By Hawwa Lubna
Last December, a 35 year-old Maldivian woman succumbed to death from injuries caused by severe physical and sexual assault. Her husband is now under arrest on charges of what appears to be a fatal domestic violence case. Her death sparked nationwide outrage, leading to emotionally charged conversations on media and social media networks.
The discussion mainly centred on the question of who was to blame for her death. While some directed their anger towards the Ministry of Gender and the Family Protection Authority (FPA) for failing their mandate to prevent such cases of domestic violence, a shockingly large number of others accused it was the victim’s own fault. She was blamed for causing her own death by remaining silent about the years of abuse and not seeking protection sooner. But, did silence really kill her?
The silence narrative
One headline in the popular local newspaper Haveeru Online reads, ‘hiding abuse is saying welcome to other abuses,’ while another similar report by Sun Online, suggested that her death was a ‘result of hiding the abuse’ and that it should be a ‘lesson’ for other women experiencing violence.
Social networks also erupted with similar sentiments, newsfeeds flooding with status updates and tweets pleading women who are secretly suffering abuse to break their silence and seek support.
While at the first glance this reaction may seem genuine and apposite, a closer scrutiny will demonstrate that this narrative is actually a more subtler form of victim-blaming. In the attempt to frame the story of her death as result of her own actions or non-actions, many are failing to acknowledge the most obvious and outrageous reality of this gruesome crime; this woman did not die because of her silence, she was killed. A man stands accused of mercilessly brutalising her body, causing physical and sexual injuries so severe that she bled out to death.
Less than two weeks after the report of this fatal domestic violence case, another grim story also hit the collective consciousness of the society. A 23 year-old girl’s lifeless body was found discarded on the streets of capital Malé. She was choked to death.
The media frenzy that followed again demonstrated the embedded gender biases in the coverage of such crimes. Reporters appeared to be more concerned about the victim’s alleged history of drug abuses and confirming rumours of an ‘illegitimate’ child she had. Meanwhile on the social networks, people gossiped about her alleged promiscuity. Even her mother, who is a popular activist for an opposition political party was not spared in the backlash. Some social media users accused the victim’s mother of spending more time ‘playing politics’ than raising her children.
The growing culture of gender-based violence
Except for one insightful opinion piece by the local women’s rights advocate Humay Abdulghafoor published on Dhivehi Sitee, no voices of common sense emerged in acknowledging and condemning the complicity of men as prime perpetrators of gender-based violence in the society.
Abdulghafoor called out the double standards and hypocrisy, stemming from the deeply entrenched patriarchal norms in the society and the systematic institutional failures to support victims of gender-based violence. In seven simple words, she summed up the problem in the Maldives just as it is; “violence against women has become our culture.”
Looking from a regional perspective, the scale of violence against women reported in the Maldives is relatively low, and some of the forms of violence such as female infanticide, dowry related deaths, honour killings are almost unheard of. However, Maldivian women still experience violence, mostly hidden behind the privacy of homes.
A study conducted in 2007 revealed that nearly 1 in 3 women aged between 15-49 in the Maldives has been a victim of some form of physical, sexual or psychological abuse during their lifetime. Almost 1 in 5 reported their abusers were intimate partners. The intimate partner violence detailed in the report ranged from mild cases of threats and intimidation to gut-wrenching severity. Women shared accounts of near fatal beatings, being punched, kicked in the stomach while pregnant, choked, burnt or even having a weapon used against them.
This study became the most instrumental body of evidence that culminated into increased pressures on the national government from international agencies and local civil society groups to address the pandemic of domestic violence. In 2012, Domestic Violence Prevention Act was ratified, marking a landmark victory in the efforts to curb violence and provide support for victims.
However, recent cases of violence against women are reminders that these institutional reforms are falling short in preventing abuse. Understanding why violence persists necessitates a better diagnosis of the current societal conditions in which different forms of abuses against women occurs.
And one of the first questions many should be asking is why there is a general acceptance towards men’s role as perpetrators of violence, to the extent that it is considered simply normal for a man to beat his wife to within an inch of death but somehow her ‘silence’ becomes all that is talked about.
Hegemonic masculinities and patriarchal religious discourses
Violence against women plays out in a historical, social, and political context where structures and functioning of both formal institutions such as government and law, as well as informal institutions such as values and social norms contribute to its degree of persistence.
The prevalence of gender-based violence in the Maldives in recent years, particularly domestic violence, is partly attributable to the dangerous hegemonic masculinities that have emerged through religious justifications.
Hegemonic masculinity explains the practices that are used to claim and sustain dominant social position of men and subordinate position of women. It helps us to understand how culturally idealized forms of manhood are created over time. The characteristics of ideal manhood differs from one cultural context to the other and is constantly evolving, but some of the traits generally attributed to ‘real men’ includes breadwinning, dominance, minimal emotions, physical strength and rationality. Meanwhile, the ideal woman is seen as one who is submissive, patient, obedient, quiet, passive, sensitive, nurturing and home-oriented.
What we are witnessing in the Maldives today is a wave of of hegemonic masculinities gaining momentum through Islamic discourses. Selective use of religious scriptures are used to give ‘divine’ endorsement of power and privilege to men and reinforce patriarchy.
