Thursday, July 30, 2009
Monday, July 27, 2009
Monday, July 20, 2009
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Press freedom is under threat again, this time from a small group of the religious right and their supporters. Yesterday, about 150 people, believed to be proxies of the Adhaalath Party, gathered at the Artificial Beach to call for, among other things, a ban on the internet newspaper Minivan News, and the deportation of its writer Mariyam Omidi.
Omidi and other writers at Minivan News had recently covered a public flogging in the capital Male, and explored the debates surrounding it in a series of articles.
Protesters called the writings ‘anti-Islamic’, a label which in the past has succeeded in muzzling important debates and discussions. The crowd also called for the resignation of foreign minister Dr. Shaheed and the Maldvies embassador to the UK Dr Farhanaz Faisal, whose views on flogging to had been published in the Minivan News articles.
The public flogging at the centre of the controversy involves an18-year-old girl, but a disturbing aspect of the case appears to have gone unnoticed. It has emerged that the girl, who reportedly “confessed” to having had extra-marital sex with two adult males, committed the “crime” when she was under-18. If so, this would have grave implications for the Maldivian state. Not only has the state failed to protect a child from sexual abuse but has, in fact, been party to subjecting her to further physical abuse.
Sadly, this is not an isolated case. At least 22 girls under 18 years of age were sentenced to public flogging, in 2006, for fornication or giving birth out of wedlock.
Under Maldivian law child sexual abuse requires a confession by the alleged abuser, or testimony by four eye-witnesses, for a successful conviction to take place. This means that if a victim reports sexual abuse but the perpetrator denies it and there are no eye-witnesses, the court can find the child guilty of having consented to the sex. The state would then wait for the girl to turn 18 and then carry out the sentence of public flogging, in effect, punishing her for reporting the crime.
By continuing with the practice, the Maldives is violating no less than four UN conventions it has signed: the convention on the rights of children; the convention on civil and political rights; the convention against torture; and the convention against all forms of discrimination against women.
But the UN has remained silent on the issue, as has the human rights commission, and the government’s child protection services.
Recent studies suggest the Maldives may have one of the highest child sexual abuse rates in the world. A 2007 survey revealed that one in six Maldivian women aged 15-49 is sexually abused before they turn 15 years of age. A UNICEF study published earlier this year has found that one in five school girls experiences sexual abuse at least once in their lifetime. Although boys are sexually abused too, the majority of victims of child sexual abuse in the Maldives are girls.
While there have been numerous protests against child abuse, attended by governmental and non-governmental organizations, no one has yet organized a public gathering against child abuse by the state. And, although it has been fashionable in recent months for people to call for harsher penalties for perpetrators of child sexual abuse, there hasn’t been a call to introduce the necessary evidence laws to convict these people of their crimes. Public flogging disproportionately punishes women, many of them victims of child sexual abuse.
And now, the religious right are calling for a continuation of punishment. At yesterday’s rally, speakers invoked the Quranic verse 24:2 to support their argument:
“The fornicatress and the fornicator, flog each of them with a hundred stripes. Let not pity withhold you in their case, in a punishment prescribed by Allah, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a party of the believers witness their punishment.”
In fact flogging, as practiced in the Maldives, would appear to contravene this verse. In an overwhelming majority of cases the “fornicatress”, and not the “fornicator”, receives the lashings.
Chief judge of the criminal court Abdulla Mohamed explained to Minivan News that while men were able to deny the crime, women were often implicated due to pregnancy.
Zina or fornication is notoriously difficult to prove under Sharia Law because a confession by the parties or testimonies by four eye-witnesses, who saw the actual penetration, are needed. Some scholars have said that these conditions indicate that Islam does not intend to punish people as a matter of course.
But the all-male speakers at yesterday’s rally were vociferous in their support for public flogging, even if it meant that a disproportionate number of women would be punished. They also rejected the suggestion that DNA testing on males should be introduced to ensure both parties are punished equally.
“Women don’t know who they’ve slept with,” said one speaker. “How can we test all the men in the Maldives?”
It is this unmistakable misogyny that gives the game away, and lifts the lid on the real agenda of these pious men. They want to continue to punish women and girls but are happy to absolve men of their part in the crime. And, when they feel the status quo is threatened, they always look for a female to vilify.
In 2007 when the religious right condemned MDP’s Aishath Aniya for writing an anti-buruga article in Minivan Daily, they didn’t bother to actually read what she said or argue with her points. There was a known and tested shortcut: label your opponents “anti-Islamic” and nobody asks questions even when you call for their death. Mariyam Omidi is the new Aniya for the religious right.
Adhalath bigwigs were notably absent at the rally, even though many people believe they are behind it. An earlier statement by the party, while it didn’t name names, said visas to foreign nationals should be conditional on their respect of the Maldives constitution. The theme was very much part of yesterday’s rally where Omidi was singled out for deportation calls.
The recently formed Maldives Journalism Association, which likes to present itself as the champion of free press in the Maldives, is yet to condemn this attack on an individual writer, a newspaper and, indeed, press freedom in the Maldives. We can also expect silence from the human rights commission.
But the attitudes of the general public may be changing, apparent in the small numbers that turned up for rally. Moreover, the online community, which Adhaalath Party tried to ban earlier in the year, is alive with debates not only of the flogging in question, but also press freedom.
