The Maldives is a tourist paradise, crowned the World’s Most Romantic Destination during the World Travel Awards in 2011. But while a popular destination for couples around the globe, it takes a radical paradigm shift when it comes to its own citizens.
Under the 2008 Constitution the Maldives is a ‘100 percent’ Muslim country, with a justice system based on a hybrid of common law and Islamic Sharia.
Although the country does not implement many of the ‘Hadd’ or penalties prescribed by Sharia law, including amputation and stoning, it does practice some selective punishments.
One such penalty is the implementation of flogging for a number of crimes including, but not limited to, fornication outside of wedlock.
In recent days, global media attention has been drawn to the case of a 15 year old-girl convicted of fornication and sentenced to flogging, despite her history of alleged sexual abuse dating back to 2009.
Minivan News has spoken with a number of locals about their experiences with flogging, and the societal impact it has had in the past.
Faheem*, a 47 year old former court official in a small island in the North of the Maldives, shared his experiences in regard to related cases.
“In my 10 years serving as a court official during the 90’s, I have witnessed many people being subjected to public flogging. Although we are, in fact, a Muslim nation, most of these sentences were for cases of extra marital sex,” Faheem said.
“The majority of those who did get flogged were women. Although Islam specifically states that once a culprit has endured the ‘Hadd’ he or she is completely washed of their sins, society does not seem to see it in that way.
These women are tainted for life and forever looked down upon. There were a couple of men too, but the islanders did not react in the same way against the men. They seem to be more easily accepted back into society, their sins are generally forgiven or forgotten in time,” he explained.
“We usually used a paddle, and there were then, like now, specific regulations which the flogger had to adhere to. But there is one particular case that has stayed in my mind, and although I was not directly involved in it, I have always remembered it with a pang of guilt,” he continued.
“The magistrate at the time, Ghazee Zubair, was involved with a woman from our island. Then one day he had to preside over a case against this woman, who had been brought in front of him for charges of extramarital, consensual sex with yet another man,” Faheem said.
“I remember islanders talking about whether he would be impartial in his judgement. He was, to a point. Yes, she was sentenced to flogging. But, the appalling thing is that while all others got the paddle, she was given a hundred lashes with a cotton handkerchief,” Faheem said.
While the paddle is commonly used in the implementation of flogging, it has been replaced with less harsher tools in some cases.
Hussain Haleem, a former court official, said in the past there have been instances where objects such as peacock feathers have been imported for the sole purpose of flogging a woman belonging to the country’s elite, or a single lash with a string of 100 rosary beads, each bead counting as a separate lash. Haleem, however, added that there had been cases in the other extreme, where the flogger has used far more force than is required, causing serious physical harm to the person sentenced.
Court officials attempt to gather a crowd of onlookers when the sentence is being implemented, in a bid to increase the shame of the sentenced persons. People standing around the court building, or waiting to file documents or cases, are frequently asked to join the crowds.
Shame and humiliation
Ibrahim*, a 44 year-old civil servant, talked about growing up as the illegitimate child of a woman who had been flogged.
“It was hard. Mother, who has since passed away, did not come from as elite a family as the man who they say is my father. She was the youngest daughter of a carpenter, a woman with no education, no money and no social status,” he said.
“As a teenage girl, she worked as a maid to help support the family. It was at this house where she worked that I was conceived. Of course, the man involved was rich and well, untouchable, even by the justice system.He denied any involvement and got off scott-free.
“I don’t refer to him as my father. I have never exchanged a word with him. My mother, however, was lashed. She told me that she herself had confessed, saying as per Islam, she deserved to get shamed, to bebeaten for her sin. Her family was so ashamed of her that she was turned out of the house.
“She lived till her late fifties alone, except for me. Growing up with a woman labelled undeservingly as cheap and honourless was not easy. This place is small and everyone calls me a bastard behind my back. That is probably why I have never learned to smile much,” Ibrahim said.
Twenty-six year-old marketing professional Fathima* spoke about how she felt forced to marry a man she was unhappy being with, to avoid the “societal ostracism” of being flogged.
“I was 22 at the time. Hassan, my boyfriend, was 30. We had been in a relationship for about six months and it wasn’t really working out. Hassan was too possessive for comfort, and I was looking for a way out of the relationship. And then, in the middle of all this, I became pregnant,” Fathima said.
“There was no one I could go to with the problem. My parents would have been outraged and I did not, rather I do not, have the courage to take the chance of being found out and flogged; of being banished to some island and losing everything, from my family’s acceptance of me to my reputation and this job I love. So, although things were already sour, Hassan and I got married in a rush,” she continued.
Fathima gave birth to a baby girl less than seven months into the marriage. She said the couple had the baby abroad for fear of being found out if they had stayed in the Maldives for the delivery. After a difficult and emotionally abusive marriage, Fathima filed for divorce a year after the wedding. She does not get any support for the child from the father, and is currently working as a single mother.
“I sometimes wonder if, compared to the hardships I am facing now, it was worth it to spend all my savings on the wedding and the trip abroad for delivery of my child. Hassan was of no help except for the name he lent to my child. I ask myself if it wouldn’t have been better to have just faced the shame of flogging back then.
“Who am I kidding? I don’t think anyone deserves such degrading treatment. Let’s be real. It’s something that the authorities ignore until an official complaint is made or someone ends up getting pregnant, but there is hardly anyone in this country who does not have sexual relations prior to, or outside of, marriage. It’s the hypocrisy I hate worst of all,” she said.
