Walking down a crowded street two weeks ago in the Maldives capital of Male’, Lisa*, 25, had one of the most horrific experiences of her life.
Teased, touched and assaulted by two young men on the street, the Australian foreign worker was left deeply upset and stunned over the harassment that occurred in broad daylight.
“I was walking near the swim track when these two boys in their 20s came behind me and grabbed my ass. I screamed and they walked away. I kept walking forward and then suddenly saw the two boys approaching me again. I was really scared because I did not know what they were going to do next,” Lisa recalled.
“They came back, surrounded me and started to pass comments at me. They touched me inappropriately, grabbed me and one of them slapped me,” she continued. It lasted for about 20 seconds I think. I took my phone and warned them I was calling the police. Then they grabbed me once more and just ran off.”
She had travelled from Australia to work in the Maldives just a few months before the incident, and had not expected to face harassment or attack, she said.
In the last few weeks foreign women from diverse nationalities working in Maldives have come forward and told Minivan News about various attacks, ranging from verbal abuse to physical and sometimes sexual assaults.
Clarice*, a 23-year-old French woman, was teased and stalked on the street while she was walking home on March 1.
“I was walking past the artificial beach around 12:30pm in the afternoon. A group of four local boys, maybe in their 20s, started following me. They passed comments like ‘you are my angel’ and one of them grabbed my arm and said ‘oh your skin is so beautiful’. I really did not understand what they wanted and I was really scared because they kept following me,” Clarice explained.
“Because they were following me I went back to the office, instead of going home. I live alone so I was did not want them to find out where I live,” she added.
Clarice decided not to inform police because it was mostly verbal abuse, she said.
Unsafe at home
Meanwhile, several other women interviewed exclaimed that the “threats have extended from streets to homes”.
Katie*, a 34-year old American who has worked in Male’ for almost a year, said she thought she had figured out the Maldives, its culture and its people. Respecting the Muslim background, she said she was sensitive to societal rules, dressed modestly and until recently, thought of Maldives as a safe place.
What changed her impression was a horrific incident last month which a local man sexually assaulted her while she she was unlocking the door of her apartment.
“It was early morning around 4:00am. I was unlocking the door to my house when I felt someone grab my neck from behind. At first I thought it was my friends who had left just seconds ago. But the grip was very firm so I turned around and saw a man wearing white shirt and pants. I screamed at the top of my voice,” Katie recalled.
“He grabbed my breasts, ripped the t-shirt I was wearing. I tried to hit him with my hands, screamed and tried to escape. At that time the door was unlocked and he had pushed me inside. I managed to hit his groin with my feet. That’s when he let go of me and ran out. I tried to follow him but he fled on a motorbike too quickly,” she said. “I was so distraught, I could not even call the police.”
Neighbors who heard her screams called the police. Around five to six officers arrived on the scene with a forensic team.
Disappointed with police
However, according to Katie, the police did not take her statement until three weeks later and then got the details of the attack completely wrong.
“The police had stated my necklace was stolen. It broke off during the attack, I still have it. The attacker must have known the necklace I was wearing was not gold because it was made of multi-colored beads,” Katie pointed out.
She added that she had later found out from CCTV camera owners nearby her house that the police had not requested the footage or interviewed neighbors for clues. Frustrated over the lack of police assistance, she called the US embassy. “I don’t think they would have even taken the statement if the American Embassy had not called them,” Katie claimed.
Lucy, a 36 Irish woman, also talked to Minivan New about an attack, and a disappointing experience with the police, following a robbery and sexual assault she encountered last year.
She was attacked while walking up the flat’s staircase with two other female friends around midnight.
“The apartment was on the sixth floor and I was walking upstairs to my friends apartment. They were couple of steps ahead of me and I was walking up when, suddenly, a man came behind me and grabbed my breasts and tried to pull my clothes,” Lucy recollected.
“I go to the gym and I lift weights. But I couldn’t get him off. He was quite a large and it seemed he was under the influence of something. I hit him with my bag several times. He did not attempt to grab it and run. I think his intention was to pull off my clothes. By then my friends had heard the screams and came running downstairs. That’s when he released me and ran off,” she added.
Lucy however noted that the attack had not affected her as much as when she was robbed just weeks before the attack, and found the robbery to be the “worst ordeal”.
“My laptops and phone was stolen from my apartment. That was the worst ordeal because somebody broke into my room while I was sleeping,” she observed.
Thanks to her strong personality, Lucy said she managed to get over both attacks and visit Maldives again this year. However, she echoed others’ grievances over the lack of support from police.
“When police came to the flat the only response I got from them was ‘this never happens’. They did not take my statement or follow up on me. I don’t think the case was investigated,” she claimed.
Lisa, who earlier spoke to Minivan News, also complained over the lack of police professionalism after she reported the harassment on the street and added that it seemed “police did not the case seriously”.
Police Spokesperson Sub-inspector Hassan Haneef responded that police investigate all the complaints and officers who investigate foreigners cases are skilled and capable in communicating in English: “But we do face difficulties in communicating with Bangladeshi expatriates,” he said.
He noted that it was difficult to state whether harassment of foreign women was on the rise, but confirmed that such cases had been reported.
Haneef also urged women to report such attacks, assuring that complete investigations would be conducted.
Lisa, Clarice, Katie and Lucy say they are awaiting justice and for a day they can walk the streets without being teased, touched or assaulted. A day when they don’t have to be extra cautious on streets, scan around for possible stalkers or triple check their locks.
In the meantime all they ask from the local community is “not to assume we provoked the attacks and step in to help a woman being harassed”.