Comment: Changing cheerleaders into leaders

Less than 48 hours is left before the ballot boxes open. On Saturday (September 7), the Maldives will choose its next president. The personalities and policies of four presidential hopefuls may differ from each other, but all do share one thing in common – they are all men.

And where are the women? They are standing behind their men.

Though no woman has a spot in the presidential race – dominated by four male candidates and their running mates – women have undoubtedly become an inextricable part of the elections.

As campaigning intensified over the past months, women and girls have been busy sewing more flags than they can count, cooking massive pots of Bondibaiy (sweetened rice) and spicy fish to quench the hunger brought on by mass rallies, and walking day and night to knock every door in order to win votes for their candidates.

Women are  also seen taking the front line at every political demonstration or march around the island – donning blazing yellow burqas, glittering pink t-shirts, or bright red blouses – colours synonymous with their candidate’s parties. Without the female presence, political events would have neither the same magnitude nor diversity as currently seen.

Participation of women of all ages is a highlight of this, the second ever multiparty presidential elections to be hosted in the country.

Out of all the major political parties contesting in this year’s elections, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) stands out in particular for the scores of women that are participating in party’s events.

“Women have become a very important part of our campaign. Women are mostly involved in door to door campaigning – talking to the people, collecting crucial information we need for policy making and campaigning.” says Aminath Shauna, leader of MDP’s youth wing. “Most of the patch agents and campaign team is largely women.”

The MDP is contesting to regain power, following the controversial end to its three year old government after the resignation of former President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7 last year. The party vehemently contends that Nasheed was forced to resign in a coup.

In the wake of Nasheed’s resignation, massive protests led by his supporters against the new regime were suppressed using force and dozens were severely injured in the process – many of them women and girls.

A peaceful sit down demonstration by MDP female supporters outside the President’s Office was dispersed with water canons, while several women were beaten on the southern atoll of Addu – where women took the streets to protest against what they call a “coup government”.

Woman injured during a police crackdown of pro-Nasheed protests in Addu

But, since February 7, female supporters of Nasheed have braved their way against pepper spray, batons and water cannons and continued to take lead in an army of yellow supporters, determined to fight till end to bring Nasheed back to power.

Shauna believes that this unwavering support by women is a result of policies adopted by the MDP’s short-lived government which mostly “benefited women”.

“If you look into the social protection program over 100,000 people directly benefited from it. It was largely spent on elderly, single parents who are mostly women. Also programs such as Hunaru [vocational education] and Second Chance program [rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates] largely accepted by women because, although women do not bring income to the family, its women who make household decisions and look after the elderly parents, take them to hospital and look after the children. So the person who really understood and felt the benefits of these programs were women,” Shauna observed.

During the campaigns, two out of four presidential candidates have  announced women specific policies; including daycare centres, flexible working hours, online jobs and reserved seats, among other things.

Though MDP claims to hold the policies benefiting women, the party is one of the two that has not prioritised a policy towards achieving gender equality and improving women’s rights- one the  few remanining development goals the country has so far failed to achieve due to widespread violence against women and  low representation of women in political and economic life.

Second is Jumhoory Party’s Gasim Ibrahim. The party speaks of introducing a pregnancy allowance and ensure gynaecology services on every islands as policy on women. For a party backed by Islamist party Adhaalath which believes in strict enforcement of Sharia and patriarchal dominance within public and domestic spheres, having no progressive policies on women is unsurprising.

But why does MDP, a party which asserts to be an alternative to the rest, holding egalitarian and moderate views does not have a policy specifically aimed at women? The party has never been recognised for its suitable policies for women. In fact, MDP’s record of gender policies during its short-lived three year term does not score well either.

Take the issue of domestic abuse and gender-based violence in the country. With every one in three woman estimated to be a victim of physical or sexual abuse, it is one of the biggest challenge women face across all islands. However, Nasheed’s government and its parliamentary group failed to step up in bringing any necessary legal reforms while its rivals were instrumental in drafting, promoting and passing domestic violence and child abuse legislations.

Unemployment among women is double that of males, however, no day care centres, flexible working hours or economic policies specifically targeted to reducing female unemployment were introduced. Research suggests reasons behind female and male unemployment differs with young women finding more difficult to find work due to early marriage, household responsibilities, societal attitude.