Punishment or repentance?
Usthaz Abdul Mueed Hassan, a graduate of Qatar’s Mauhadini Sanawi and Azhar University, said that in its true spirit, Islam holds repentance and forgiveness in higher regard than the implementation of Hadd penalties.
Mueed, who holds a state-issued permit to lecture on religious issues, spoke to Minivan News about the implementation of Hadd, while also commenting on the case of the 15 year-old rape victim sentenced to flogging.
“There is a verse in the Quran which comes in light of an incident in Quraish. The people of Quraish used to sell or give out their young females to guests they held in high regard, against the wishes of these youth. The verse was in response to questions that arose as to whether these youth would be considered sinners,” Mueed explained.
He referred to the conclusion of Verse 33 of Noor Surah in the Quran which reads: “But force not your maids to prostitution when they desire chastity in order that ye may make a gain in the goods of this life. But if anyone compels them yet after such compulsion is Allah Oft-forgiving Most Merciful [to them].”
“In circumstances where a woman is forced into sexual relations, like in the instance of rape, Hadd will not apply to them. As in the verse I’ve quoted, Allah himself has forgiven them. None is above Allah. And since He has granted forgiveness, there is no more for us to do. It is very clearly stated so,” Mueed said.
“Anyone who reads these verses in the correct way and in their right order can clearly make out under what circumstances a punishment should and should not be given,” he said.
“Islam does not permit any Hadd to be delivered if there is any ‘Shubha’ [doubt] about the offence having been committed,” Mueed said, referring to sayings of Prophet Muhammad, as cited in the book Fiqh Al-Sunnah, Part II.
“The Prophet has also said that when seeking to implement Hadd on a person, if there is detected even the slightest reason to let it go without implementing the Hadd, then do so. He then says that this is because it is far better for the person in charge – be it a judge, a president or an Imam – to err in forgiving a person than to err in sentencing a person to any Hadd,” Mueed said.
“So even in the current case of the 15 year-old, if there is the slightest doubt – say for example, the girl is not fully mature and aware, or she is not explicitly aware that fornication is ‘haram’ (prohibited) – then it is better to not implement the sentence,” Mueed stated.
Mueed said that in Islam, proving offences like Zinah (fornication out of wedlock) beyond doubt is deliberately made to be difficult to achieve. Even if a person confesses to a crime, if he or she later denies it, then the Hadd cannot be observed, he said.
“For example, for this Hadd, there has to be four male witnesses with perfect eyesight who have seen the act occur at the same time, in the same manner. Four eyewitnesses being there is in itself unlikely, unless it is in a highly corrupted society and such acts are committed outside in public places. Furthermore, if three of them provide witness and the fourth ends up differing, then these three witnesses will be sentenced for ‘gazf’ (false accusation against a chaste and virtuous person of having committed fornication),” he continued.
“What is the reason for this to be made so complicated in Islam? It is to discourage implementation,” Mueed stated. “One must not take the literal, word by word, meaning of the Quran and Prophet’s sayings. We must interpret its words in the light of the true spirit of the religion and with reference to history.”
“For Hadd of Zinah to be sentenced upon a person, there are four requirements that must be met: the person must be of sound mind, must have reached puberty, must have committed fornication willingly without any compulsion and must know that the act of fornication is ‘haram’ in Islam,” he explained.
The religion-based political party Adhaalath Party, members of which largely dominate the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, has meanwhile stated that “No one has the right to criticise any penalties specified in Islam,” and that “criticising issues like this would encourage enemies of Islam, create confusion among the general public and open up opportunities for people who aim to stop the practice of similar penalties commanded in Islam.”
In a statement released in February, the party said “The purpose of penalties like these in Islamic Sharia is to maintain order in society and to save it from sinful acts. It is not at all an act of violence. We must turn a deaf ear to the international organisations which are calling to abolish these penalties, labeling them degrading and inhumane acts or torture.”
Corporal punishment is cruel, degrading, unacceptable: UN
Human Rights Advisor at the UN Country Office Safir Syed expressed concern over the implementation of flogging, especially in the case of minors, in the Maldives.
“It is unacceptable and against international standards. It is also important to keep in mind, apart from the physical trauma, the psychological effects the punishment may cause,” Syed said.
Stating that corporal punishment, including flogging, are explicitly prohibited under international law, Syed backed his statement citing from numerous UN standards and human rights mechanisms.
“While Article 7 of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child add that ‘State Parties should ensure that no child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below 18 years of age,'” Syed quoted.
Syed noted that in July 2012 the UN Human Rights Committee had called on the Maldivian state to “abolish flogging and explicitly prohibit corporal punishment in all institutional settings.”
Similarly, in 2007 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child had expressed concern that corporal punishment is considered lawful as a sentence for crime and for disciplinary purposes, and called on the state to abolish the use of corporal punishment under such circumstances.
Syed also referred to the 2005 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, on the legality of corporal punishment under international law.
“The Special Rapporteur stated that any form of corporal punishment, be it flogging, amputation, etc, is contrary to the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The Rapporteur also said that States cannot hide behind domestic laws as justification for this violation of human rights obligations,” Syed said.
Meanwhile, an online petition by Avaaz.org calling on the Maldivian government to end the practice of flogging women and children for the crime of fornication has been signed by over a million people worldwide.
*Names changed at request