Tourism boycott would be “setback for economic rights of women” says President, as Avaaz petition reaches two million

President Dr Mohamed Waheed has issued a statement warning that calls for a boycott on tourism over the flogging sentence for a 15 year-old rape victim “will only serve as a setback to the economic opportunities and rights we are all striving to uphold for women, girls and the hardworking Maldivian people in general.”

The President’s statement comes as an petition calling for a moratorium on flogging and better laws to protect women and girls in the Maldives reached more than two million signatures – more than twice the number of tourists who visit the country each year.

In a letter published on Minivan News on Saturday, Executive Director Ricken Patel insisted that the organisation had not called for a outright tourism boycott.

“What we do stand ready to do, however, is to inform tourists about what action is and isn’t being taken by the Maldives government to resolve this issue and change the law, and to identify those MPs and resort owners who are using their influence to push for positive change – and those who are not,” Patel said.

“Around the world people are interested (and have a right to know) what kind of systems they’re supporting with their tourism dollars, and to make their holiday decisions accordingly,” he added.

President Waheed meanwhile thanked the international community “for their concern” in the case, noting that Attorney General Azima Shukoor had met the girl “and she is receiving the appropriate physical and psychological counseling.”

“This case should never have been presented in the courts and we are working to ensure that cases like this are never brought to the courts again,” President Waheed said.

“We appreciate the international compassion for this young woman and ask for your patience as this case moves through the judicial system. As both the President and as a father, I am fully committed to protecting and advancing the rights of women and girls in the Maldives and throughout the world and share your deep concern about this young victim,” he said.

“The Maldives is a young democracy working to balance our religious faith with our new democratic values. I ask that you support us and join us as partners as we work through this challenge.”

President Waheed’s Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP) has meanwhile declared itself in coalition with the religious conservative Adhaalath Party (AP), which has publicly endorsed the 15 year-old’s flogging sentence, stating that she “deserves the punishment” as outlined under Islamic Sharia.

The Adhaalath party, members of which largely dominate the Maldives’ Ministry of Islamic Affairs, stated that the sentence of flogging had not been passed against the minor for being sexually abused by her stepfather, but rather for the consensual sex which she had confessed to having to authorities.

“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,” read a recent statement from the party.

“If such sinful activities are to become this common, the society will break down and we may become deserving of divine wrath,” the Adhaalath Party stated.

A previous call for a moratorium on the flogging of women for the crime of extramarital sex was raised by UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay during an address to parliament in 2011.

Following her address, demonstrators gathered outside the UN building holding placards calling for Pillay to be “arrested”, “flogged” and “slain”.

Pillay’s statement was publicly condemned by the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), Islamic Ministry, MPs and religious NGOs, while the Adhaalath Party called on then President Mohamed Nasheed to condemn Pillay’s statements “at least to show to the people that there is no irreligious agenda of President Nasheed and senior government officials behind this.”

“What’s there to discuss about flogging? There is nothing to debate about in a matter clearly stated in the religion of Islam. No one can argue with God,” said Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem at the time.

More recently, a  report on extremism in the Maldives published in US West Point military academy’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) Sentinel has warned that growing religious extremism and political uncertainty in the country risk negatively affecting the country’s tourism industry.

“Despite its reputation as an idyllic paradise popular among Western tourists, political and religious developments in the Maldives should be monitored closely,” the report concluded.