at the same time strengthen civil society and other liberal ideas and by and large make society freer,” he said.

In the meantime, said Abdulla, women continue to be under-represented at the decision-making level, with only one female Cabinet minister while only 6 percent of parliamentarians are women.

The MDP led the campaign for pro-democracy reforms some years, which saw many campaigners, including Nasheed, being jailed for many months during Gayoom’s presidency. The end of the Gayoom era generated a lot of reform expectations, especially on human rights, among the people, including women. But the road ahead is not all that easy, he said.

“The kind of expectations that were raised is beyond the reach of anyone within a short period of time. The last year, in particular, has been a non- starter. It took us about eight months to get a good grip on government,” the President said.

Yet, he said, his administration is already making major strides toward change, including the grant of a health insurance scheme to single mothers.

“If we fast-forward to the future, then we could see that we have achieved something,” said Nasheed.

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