Two-thirds of Maldivians back moratorium on flogging: survey

Nearly two-thirds of Maldivians support a moratorium on flogging, according to the results of a survey conducted by Asia Research Partners and social activism website

The survey, the first of its kind to be conducted in the Maldives, found an “overwhelming” 92 percent of Maldivians believe that laws and systems to protect women from sexual assault should be reformed.

Of those polled, 62 percent supported an outright moratorium on the practice of flogging, while 73 percent declared existing punishments for sexual crimes were unfair to women.

Moreover, only one in five of those surveyed said current systems and laws were “adequate or fair”, according to a statement issued by Avaaz.

“While honeymooners relax in paradise, a war against women is being waged in the Maldives which the government is refusing to stop. Over two million people from around the world want them to act and now 92 percent of Maldivians want laws against rape and sexual abuse. President Waheed can easily pass a law banning flogging but refuses to act to end this medieval practice,” said Avaaz Campaign Director, Alice Jay.

“The poll flies in the face of the country’s parliamentarians who have claimed it would be “political suicide” to outlaw flogging and have done nothing to stop the practice, but instead given in to hard-line Islamist calls for harsher Sharia punishments.”

The survey was conducted across Male’ and Hithadhoo in Seenu Atoll in May 2013 by Asia Research Partners, both over the phone and through face-to-face interviews. All respondents were aged over 18 years.

‘Horror in paradise’ petition

The survey comes months after a case in which a 15 year-old rape victim was sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months’ house arrest for a separate offence of fornication garnered substantial international attention and condemnation.

The 15 year-old’s case attracted worldwide media attention and was widely condemned by international organisations and other nation states. Media condemnation was particularly strong in the UK and Germany, two of the Maldives’ most significant tourism markets.

In March, an Avaaz petition calling for the repeal of the sentence and a moratorium on flogging in the Maldives collected more than two million signatures – a figure more than double the number of tourists who visit the country annually.

“Since the campaign launched four months ago, Avaaz has been in discussions with the Maldivian government officials who have so far refused to take action on this issue,” the organisation said in a statement.

“Despite promises from the Gender Ministry, the President’s Office, the Attorney General’s office and the Foreign Ministry, this 15-year old child still faces the flogging sentence and far from ending this practice, some Maldivian political parties are calling for even harsher punishments.

“As a result of their failure to act, Avaaz is now planning to run hard hitting targeted adverts urging President Waheed and several parliamentarians who own some of the major Maldivian resorts, to act,” the organisation declared.


After the sentencing initially made international headlines, President Mohamed Waheed issued a statement expressing “deep concern” over the verdict and pledging an appeal.

At the same time his coalition partner, the Adhaalath Party, warned that “Allah has decreed that expressing disapproval of issues such as this contradicts with faith in Islam”, and cautioned that “If such sinful activities are to become this common, the society will break down and we may become deserving of divine wrath.”

Then-Attorney General Azima Shukoor – now Minister for Human Rights, Gender and Family – subsequently lodged an appeal of the decision in the High Court arguing that the girl’s confession to the fornication offence had been taken in violation of established procedure.

The first hearing was held on April 29 behind closed doors, with no apparent movement in the case since.

Avaaz meanwhile moved to pressure the government into entertaining a moratorium on the practice of flogging.

The most recent Avaaz statement cited UK-based religious scholar Sheikh Dr Usama Hasan, who said “Sharia is not a fixed set of laws that can never be changed. Modern penal codes are thus fully Islamic if they share the values of justice and compassion, even if they do not include amputations, floggings or stonings to death. The latter punishments should be seen as ancient cultural practices, not essentially Islamic.”

The government’s position has meanwhile wavered between broad support for a moratorium and legal reforms to suspicion over the motivations of the Avaaz campaign and allegations of politicisation.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad was not responding to calls at time of press, but has previously noted that the Maldives had for over 50 years turned away from practicing Sharia punishments such as stoning, amputation and the death penalty, and suggested similar space for a debate on flogging.