In the 1950s, Maldivians protested against president Mohamed Ameen’s ill advised introduction of Hadd punishment, particularly capital punishment and the amputation of hands. The public outcry is likely to have contributed to the downfall of the first president of the Maldives, because the subsequent revolutions committee had to ban the punishments.
More than half a century later, Maldivians are grappling with public floggings. A criminal court judge has told Minivan News that 200 more floggings are waiting to be carried out.
With the help of new technology and tools, such as the social networking websites like Facebook, Maldivians can put a stop to a cruel and discriminatory punishment that has never served a legal, religious or social purpose.
Friday, July 10, 2009
A worshipper sits on a bench in Masjidul Muslima in Kendhoo, Baa Atoll, reading the Quran. Simply and tastefully designed, the spotlessly clean mosque with its spacious, immaculately swept garden basks in the afternoon sunshine, a picture of serenity.
Masjidhul Muslima is one of the several exclusive women’s mosques in the Maldives. Women’s mosques and female imams are virtually non-existent in the rest of the Muslim word, except for parts of China which in 1997 was recorded as having 29 mosques. The Maldives has 210, probably the highest number of women’s mosques in a single country in the world at present.
But in June, the Islamic ministry announced that it was closing down all the women’s mosques in the Maldives. The official reason given was that the government wanted to cut down on expenditure and “the best place for a woman to pray is at home.”
In fact the government spends very little on women’s mosques. Apart from a token monthly salary for some female imams, the only government contribution to women’s mosques is an annual calendar, a few Qurans, and cloth for cleaning the floors. Almost all the women’s mosques in the Maldives have been built by the communities themselves and maintenance is carried out by volunteer worshippers.
Women’s mosques have existed in this country for as long as any living Maldivian can remember. According to a registry of currently operating mosques, the oldest is Masjidul Salat in Thakandhoo, Haa Alif Atoll, which was inaugurated in 1926. It is likely that women’s mosques evolved in the last century or so, since historical writings before that make no mention of these unique places of worship.
Women’s mosques are a common feature of north Maldives with some islands boasting more women’s mosques than men’s mosques. Dhidhdhoo, in Haa Alif Atoll, has no less than four women’s mosques.
A 61-year-old retired female imam said that one of the women's mosques on her island predated its oldest inhabitant. However, with the growth of the population, the community decided to build a second one. Both men and women worked tirelessly to raise funds and to construct the mosque, which stands proud today, grander than even the men’s mosque. The communities take great pride in these mosques and female worshipers clean and maintain them lovingly.
“Our women’s mosque is such a pleasant place that sometimes even men go there to pray, when there are no women in the mosque,” the former imam told me.
For the women of these island communities the women’s mosque is a safe, peaceful place, where they can pray without fear or intimidation at any time of the day or night. These mosques are revered by all members of the community and, to date, no harassment is known to have taken place in any of them. In contrast, many homes are too noisy, crowded and unfit for worship. Women’s mosques, as well as being a place of worship, offers women a space for social interaction.
These mosques exist in most parts of the country but are notably absent in the far south. There is no women’s mosque on Foah Mulah and only one in the whole of Addu Atoll. Instead, on Hithadhoo, every house has a namaadhu-ge or prayer room, where women and children worship. A Hithadhoo elder has pointed out that this tradition may be a legacy of the Buddhist practice of building a shrine inside the house for worship.
The namaadhu-ge also serves another function. When children see their mothers praying, it helps them to learn to pray at an early age. “The namaadhu-ge is an age-old tradition passed down from generation to generation,” a Hithadhoo woman told me. “Even the smallest house has one.”
In 1987, a women’s mosque was opened in the adjoining island community of Maradhoo and this lead to Hithadhoo women demanding their own mosque.
“We told them women’s mosques were un-Islamic but they persisted,” recalled a former Katheeb or Island Head. “Fortunately, the funds never materialized and Hithadhoo, to this day, doesn’t have a women’s mosque.”
Addu people’s religious education has traditionally been different to the rest of the country. The atoll is believed to have converted to Islam at least half a century before the rest of the Maldives and has a history of exposure to visiting scholars from the Middle East. Many people also go to countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan to study Islam, and bring back with them religious sensibilities that are hostile to women’s mosques.
Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, who heads the Islamic ministry, hails from Addu Atoll. While his ministry is gearing to ban women’s mosques from the rest of the country, it has not bothered to consult the women whose lives are going to be impacted. Instead, the ministry is recommending that women pray in the small designated corner of men’s mosques, behind the male congregation. But many women, used to the independence and security of their own mosques, are likely to feel intimidated in men’s mosques.
Although the Islamic ministry advocates women to pray at home, there is no evidence that women were banned from mosques by the Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, no restriction or segregation is imposed on them in the largest Islamic gathering in the word, the Hajj pilgrimage.
If the Islamic ministry goes ahead with its proposed ban, it can only be read as a government crackdown on women’s right to worship in a safe and secure place that they have build for themselves.
“Many women, especially older ones, will be heartbroken,” the former imam told me. “For them, the exercise of walking to the mosque, worshipping there, and the social interaction are an important daily routine.”
The Islamic ministry recently threatened to ban Airtel dish antennas, but the outcry from angry citizens successfully thwarted it. It remains to be seen whether we'll hear enough noise to prevent the impending ban on women’s mosques too.