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Women’s Rights and the Shifting Tides of Islam in the Maldives

By Johanna Higgs and Amal Ben Hadda

Rabat – The concept of women’s rights varies throughout the Muslim world and each culture applies its own definition. In many cases, this results in restrictions being placed on women’s freedoms, whether it be not being allowed to go to school, not being able to work, or even not being able to leave the house alone.

Muslim women in Albania, Kazakhstan and Senegal, for example, enjoy many more freedoms in terms of what they can wear and do than women and girls in much more conservative countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran. These differences have largely been affected by traditional beliefs, as well as diverse interpretations of Islam.

The small island nation of the Maldives is one example of a Muslim country where women have, until recently, enjoyed a number of freedoms due to their relatively moderate form of Islam. Islam first came to the Maldives in the 12th century when the Moroccan merchant Abu Barakat Al Barbari visited the country.

According to local folklore, Abu Barakat found that a sea demon named Rannamaari was terrorizing the people of the Maldives. Locals believed that the demon could only be appeased with the sacrifice of a virgin girl. A young girl would be chosen to be sacrificed and left in a cave overnight and the next day she would be found dead.

Abdul Barakat suggested that he would be able to get rid of the sea demon by reciting the Quran in front of it. The king desperately promised to convert the Maldives to Islam if Abdul Barakat could get rid of the sea demon for good. The merchant accepted the challenge and instead of putting the virgin girl in the cave ovrnight, Abdul Barakat placed himself.

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When the sea demon appeared Abdul Barakat recited the Quran and according to some versions, the demon then fled in terror. After the king saw Abdul Barakat has survived the night in the cave and that the sea demon did not appear again, the king made good on his promise and ordered the entire nation to embrace Islam. Terror, it seemed, had left the Maldives for good, the tomb of Abu Barakat Al Barbari remains in the Maldives today as a symbol of gratitude.

However, in recent times, outside Islamic influences have made their way into the Maldives yet again. Though this time, not everyone are welcoming the changes. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are the main influences of contemporary Maldivan governance. Saudi Arabia’s much more radical branch of Islam, Wahhibism, was founded during the 18th century in the Arabian Peninsula. Wahhibis claim that their version of Islam, is the ‘real’ Islam. Such versions of Islam however, largely advocate the restriction of women’s rights and their freedoms.

In an interview with a representative from Hope for Women in the nation’s capital Male, she explained that the loss of women’s rights in the island nation have largely come about after the first democratic election of Mohammad Nasheed in 2008. ‘Previously, there were limits on who could preach Islam. Now many are travelling abroad to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and discovering a more extreme version of Islam that they’re bringing here,’ she explained.

Some of the changes have included changes in dress codes. Historically, women have expressed themselves through wearing colourful, much shorter, traditional garments. Now, women dressing completely in black and who have started to cover their faces.

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‘It’s hurting women,’ she said.

Two women from Transparency International, another women’s rights organization explained that women were unhappy about having to change the way they dress. Remembering their childhood, they said it was rare to see a woman who covered her hair. ‘Today,’ they noted, ‘it is difficult to fin a woman who is not wearing the headscarf.’

A representative from the Society for Health Organization further explained how the country’s growing extremist sentiments are causing a problem for women. ‘Islamists are advocating that women have less value than men. They are using social media to spread this message and are holding meetings where they speak against women. They are using the Quran to justify these things,’ she says. ‘We have never had things like this before.’

For a researcher resident in Male, giving radicalized Islamic groups a political platform has contributed has contributed to the deteriorating situation for women and girls in the Maldives. ‘We now have an Islamic ministry, we never had this before and we do not need an Islamic ministry,’ she remarked. ‘They are bringing radical preachers to the Maldives to endorse more radical views of Islam. They are promoting child marriage and saying that girls can be married from the age of puberty.’

‘Maldivan women have not always had an equal role in society,’ she said, ‘but they have not faced as many limitations on their freedom as they are facing now.’ All of the women for this article asked not be named out of fear for retributions, the first sign that a curtailment of women’s rights was taking place. ‘There’s no freedom here,’ she says. ‘There’s no freedom of religion. You have be a Sunni. The constitution says that if you are not Muslim then you are not Maldivan.’

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In 2015, Dr Ahmed ZiyadBagir, the Maldivan Islamic Minister, signed a religious cooperation agreement along with Salihibn Abdul Azisibn Muhammad Al Al-Shaykh in Saudi Arabia to build a ‘religious bridge’ to help convert Maldivans to Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia has pledged to help the Maldives strengthen its alms system, translate religious books into the local language and to organize visits of religious scholars.

As these extreme conservative values become further integrated into the Maldivan social system, there is no doubt that women and girls will see further reduction in their rights and freedoms. Organizations like Hope for Women and the Society for Health Organization are working to give women the tools to resist. Hope for Women focuses on getting women involved with politics and the Society for Health Organization, in conjunction with Islamic scholars, are challenging these growing extremist views through trainings that teach women and girls how to combat gender based violence.

Women’s rights activists and moderate Islamic scholars in the Maldives are uniting to push back against the violent tide of a restrictive and foreign version of Islam. These efforts to ensure that women are able to live freely are already making a tangible difference in Maldivan society.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity. 

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