Maldives holds the record of one of the highest divorce rates in the world with almost every one in two marriages falling apart. This often leaves women struggling to raise children under extreme financial hardship. The single parent allowance, despite the temporary relief it brings, is merely a band-aid solution for these families. Economic emancipation remains unachieved.

Meanwhile, women also continued to remain as a minority at state decision making level under Nasheed’s era. Any point in time, Nasheed’s cabinet were dominated by men and his female appointees made up less than a quarter of all political positions.

His party followed same track, or even worse.

Currently, women hold 5 seats in 77 member parliament and only 57 out of 1091 local councils.

MDP secured full seats in the city councils of Addu and Male’ – two of the most populated areas – but none of them were sadly women. The party did not take any public initiative in encouraging female candidates to these elected posts. They simply embarked on making laws, building cities and running the state without an equal say of women who make up half of the country.

But perhaps, this elections is a harbinger for change.

This week, Nasheed sat down with women to listen to their woes. He promised that his economic and social policies are targeted, though not directly, towards addressing the most serious problems women face. Including housing, jobs, education and healthcare.

However, he stopped short of promising women an equal representation in his government or party.

Several women are throwing their support behind Nasheed because they also believe in the values of equality and justice he preaches. Perhaps, it needs to be put into practice a little better.

A good place to start would be within the party itself.

Mariyam Zulfa, who served as Tourism Minister during last months of Nasheed’s rule recently gave a subtle warning to MDP’s main rival, Abdulla Yameen of PPM.

“Yameen please don’t have your eye on 2018, thats gonna be a year for women, we have waited patiently enough, like Hillary Clinton,” she posted on Facebook.

This status echoes an important message – MDP women are ready  to climb to the top rung of the political ladder.

But, amid an environment of highly competitive and machiavellian men jostling for power, women often find themselves at crossroads. Whether to challenge the male dominance and risk losing or just be happy with the little voice she has. Choosing the latter also makes it easier to juggle the personal life often sacrificed by women pursuing a career.

MDP Youth Wing leader Shauna at an anti-coup protest

Shauna is one the few young women who has bravely made it to the top tier of MDP, and she shared the challenges women face on the field.

“One of the reasons why we do not see women in elected posts is because women do not have access to campaign finance. We do not see many women in government senior posts because simply there is not policy that promotes it – working hours are not flexible for women with families, senior posts mean a lot of time and commitment. Working environment and hours do not give this women any flexibility. Harassment exists at all levels in the Maldives and there must be an end to that for more women to take up senior posts.” she explained.

These are problems can be resolved by changing  MDP’s current gender mainstreaming policies to a more direct women empowerment strategies such us quotas for women, setting up a budget for funding female candidates, running political leadership training programs. When more women take part in decision making, the diversity of opinions and ideas leads to better results in developing the country.

MDP also has continued to voice against rising extremism and the resulting backlash in women’s role in public life.

“There is also a movement towards conservative Islam that is a threat for women in politics and social sphere.” Shauna observes. “If there is no counter movement to conservative views of Islam, I do not think we can have a female president anytime soon.”

There is no better way in countering extremism than encouraging those subjugated by it to be free and exercise their power. Several women have already put their faith and support behind the party. It is time for Nasheed and his party to return the favour and let women have the equal space they deserves.

Should MDP hesitate, it is bound to create rifts through its existing female support base. But for now, women cheering for Nasheed seems to have his back.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected].


Comment: Real democracy is when barriers to women’s participation come down

If democracy is to function, barriers to women’s participation have to come down. If the citizens of Maldives are to improve their lives, women voices need to be heard at the political level and the obstructions removed.

Any politician or citizen of good will in the country who wants democracy will need to be honest and understand this aspect, and promote it willingly and without any reservations.

When women who have worked their way up the career ladder are able to be in the front line of the country’s development, can take ownership and are acknowledged for their achievement by political leaders and considered an asset, then it is an indication of a democratic government.

The barrier to this opportunity has not come down in the Maldives. Presently women in the front line are players selected to those positions by the government’s political agenda.

On the broader horizon, the change starts with women. Women need to see that they can do something about improving the quality of their lives, and those of their families and communities, by reaching for political leadership or becoming involved in political and civil activities. Women need to have the will to share and enjoy the privileges and the benefits of a democratic constitution.

