I looked at the women outside the Family Court. Some women were pregnant, some were already young mothers. More women came and went, many with an expression either of frustration, desperation, depression, or anger.
Some were fighting to be divorced, some were being divorced, but most of them were fighting for the rights of their children for the maintenance money from their father.
‘Maintenance money’ sounds technical and cold. It is money that children need from their fathers for their basic needs to be met. The Maldivian divorce regulation grants a child Rf 300 (US$23) per month from the father thus turning them into a financial burden for their single parent mothers (or guardian), and a long term social burden of yet another dispensed and ignored sector of the Maldivian society.
How far are the women responsible for the situation they are in?
How educated were they and what opportunities did they forego to abide by traditional and conservative but widely accepted norms in the Maldivian society?
How influenced were they by the cultural beliefs, the religious preaching and their family politics and upbringing? How young were these women when they committed themselves to marriages that left them with one child or more and no husband or male relative to take care of them?
How well informed were they to the rights given to them by their religion?
How misled were they to believe their role was only in the family, to serve their husbands at any time and any moment?
How did they differentiate between their obligations and what they understood as “duties” to the marriage?
What are the stories of these women? Where do they stand in the Maldivian society? What do they know of their constitutional and human rights?
Hundreds of questions raced my mind but I realised how irrelevant all these questions were. The bottom line is these women were powerless and left alone with children with no financial support fighting bitterly a losing battle in a system that was rigid, unjust and refusing to acknowledge the importance of women’s welfare to the betterment of the country.
While Maldives is under pressure to mainstream gender issues, the onslaught of conservative religious preachers is confining more and more women to the four walls of their homes.
Within this isolation, women succumb to a resigned lifestyle removing them from social and professional live, stripping them of their self worth and self confidence over time. It hits hard when the husband starts an extra-marital affair and soon deserts his prime family to start another life with the new woman. In many instances, family and friends joins the deserting husband to re-instate that the man left the woman for reasons such as failing to fulfill the needs of the man, further victimising the woman. Left alone and without love and care, the blamed woman has no one to turn to, within her family or otherwise.
Islam preaches that a divorced woman returns to her father or the eldest brother. Islam, serving to protect the child also expects the Muslim man to provide generously for the child to ensure that the child maintains the highest standard of life as afforded for the father himself.
The truth is the divorced woman’s father has grown too old to care for the divorced daughter and her children; the brother has started his own family (or two families) and is struggling to make ends meet.
Islam gives the men double inheritance to carry these responsibilities. In many instances, divorced women cannot leave the home of her ex-husband because she has nowhere to go. There are many women who continue to stay in the house of the ex-husband, and the divorced couple fall into a pattern of living together without renewing the marriage. On the other hand, it is not always convenient for the man to have his divorced wife living in his house anymore.
While the law on inheritance is unfailingly respected, and men inherit generously, the Maldivian man and the Maldivian courts fail miserably in their religious responsibilities and accountability. The behavior of men and the system is highly secularised when it comes to sharing resources, rights and power with women.
Recently I met a Maldivian lady. She was the typical contemporary Maldivian woman abiding by the social norms, highly defined in her clothing. She stays home looking after three children from a husband who is not home any more. Instead of talking about herself, she spoke about her friend and neighbor. The woman (her friend) had three children and a relationship with a man who supports her financially. He is very good to her and has even built two rooms for her and her children. But he will not marry her.
Women, who are powerless and have not financial independence, slide down on the social scale. They are dependent on men who give them the support that they do not have from relatives and ex-husbands. They succumb to settling down in relationships that are compromised. Fingers point at them for being loose (prostituting) and living in sin.
Here is the difference between choice and compulsion. This situation is created by the Maldivian society. Who is responsible for this increasing issue?
Defining the powerless woman
The powerless women are those who deny their own needs of physical, spiritual and psychological development, do not seek financial independence and do not accept the responsibility of their own well-being. Their financial dependence is self construed and often subject to tribal influences. The powerless women are fearful of stepping out of their familiar disempowering environment; are emotionally dependent, fearful of the unknown; the terror of dislocation and disconnection; scared of predators; devalue themselves; behave like second class citizens; panic about responsibility for their children’s under-performance, and fear of being unable to spare their children from suffering.