However he cautioned that all authorities involved in proposed legal reforms would have to tread “a very fine line” in order to tackle long standing “traditions” and beliefs in the country.

At the same time, recently dismissed Deputy Tourism Minister Dr Maleeh Jamal has called for “negative news to be minimised”, emphasising that “People should not be doing anything to damage the industry. In Switzerland, you would not see a campaign designed to damage Swiss chocolate.”

A parliament committee currently reviewing the new penal code has meanwhile come under pressure from conservative religious elements, including the Adhaalath Party, to ensure Hadd punishments were included in the code – including flogging and amputation.

Speaking recently to Minivan News, one member of the committee said he feared not including such punishments would lead to backlash from conservative groups and amount to “political suicide”.

“We want to remove it as well. But, our hands are tied. Only public pressure can stop it,” he said.

Flogging stats

Almost 90 percent of the people found guilty of “Zina” – fornication – and sentenced to flogging in 2011 were female, according to statistics from the Department of Judicial Administration.

A total of 129 fornication cases were filed in 2011 and 104 people sentenced, out of which 93 were female.

These included 10 underage girls (below 18), 79 women aged 18-40, and four women aged above 40 years.

Gender Ministry statistics meanwhile show 1 in 3 Maldivian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have suffered either physical or sexual abuse over the past five years. At the same time, there has not been a single conviction for rape in the last three years.

Read about the practice of flogging in the Maldives


Comment: Speak now, or forever hold your tongues

The Maldivian government’s reaction to the fallout from the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s address to the Majlis is deeply disappointing. It largely confirms what many increasingly allege: the change President Nasheed and MDP promised was limited to regime change and does not include a genuine commitment to democratic reform.

Navi Pillay called on Maldivians to consider putting a moratorium on the practice of flogging. She did not say Maldivians who believe in Islam should abandon their faith. She pointed out that the Maldivian State is one of the few among followers of Islam that still engages in the practice of flogging, imposed disproportionately on women.

Her fundamental proposition was: why not be as compassionate as your faith allows instead of being as cruel as it gives you room to be? Her suggestion was that we discuss and debate among ourselves to find this path to compassion. The official government response to this was, shockingly, ‘You can’t argue with God.’

The Islamic Ministry’s condemnation of Pillay’s speech, and its criticism of MPs for ‘allowing’ Pillay to address the parliament are hardly unexpected. At the helm of the Ministry is Dr Abdul Majid Bari who, while having no qualms about pocketing money earned from his stake in the alcohol-guzzling pork-eating infidel tourism industry, presents himself as an ultra-pious conservative when it comes to affairs of the Maldivian public.

This deep-rooted hypocrisy is what allows a man who holds a doctorate in the interpretation of the Qur’an to mislead the Maldivian public into thinking that multiple interpretations of Shari’a and hadith are unequivocally un-Islamic and that debate is beyond the Islamic pale.

The view of Dr Bari and other ‘Islamic scholars’ such as Dr Afrashim Ali (the ex-singer who treats the subject of his doctoral exegesis as a state secret) is neither new nor uncommon.

Had they taken the time to put it to the public in a coherent manner it would read: in view of the fact that there are specific offences and sanctions prescribed in the primary sources of Islamic jurisprudence, the Qur’an and Sunna, there is no justification for suspending regulation specifically outlined in these divine sources.

This is the view of most conservative proponents of the Shari’a, and is obviously the one held by Dr Bari and others leading the charge of the flogging brigade. It is, however, by no means the only view on the subject within Islamic thought and jurisprudence.

Rather, there are a great variety of ‘Muslim voices’ offering different views—conservative, liberal and pragmatic—about whether and how the idea of human rights and Islamic normative requirements fit together.

Diverse ‘Muslim voices’ on human rights

Even before the modern era, Islamic law was characterised by a broad jurisprudential diversity based on geographic, ethnic and racial as well as philosophical grounds.

