From Liberation to Limitation: Deprivation of Women’s Rights in Maldives

Dreaming of a holiday in the picturesque Maldives, with its sandy beaches and the carefree ambiance symbolized by “Hakuna Matata,” one might envision a paradise where troubles cease to exist.  Indeed, there are no troubles if you give up your basic rights and are ready to live your life as a second-grade citizen. Beneath this idyllic facade lies a stark reality for nearly half the population of the Maldives—the women.

While much attention has been rightfully directed towards the environmental challenges facing the Maldives, nearly nothing could be found on women’s conditions in the increasingly intolerant Maldivian society. Operating under Sharia law as mandated by the country’s constitution, it’s hardly surprising that Maldivian women are victims of the rampant gender discrimination and violence in every strata of the society.

Recently, President Muizzu emphasized the government’s commitment to fostering strong nationalistic sentiments alongside efforts to uphold the principles of Islam in his inaugural presidential statement at the opening of Parliament. He outlined several initiatives including training imams at the PhD level and sponsoring Hajj trips for financially disadvantaged individuals. Women’s issues and empowerment still remain mere rhetoric, adorning his speeches like gilded ornaments, while substantive action remains elusive.

Gender inequality in employment

The rigid patriarchal norms enforced by Sharia law in the Maldives have enabled a stark gender disparity in workforce participation. Women are not only economically disadvantaged but also face significant barriers to their professional advancement and financial independence. While men dominate virtually all sectors of the workforce, constituting 75.1 percent, women lag significantly behind at only 42.2 percent.[i] Certain sectors of the underpaid and unskilled labor such as housemaids and informal sectors account for higher percentages of women.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is also common in Maldives and complains are often neglected, making women reluctant to participate in the work force. Citing the issue of hostile work environment, women are forced to stay at home by their families and husbands and confirm to the traditional roles set for them by the ancient authors of the religious texts. Women who challenge these roles are often considered a ‘bad influence’, ‘problems’ and are subjected to various forms of harassment and abuses.

In their workplace, women are often labeled as incompetent and unskilled, resulting in unjustified lower wages for equal work as their male counterparts. Moreover, women employed in the informal sector are deprived of essential benefits such as minimum wage, paid maternity leave, and pension schemes. Pregnant women face additional hurdles, including difficulty in securing employment and facing the risk of uncertain layoffs. Furthermore, upon returning from maternity leave, many women encounter obstacles in re-entering the workforce, leaving them economically vulnerable and reliant on their husbands for financial support.

Gender based violence and discrimination

According to a 2007 study by Maldives’ Ministry of Gender and Family, one in three women aged 15-49 experienced physical or sexual violence. One in five faced abuse from intimate partners, and one in eight suffered sexual abuse before age 15.[ii]

In 2012, the Domestic Violence Prevention act was passed with the sole aim to tackle violence suffered by women by intimate partners. However, the DVP act is yet to achieve the aim it set out to accomplish. Domestic violence cases rose sharply from 187 in 2014 to 341 in 2015, with over 300 cases reported in 2016. However, these data do not represent the actual number of cases as many cases go unreported due to social stigma and pressure, obscuring the true extent of the issue. The Maldivian society by and large believes that such issues are private and should be kept hidden within the community to keep their reputation in the community. Women’s rights activists stress the importance of female participation in policymaking for gender equality.

Women in Politics and leadership roles

Efforts such as the 2019 amendment to the Decentralization Act, which reserves 33 percent of electoral quotas for women in local councils, aim to address gender disparities. However, the majority of the women local councilors often lack an opportunity to make any real change. Relegated to do meaningless admin work and excluded from policy-making decisions, they often find their inputs not being taken seriously by their male counterparts. To make matters worse, the rigid social norms set by Sharia law are often used to undermine women’s participation in politics and public offices. Women ministers, journalists and other public figures have faced multitudes of targeted abuses, harassment, intimidation from male coworkers and superiors and campaigns maligning their images. Such misogynistic attacks make politics and journalism unsafe career choices for women in Maldives.

In addition, a large chunk of the population believes that men are more skilled and qualified to lead than a female counterpart. In a 2015 Democracy Survey, over 37% of the population responded positively to ‘men make better leaders than women’.[iii] The same survey also pointed out that over 60% of the participants believed that women should stay at home and fulfil family obligations. Many political parties perpetuate these narratives, further hindering progress towards gender equality. Such narratives are further cemented when the top leadership fails to be inclusive of women. For example, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s administration had only three women in the cabinet of 15 ministers. Similarly, President Muizzu has been accused of low representation of women in his cabinet, having only 3 women in the total of 22 ministries.[iv] Thus, a lack of representation of their issues is felt by the women of Maldives.

Human Rights and Sharia

The clash between international human rights laws and Sharia principles exacerbates women’s marginalization. While conventions like CEDAW advocate for equal rights within marriage and freedom of choice in spouse selection, Sharia law upholds gender-based roles and grants men disproportionate power, perpetuating women’s dependence and vulnerability to abuse. Moreover, Sharia’s distinct procedures for divorce, including the concept of “Talaq,” often leave women economically disadvantaged and reliant on inadequate state support systems.

In essence, while the Maldives exudes beauty and tranquility, the harsh reality for its women paints a starkly different picture—one marred by systemic discrimination and entrenched gender inequalities. The age-old misogynistic practices are still engraved in the very core of the Maldivian society, where women struggle to find a balance between their dreams and societal expectations of them.

Despite international efforts and domestic legislation aimed at addressing gender disparities and violence, deeply ingrained patriarchal norms and the enforcement of Sharia law continue to marginalize and oppress women across all facets of society. From the workplace to politics, and even within the confines of their own homes, Maldivian women face systemic discrimination, harassment, and violence. The struggle for gender equality is not just a matter of policy reform but also requires a fundamental shift in societal attitudes and norms.

[i] United Nations Human Rights special procedure, Sept 2022