Unable to escape their circumstance; insecure about their own role in her life and lastly, refusing to claim their constitutional rights and use whatever structural, institutional or regulatory tools that are available for her to fight for herself.
Powerless women weighs down the social and economical growth of Maldives. Women are poorer than men, carry family responsibilities of children’s upbringing irrespective of the circumstance, and make up half of the Maldivian population. Women head 47 percent of households either as single (when husband remarries or leaves the island to work somewhere else) or divorced parent. The social cost of the disempowered women is high leaving aside reasons of equity and social justice.
The direct consequence of domestic violence results in a crippled workforce and loss of income for both the employer and employee. Disempowered women are vulnerable to manipulation both at home, at workplace and in the society, subject to enforced sex, dependability for her basic material needs and that of her children, mentally and physically unhealthy, more disconnected and therefore less maternal and susceptible to bad parenting.
Confronting the powerlessness and becoming empowered
I glanced back at the women as I left the premises. The common factor that would empower these women was financial independence.
The Maldivian woman must stop curtailing her future when a man enters her life. Women must get informed of their religious and political rights without compromising their individuality and right to a dignified living. Women must become active either professionally or enterprisingly. Women must keep their dreams and not expect someone else to fulfill them. Women must learn to create balance between home and public life.
A financially empowered woman achieves complete independence from socially determined practices. She is able to afford healthcare, education, provide for basic needs and protect and nurture herself and her needs.
Confronting disempowerment and transforming to empowerment must happen at various levels. There is personal development which means assessing personal behaviors, beliefs and expectations, confronting pains and fears, and taking action that empowers. The want and the willingness to be empowered and not to live in the losing circumstance is with the Woman and lies in physical, economic, political and spiritual empowerment.
Who can support women’s empowerment?
Women as mothers and nurturers of the family play a fundamental role in determining the future of their children. Today children grow up in gender defined roles. Mothers must define what they want for their daughters. Influencing and empowering both boys and girls and streamline their thinking to grow up into powerful people, where respect, fairness, sharing responsibility, being accountable and financially independent lies with Mothers who spend most of their time with her children. This is a first step.
Restrictive activities such as motions against women’s participation in various spheres must be stopped. Active inclusion of women through quotas set within a period till women’s participation becomes accepted must be introduced. The political and the diplomatic institutions must assign positions and work to women like they assign it to men. Political parties must stop paying lip service and decorating their windows with women’s chapters. Women in the parties have expressed that although they put selected women for the front-lines of the local council elections, they were not supported like their male counterparts. Many expressed disappointment at the way women in politics were labeled when they ran for office as compared to men who had lifelong records of misconduct.
Compliance laws on polygamy, divorces, child care and alimony, inheritance (including full representation of underage girls and orphan children), compensation and so forth must be covered with civil laws to ensure women are protected and fairly compensated in proportion to what the husband has been able to accumulate in wealth and earning during the marriage.
Women must be educated about “Rung” (customary price money before the marriage), its definition, purpose and the options including what a woman can ask for and under what conditions it must be paid/returned by the man or the woman. Withholding information is a deliberate act of abuse by the state and religious authorities, and women have been misinformed for decades.
Finally it comes down to women to take the leap. The first step lies with women to break through their own glass ceilings. The encouraging factor is some women have done it and so can all others if they will stop the self-fulfilling prophecy of “I can’t make it”.
The perspectives are good and women must capitalise on the opportunities. Each Ministry has a gender focal point. Making them answerable in their roles is something women must do. If you do not want to stay outside the Family Court, begging for child maintenance through a male dominant justice system, live off men, succumb to enforced sex and domestic violence, provide for your children and be healthy mentally and physically, then be truthful to yourself and start earning your own money.
Through individual commitment and participation in formalised groups, women must lobby for changes not compromising the essence of being the woman.
Aminath Arif is the founder of SALAAM School.
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