How do women think?

The outcome of a woman’s thought is influenced by the role she plays in life. Women’s leadership may not bring all the solutions but then neither does men’s leadership. What makes the difference is the process of decision making and the outcomes when women voice their issues and express what they see as significant to a better environment for living. That is an important difference and must be taken seriously for good governance.

The difference can also be seen as the gender difference. The difference in thinking may be defined in this manner because the woman may have been a mother, or have cared for elderly people, or have experienced marginalisation or exposure to various forms of abuse, etc.

How could a viable political environment be formed without the views, advocacy and judgments that include women’s perspective? Women’s perspective in the Maldives especially is important as it presents grass root advocacy.

Beyond traditional spheres

Being politically active means to reach out to leadership positions and taking a stand for the values of democracy. It means moving into positions that are critical to attain social justice, raising public awareness and accessing visible positions of authority. It means venturing beyond traditional sphere of home and family. It means promoting fairness and no allowance for partiality.

Political engagement does not necessarily mean having a political career, campaigning, and getting into the parliament or the government’s leading positions. You can work up to leadership on the job so that you can implement fair and equal working conditions in your own work environment, you can be socially responsible, you can support people’s development and high-quality resources management.

If you choose to move onto the benches or go into law, you go beyond simply taking voting as your only civic engagement and civic participation, but pursue civil rights for the people and are in a position to advocate for and against implementation of legislative initiatives.

Your political activity may take the form of collective action, by forming associations to reach out to larger groups and transform your society. You would create a common vision, define common goals, invite people with similar aspirations and reinforce each other thus linking individual empowerment to group empowerment.

Moving beyond traditional spheres means change. Today people identify change with empowerment.

Empowerment can be defined as claiming the right by an individual to choose freely and control their own lives. Broadly defined it is the woman’s right to her own body and sexuality including protection against any form of violence, the right to her own income and equal opportunity to earning, power over her resources and fair inheritance, her rights to justice and position in a legal system (including impartiality in the Constitution).

The organisation and political aspects are self-help groups and collective action to bring change. Fundamental to change is the access to information and know-how.

Although this article focuses strongly on women, the content is applicable to men and can help them to become aware of their own disadvantageous position. Without this awareness, neither men nor women can seek empowerment. Empowerment means more than an adequate comfortable adjustment. On a personal level and the community level, it is redistribution of power that does justice to the opportunities and members of the society, does not compromise freedom and does not take happen at the expense of others.

Aminath Arif is the founder of SALAAM School.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Extremism impacting Maldivian women: Inter Press report

Authorities in the Maldives view women’s issues as a core human rights problem and are keen to tackle them head on, but cultural and religious issues often stand in the way, according to an Inter Press Service report by Feizal Samath.

‘No doubt the government of President Mohamed Nasheed recognises many problems and is willing to tackle them, but there’s limited ability to do so because of deep-rooted cultural and religious issues,’ according to a Maldivian journalist, who declined to be named.

Member of parliament Eva Abdulla, who belongs to Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) — which won power in May 2009, thus ending the 30- year-old reign of dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — said the government firmly believes in affirmative action policies benefiting women.

‘The President has called for gender mainstreaming in both formulating and implementing government policies,’ she said. She stressed, however, that lack of staff and resources are undermining Nasheed’s good intentions.

Particularly worrying, she said, is the growing religious extremism in the Maldives and its impact on the lives of Maldivian women, who comprise around 48 percent of the country’s population of around 340,000.

‘Religion is all too often used as an excuse to limit women,’ she added.

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Comment: Rehendhi a Minivan News plot to promote “national sissyness” and “lesbian relations”

English translation of a statement published yesterday on the website of the religiously conservative Adhaalath Party.

Signs of actions are now being seen from Minivan News that it has started a special campaign against the (Religious Lesson) ‘The Call 2010’, which [Islamic NGO] Jamiyyathul Salaf is preparing to host this month.

We have been informed that Minivan News, which even from its onset has been involved in openly protesting against such religious activities and trying to instill doubt in ordinary people, is a website led by President Nasheed’s (younger) brother Nazim Abdul Sattar. Even before, on various different occasions, the (Minivan News) website has been openly insulting Islamic slogans, and many people who love Islam have already called to have the website banned.

