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.