At midnight Rachael, 25, returned from a friend’s place. Glancing around to make sure she was not being followed, she climbed the stairs to her seventh-floor apartment in Male’.
When she’d first arrived from the UK several months ago to work on a government project, she had smiled and replied to the greetings thrown her way on the street. She stopped doing it when the men started following her.
Unlocking the door, she stepped inside and was closing the door, when a strange Maldivian man charged at her from a concealed alcove.
A struggle ensued, and the man forced the door open and pushed his way into the room.
“I work here,” the man said. Rachael moved behind a chair and demanded what he was doing.
Part of her apartment was leased as a workspace by the owner of the flat, but she had never seen this man before.
He approached her, claiming he was cleared to work in the building at night. Suddenly he lunged at her, pushing the chair away, and pinned her to the wall.
He started groping her. Terrified, Rachael kneed him and with all her strength managed to push him out the still open door using the office chair.
He stood outside for a while asking to be let back in.
Rachael called a friend who came around, and she moved to a hotel for the night. The next morning she called the police.
“They were wonderful, they came and took fingerprints and gave me a number to get in touch with them, in case I saw the man again,” she said.
Today Rachael shares a flat; she is terrified of living alone. She has seen her attacker once again on the street – he gave her a leery smile as he passed, which added to her insecurities.
“I have no hard feelings towards Maldivians, this was something that could have happened anywhere in the world,” says Rachael. But she is now especially wary of the vulgar words, and the way some young men on the streets of Male’ try to brush up against her – even pushing her into shop windows.
Rachael’s ordeal seems to be an extreme case and thankfully a rare one. But her expatriate friends are not impressed with the way they are harassed on the streets.
An everyday ordeal
Harassment is a daily occurance for them, and takes many forms, sexually explicit comments to remarks about their anatomy. But it is often persistent, they say, despite the fact that as working expatriates they are very concious of the way they dress.
Alice, 28, has been in the country working as a teacher for less than six months.
Once she was on the streets with a group of her students, aged between 9 to 11 years old.
“A bunch of teenage boys started saying how they’d like to f—k me,” she recalls.
Alice ignored it at first, but it continued and unable to bear it, she went up to them and asked them why they were talking like that, especially as she had children with her.
“The boys pretended they didn’t speak English, and the moment I walked away, started passing vulgar comments, even directing them towards the children” she says.
Her students told her that it was a common. Fuming she phoned the police.
“The police seemed to find it amusing until I told them that I had children with me – and wasn’t that a problem?”
The police had a chat with the boys that still remained, as some had already left by then: ”At least those boys don’t do that anymore,” she says.
Her colleagues told her these things happen and that nobody complains as “they are under age boys and police can’t do anything.”
Racheal says she knows of another foreign woman working in Male’ who was recently had a taxi driver force is way into her apartment after driving her home. He claimed to be searching her flat for alcohol.
Several other foreign women have complained of being groped by passing motorcyclists, and requests for ‘a quote’ are common, they say.
Police confirm that they “rarely get complaints of this nature.” Police spokesman Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam says last year there were few complaints.
When he filled in the role of a duty officer for a week, “ I didn’t get even one complaint,” he said, urging women to report if they are harassed.
Shiyam said depending on what the person has done, “under the public nuisance laws, we can prepare a case and send it to Prosecutor General’s office.”
The police have a separate tourist policy and he says that harassment is hardly a concern “as it’s a very rare occurrence with tourists.”
However he adds that many “tourists always walk around with a tour guide, so they are never alone,” unlike foreign women working in the country.
He reiterates that people should lodge complaints: “we will take it seriously and find the culprits involved and take action against them.”
Price of being a foreigner
Reactions from locals to the issue are mixed.
All the Maldivian women questioned said incidents were mostly confined to verbal harassment, and most said it was decreasing.
Aiminath, 18, says couple of years ago the problem was much worse – “now it’s mostly limited to rare catcalls or a passing remark.”
Leena, 26, who is fair skinned and wears a veil, says she often gets comments along the lines of “your face looks like a jambu” (a fruit).
Fazeela, a trendy 28 year-old says “nowadays sometimes people actually pass complimentary remarks, on how I have done my hair, or how I am dressed.”
But Zareena, 35, a mother of two, says the younger generation is getting worse.
“It’s mostly teenage boys who pass extremely vulgur comments like: ‘look how that thing jiggles’,” she says.
She floats the theory that physical harassment directed at local women has lessened, “as guys know that we will scream, and slap them and embarrass them if they try anything.”
The physical harassment seems to be now directed at foreign women, with the culprits mostly young teenage boys and guys in their late 20’s.
“Brushing up against us on the street, or trying to pin us up against the wall and touch us is a common occurrence,” says a friend of Alice.
Rebecca has been in Maldives for two years now, and says she is always very careful to be culturally sensitive and dress appropriately: “I cover my arms, chest and legs when I am outside.”
Despite the fact that she finds it “far too hot” to dress like that, she says she always dresses modestly “but it seems to make no difference.”
Rebecca has also lived in countries like Malaysia and suffered harassment, “but never to this extent.”
“I love this country and find Maldivians to be a very friendly and nice people,” but says what she endures on the streets is horrific.
The stares men give her on the street are neither casual nor flirtatious, Rebecca says.
”It’s more like they are looking at something pornographic, without any sense of self-awareness.”
The stare is often accompanied by some sexual comment.
“I wish I could tell these men that they should show more respect for women. Their mothers and sisters are women, would they like them to be treated this way?” Rebecca asks.
“There’s absolutely no justification for it. If they see us and assume we are morally lax, then how come we ignore them or run away from them when they try to talk to us?”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the women concerned.