Complaining about a misogynistic and sexist president doesn’t seem unusual today, given the number of such leaders around the world. But many will be concerned when they see a headline that reads, “A 15-year-old rape victim sentenced to flogging" or “Woman sentenced to death by stoning" or even “Female parliamentarian spat on by a male counterpart on the parliament floor".
Unfortunately, these are true stories from the Maldives, each printed following the 2012 coup d’etat which overthrew the country’s first democratically-elected president and subsequently brought to power President Abdulla Yameen.
Since seizing power, Yameen has been subject to allegations of corruption—including a plot to launder up to $1.5 billion through the Maldivian central bank—and eroding the rule of law. He has also become increasingly notorious for human rights abuses and the persecution of women. For him and his allies, these things go hand in hand, and the politicians implicated in corruption are often those most vicious in their attacks on women.
This stands in contrast to the first democratic president, Mohamed Nasheed, who made progress towards empowering women by introducting free healthcare services and financial assistance to single mothers, as well as passing a landmark domestic violence Bill aimed at providing female victims emergency protection and easing a woman’s ability to obtain a divorce. Nasheed, while in office, openly spoke against practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, and public flogging of women for adultery.
Thus, it was not surprising that women were among the most visible participants during the protests following the coup, the largest in the country’s history, calling for the restoration of democracy. They were confronted with water cannons, batons, pepper spray and subjected to targeted assault by the police.
After the coup, rights for women rapidly deteriorated. A woman was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in 2015. A 15-year-old girl was sentenced to 100 lashes after her stepfather raped her. Both sentences were later overturned following a public outcry. While these punishments always existed based on principles of Shari’ah, in the case of the sentence of stoning, it had not been strictly adhered to until following the coup. In the case of floggings, the punishment disproportionately affects women, who make up almost 79.3% (goo.gl/vB7yAo) of those given the sentence.
Yameen is closely aligned with the radical elements in the country and turns a blind eye to the promotion of violence against women. A Maldivian “religious scholar" has preached that marital rape is permissible and even said that after a revocable divorce, a man can simply rape his ex-wife back into a marriage. The preacher was neither held accountable nor questioned by the authorities. Meanwhile, accusations of “disrupting religious unity" have been made against human rights defender Shahinda Ismail to impede her work.
Yameen has appointed women to his cabinet and other high-level positions, but only those who are loyal and submissive. At a meeting that included women ministers, he told women to not be offended and that it will be men who will take charge and get things done. For Yameen, while women may join his government, it is only men who will lead. The government not only supports patriarchy in society but also enforces it.
Women in parliament who do challenge the status quo have been the subject of attacks by corrupt men. Two years ago, the majority leader of Yameen’s ruling party spat at a female opposition member of parliament (MP) Rozaina Adam after she accused him of corruption. His deputy called her a prostitute. Both men were later probed in corruption cases. MP Eva Abdulla and her family repeatedly received death threats, allegedly from the then-home minister, who has since been accused of corruption in wrongfully rewarding contracts. Another ruling party legislator, speaking in the parliamentary chamber itself, threatened to rape both Adam and MP Mariya Didi. The same MP is alleged to have improperly received an entire island and $300,000 in funds, part of $205 million allegedly stolen from the Maldivian tourism marketing corporation.
Like the men around him, Yameen has promoted misogyny, sexism and corruption together. At a ceremony to mark 913 days in office, Yameen joked about the sex trade, saying “I have to say that I know everyone, especially all men, go to Bangkok. And certainly, the women they get there are not hiley (for free)." The changing frame of violence and harassment against women is widely thought to be related to the political situation in the country. Through his policies and attitude, Yameen has created an enabling environment for these activities to flourish. He and his ruling party have been able to act with impunity and corruption, both against women and the Maldives.
We cannot have a country that is prosperous, peaceful and sustainable without the inclusion of half of the population, and we cannot achieve that inclusion without achieving gender equality—a fundamental human right. We cannot achieve gender equality without restoring the rule of law, ending corruption and bringing the country back to democracy.
Thilmeeza Hussain is a former deputy ambassador of the Maldives to the UN and a 2018 Aspen Institute New Voices fellow.
This is part of the Young Asian Writers series, a Mint initiative to bring young voices from different Asian countries to the fore.
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