Nearly two-thirds of Maldivians support a moratorium on flogging, according to the results of a survey conducted by Asia Research Partners and social activism website Avaaz.org.
The survey, the first of its kind to be conducted in the Maldives, found an “overwhelming” 92 percent of Maldivians believe that laws and systems to protect women from sexual assault should be reformed.
Of those polled, 62 percent supported an outright moratorium on the practice of flogging, while 73 percent declared existing punishments for sexual crimes were unfair to women.
Moreover, only one in five of those surveyed said current systems and laws were “adequate or fair”, according to a statement issued by Avaaz.
“While honeymooners relax in paradise, a war against women is being waged in the Maldives which the government is refusing to stop. Over two million people from around the world want them to act and now 92 percent of Maldivians want laws against rape and sexual abuse. President Waheed can easily pass a law banning flogging but refuses to act to end this medieval practice,” said Avaaz Campaign Director, Alice Jay.
“The poll flies in the face of the country’s parliamentarians who have claimed it would be “political suicide” to outlaw flogging and have done nothing to stop the practice, but instead given in to hard-line Islamist calls for harsher Sharia punishments.”
The survey was conducted across Male’ and Hithadhoo in Seenu Atoll in May 2013 by Asia Research Partners, both over the phone and through face-to-face interviews. All respondents were aged over 18 years.
‘Horror in paradise’ petition
The survey comes months after a case in which a 15 year-old rape victim was sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months’ house arrest for a separate offence of fornication garnered substantial international attention and condemnation.
The 15 year-old’s case attracted worldwide media attention and was widely condemned by international organisations and other nation states. Media condemnation was particularly strong in the UK and Germany, two of the Maldives’ most significant tourism markets.
In March, an Avaaz petition calling for the repeal of the sentence and a moratorium on flogging in the Maldives collected more than two million signatures – a figure more than double the number of tourists who visit the country annually.
“Since the campaign launched four months ago, Avaaz has been in discussions with the Maldivian government officials who have so far refused to take action on this issue,” the organisation said in a statement.
“Despite promises from the Gender Ministry, the President’s Office, the Attorney General’s office and the Foreign Ministry, this 15-year old child still faces the flogging sentence and far from ending this practice, some Maldivian political parties are calling for even harsher punishments.
“As a result of their failure to act, Avaaz is now planning to run hard hitting targeted adverts urging President Waheed and several parliamentarians who own some of the major Maldivian resorts, to act,” the organisation declared.
After the sentencing initially made international headlines, President Mohamed Waheed issued a statement expressing “deep concern” over the verdict and pledging an appeal.
At the same time his coalition partner, the Adhaalath Party, warned that “Allah has decreed that expressing disapproval of issues such as this contradicts with faith in Islam”, and cautioned that “If such sinful activities are to become this common, the society will break down and we may become deserving of divine wrath.”
Then-Attorney General Azima Shukoor – now Minister for Human Rights, Gender and Family – subsequently lodged an appeal of the decision in the High Court arguing that the girl’s confession to the fornication offence had been taken in violation of established procedure.
The first hearing was held on April 29 behind closed doors, with no apparent movement in the case since.
Avaaz meanwhile moved to pressure the government into entertaining a moratorium on the practice of flogging.
The most recent Avaaz statement cited UK-based religious scholar Sheikh Dr Usama Hasan, who said “Sharia is not a fixed set of laws that can never be changed. Modern penal codes are thus fully Islamic if they share the values of justice and compassion, even if they do not include amputations, floggings or stonings to death. The latter punishments should be seen as ancient cultural practices, not essentially Islamic.”
The government’s position has meanwhile wavered between broad support for a moratorium and legal reforms to suspicion over the motivations of the Avaaz campaign and allegations of politicisation.
President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad was not responding to calls at time of press, but has previously noted that the Maldives had for over 50 years turned away from practicing Sharia punishments such as stoning, amputation and the death penalty, and suggested similar space for a debate on flogging.
However he cautioned that all authorities involved in proposed legal reforms would have to tread “a very fine line” in order to tackle long standing “traditions” and beliefs in the country.
At the same time, recently dismissed Deputy Tourism Minister Dr Maleeh Jamal has called for “negative news to be minimised”, emphasising that “People should not be doing anything to damage the industry. In Switzerland, you would not see a campaign designed to damage Swiss chocolate.”
A parliament committee currently reviewing the new penal code has meanwhile come under pressure from conservative religious elements, including the Adhaalath Party, to ensure Hadd punishments were included in the code – including flogging and amputation.
Speaking recently to Minivan News, one member of the committee said he feared not including such punishments would lead to backlash from conservative groups and amount to “political suicide”.
“We want to remove it as well. But, our hands are tied. Only public pressure can stop it,” he said.
Almost 90 percent of the people found guilty of “Zina” – fornication – and sentenced to flogging in 2011 were female, according to statistics from the Department of Judicial Administration.
A total of 129 fornication cases were filed in 2011 and 104 people sentenced, out of which 93 were female.
These included 10 underage girls (below 18), 79 women aged 18-40, and four women aged above 40 years.
Gender Ministry statistics meanwhile show 1 in 3 Maldivian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have suffered either physical or sexual abuse over the past five years. At the same time, there has not been a single conviction for rape in the last three years.
Read about the practice of flogging in the Maldives