Jamiyyathul Salaf is organising ‘The Call’ 2010 which is to be held in the first week of June. ‘The Call’s’ first lecture was held in 2009. Based on the Special Lectures by Dr. Bilal Philips, ‘The Call 2009’ paved way for, especially, many religion-loving youth to get wide-ranging religious information.

‘The Call’ 2009 was so successfully conducted due to the generosity of many religion-loving people. Sponsorship is now open for ‘The Call’ 2010. Thereby, many religion-loving Maldivian businessmen, from among the Maldivian businessmen, are now contributing generously.

We have noticed that Minivan News has kick-started a special campaign to prevent such donations (to The Call 2010). Under this campaign the first among those targeted are the leading businessmen of Maldives.

A petition letter has been prepared and posted on Minivan News website calling for Sonee Sports not to give any aid to The Call 2010.

Although Minivan News writes that Rehendhi is an underground feminist movement, this latest campaign started by Minivan News is similar to the former such campaigns conducted by Minivan News.

We have been informed that the Rehendhi association was borne out of the Minivan News [team] in order to promote national ‘sissy-ness’ and in order to call for lesbian relations among women.

When Sheikh Fareed this year gave a religious lecture about Valentine’s Day, female underwear with words written that could offend Islam were sent to Sheikh Fareed, in order to harass and insult his lecture.

Before sending these items to Sheikh Fareed, photos were taken of these panties which were then published on Minivan News. And various articles have been written on [the Minivan News] website regarding this.

No doubt you will not lose anything by spending on such events that disseminate true information and enlightenment about Islam. Enormous blessings are promised for those who spend on the promotion of Allah’s religion.

We call upon Maldivian businessmen not to give in to the threats posed by Islam’s Enemies and the Devil. Surely, the Devil will spread in people’s hearts fear of becoming poor. The Giver is Allah.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected].


Feminist group launches letter writing campaign against sponsors of Dr Bilal Philips event

The Maldives’ self-styled ‘underground feminist movement’ Rehendhi has announced joint letter writing campaign with the ‘Enough is Enough’ group in protest against Sonee Company’s intention to sponsor an upcoming lecture by Islamic speaker Dr Bilal Philips.

The event, titled ‘The Call’, is being held in early June by Islamic NGO Jamiyyathul Salaf.

Rehendhi issued a press statement today condemning Dr Philips’ preaching at last years’ Call, accusing him of “preaching that it is Islamic to marry off young girls as soon as they reached puberty, irrespective of their age.

“We refuse to tolerate this misogynistic, regressive and repressive interpretation of Islam, especially in a public lecture,” Rehendhi claimed.

“The Ministry of Health and Family, UNICEF, Doctors Association, Child Protections Unit at the Maldives Police Services, Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Education and almost all the NGOs working on child rights in the Maldives remained silent, reluctant to be labeled as un-Islamic.”

Such interpretations of Islam conflicted with “numerous international treaties protecting the girl child” that the Maldives has signed, Rehendhi claimed, “including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflic, and Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.”

Rehendhi also criticised “the insensitivity of the judges to the rights of the girl child”, claiming that “deficient coordination for the implementation and monitoring of the conventions and laws within the government leave the most vulnerable children in our society exposed to child sexual abuse, sometimes under the legal guise of the so called ‘Islamic marriages’.”

“In an environment where sexualized violence towards children and minors is rampant, irresponsible preaching results in both intended and unintended repercussions that affect our young population,” the group claimed, calling on Maldivian society to “stand up and implement the laws and conventions”.

State Minister for Islamic Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed said the Ministry had received no information that Dr Bilal Philips’ preaching including the abuse of children’s rights, and “guaranteed” that the Islamic Ministry “would not let such acts happen in the Maldives.”

”We are confident that after our new Religious Unity regulations are implemented, it will be easier for us to take action against anyone who [preaches] this,” said Shaheem said.

Salaf said it did not wish to comment on the matter.

Rehendhi has previously protested “against misogyny in Maldivian society” by claiming to have sent undergarments to conservative Maldivian Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed on Valentine’s Day.

Correction: The protest is a joint campaign by the groups Rehendhi and ‘Enough is Enough’, not just Rehendhi as previously stated. Furthermore, Rehendhi only sent underwear to Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed, coinciding with a public lecture, not “conservative Maldivian Sheikhs” as originally stated.