This is evident from the fact that it was 400 years after the death of Prophet Mohammed that ijthihad—reasoned interpretation of the sources of Islamic law—was brought to an end with the increased petrification of the Shari’a by medieval jurists.

Many liberal Muslim reformers thus demand the recovery of ijthihad in order to do justice both to modern needs and to the original spirit of the Shari’a. They emphasise the Shari’a’s original meaning as a ‘path’ or a guide, rather than a detailed legal code.

These liberal Muslim voices do not attempt to deny the binding character of Shari’a. What they ask for is active reasoning, ijthihad, which was originally regarded as an independent source of Islamic law.

Their view, as expressed by Lebanese philosopher Subhi Mahmasani is, ‘The door of ijthihad should be thrown wide open for anyone juristically qualified. The error, all the error, lies in blind imitation and restraint of thought.’

Critical approaches of liberal Muslims such as Mahmasani, Egyptian judge Muhammad Said al-Ashmawy and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Nai’m have often highlighted the humane character of the Qur’anic revelation, which is the most important source of the Shari’a.

Tunisian scholar Mohamed Talbi has argued, for example, that ‘Were it possible for us to ensure a life of justice and equality in a different way [to corporal punishment], this would certainly be a way pointing in the same direction as the Qur’an does.’

Although Shari’a had continued to be the predominant legal system in matters pertaining to family law, from the 19th century onwards, Islamic criminal justice had gradually retreated from public law.

The introduction of Islamic criminal law through legislation is thus a relatively recent phenomenon that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Libya enacted Islamic criminal laws in 1972-1974, Pakistan did so in 1979, Iran in 1982 and Sudan in 1983 and 1991.

And, despite the enactment of such laws, there has been a strong tendency within most Islamic societies to restrict the applicability of hadd punishments as much as possible.

In Pakistan, for instance, the Federal Shari’a Court resisted the reintroduction of stoning in the early 1980s by repeatedly refusing to apply this form of punishment. Prime Minister Zia ul-Haq replaced some of the judges with his own allies to finally have stoning judicially confirmed as being in accordance with Shar’ia.

What these arguments, incidents and discussions suggest is that reconciliatory mediation between tradition and modernity seems conceivable not only among those who are consciously liberal but also among conservative Muslims, as has been argued by many academics.

In light of the rich Islamic jurisprudence referred to above, it is hard to see what the Islamic Ministry’s statement ‘No Muslim has the right to advocate against flogging for fornication’ is intended to do. Except, of course, to shut the Maldivian public off from any other teachings and characteristics of Islam other than those held by Dr Bari and the Islamists who rule Maldivian thought today.

Yellow: the colour of cowardice?

The deafening silence of any opponents of Dr Bari and other Islamists’ extremist views is inexplicable.

Does this mean that among the Muslim scholars that this country now has in such multitudes, there is not one person who disagrees with the extremists’ position? Does it mean, as the recent Religious Unity Regulations suggest, that Maldives will only consider as legitimate Muslim scholars those who purport a particular fundamentalist view of Islam?

Is there not one member of the Maldivian judiciary, the legal community at large, the legislature, or civil society capable of espousing a different position? Does the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives agree that the UN Human Rights Commissioner is wrong? If not, why not say so? Where are you all hiding? What are you afraid of?

Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem’s statement that there is ‘nothing to debate’ is ‘singularly counter-productive’. It makes President Nasheed’s same-day appeal for gender equality ring hollow, like many of his other statements that emphasise democracy and human dignity.

We may never know details of the Faustian pact President Nasheed and MDP have made with Dr Bari and other proponents of extreme Islamism. What we do know is that it is costing the Maldivian people their democratic, and religious, right to intellectual debate and growth.

No matter how far above rising sea levels it is capable of lifting us, or how much it can lift our colossal debt burden, it is not worth keeping in power a government that lacks the courage to raise Maldivians above the quagmire of ignorance the Islamists are sinking us into at such a rapid pace.

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