The most honoured way of being a man in the Maldives is now predominantly seen as being in control of the family and the women around them. Men are considered to be natural leaders who should be in control of leading the families, organisations and communities. Even those men who are not able meet the financial independence to fulfil breadwinning responsibilities still insists on the role of headship and the power and privileges comes with it.
The inhenrently unequal social order of gender relations is regarded as divine, and therefore unquestionable. To even question or dispute this patriarchal religious doctrine preserving gender stereotypes and subordination of women is unimaginable to many, as the status quo is so deeply ingrained as the cultural norm and even institutionalised within the legal framework of the country. Challenging the status quo becomes framed as an attack on the religion itself, leaving little room for any debate.
For example, examining the religious discourses underlying the institution of marriage shows how the dominant social position of men and subordination of women are claimed and sustained. The following excerpt from a Friday sermon is emblematic of how religious narratives are used in constructing the patriarchal man in power.
“Muslim brothers! The husband is the person who has the highest level of responsibility to look after the family. He has the highest responsibility on all matters of the family. The husband has the highest responsibility to look after his wife. On matters relating to children too, the highest responsibility falls on the husband” [unofficial translation].
The Islamic family law governing marriage and all affairs of family relations in the Maldives claims to establish complementary gender relations within a marriage, but the notion of gender-equality is fundamentally undermined by the assumption of different roles and duties along gender lines. A local wedding ceremony is not completed without the presiding official telling the bride she ‘must obey the husband and be faithful,’ while the man is reminded of his duties as the ‘provider’ and ‘guardian’ to his wife.
The most concerning dimension to this male supremacy upheld in marriage and society relates to how violence is often condoned and justified as one of the means to exert men’s dominance over women.
When the draft legislation to prevent domestic violence was submitted to the parliament in 2011, some of the male members ferociously opposed the bill, showing complete disregard for the compelling evidence of widespread abuse women suffer at homes. They objecting to passing the bill, claiming that it would restrict the husband’s ‘Islamic rights’ such as ‘practicing polygamy’ and ‘taking actions against wife’s infidelity.’ Some members also referred to the legislation as ‘satanic law’ promoted by westerners attempting to ‘destroy our culture, our Islamic way of life, bringing in all sorts of poisons and viruses into the society.’
The same divine male supremacy rhetoric resurfaced again in 2014, when the debates began on anti-harassment and sexual-offences legislation. The attempts to categorically criminalise marital rape became a major point of criticism. Local Islamic jurisprudence body Fiqh Academy publicly rejected a woman’s right to consent to sex in a spousal relationship.
“With the exception of forbidden forms of sexual intercourse, such as during menstrual periods and anal intercourse, it is not permissible under any circumstance for a woman to refrain from it when the husband is in need… [and should show] complete obedience to her husband,” said Fiqh Academy Vice President Dr.Mohamed Iyaz Abdul Latheef.
Mir-Hosseini & Hamzić points out that in certain reading of Islam’s sacred texts and legal constructs, marriage is regarded as a contract by ‘which a man acquires control over a woman’s body and sexuality’. Several contemporary Islamic feminist scholars have posited rebuttals to what they refer to as ‘patriarchal’ and ‘literal’ interpretations taken out of context. A growing body of literature is now available from Islamic feminist scholars who are attempting to claim Islam back, and remove the conflict between practicing their faith and upholding the values of gender equality.
Accepting violence in the name of piety
Unfortunately, the dominating orthodox religious narratives have succeeded in creating a culture of gender-stereotypes and notions of male superiority in the Maldives, resulting in women who adopt subservient positions within the family and society – and even accept violence and discrimination in the name of piety and obedience.
This was confirmed by the Maldives Demographic and Health Survey in 2009, which found that 30 percent of the women justified a husband can beat their wife for reasons such as burning the food, arguments, going out without telling, neglecting children or refusing sex. These numbers partly explain why many women would remain silent about the abuse. It is simply regarded as the normal behaviour for a believing woman.
According to the Rights Side of Life study published in 2005, nearly half of the male respondents also agreed that hitting their wives is justified, using religious arguments as a basis. According to this report, 61.5 percent of male respondents in the 2005 survey agreed that they should not hit their wives, but this figure had dropped to 50.3 percent in the latest survey in 2011.
Based on her empirical investigation on prevalence of domestic violence on the Maldives, Fulhu further concluded that the rapid socio-economic changes in the Maldives, combined with the forces of globalization and infiltration of Islamist masculinity discourses are contributing to the ‘erosion of cultural conditions’ such as flexible marriage and divorce practices that has historically helped to prevent violence against women in the Maldives. She observes that traditional masculine identities were associated with calmness, caring, and rationality – far from the rhetoric idealising male dominance, control and aggressiveness.
Anthropological investigations into the 2000 something-old history of this scattered small island society suggests that patriarchy was not always predominant within the communities. Some studies provides account of female queens who ruled the islands long after the arrival of Islam in the Maldives in 12th century, and stories are told of men and women coexisting within the community, sharing all aspects of life such as working, decision-making and celebrating rituals without any strict gender segregation. The society was still hierarchical in terms of family and economic status, but probably never as gendered.
Body politics, Islam and democratisation process
The rise of Islam as a key determinant in moulding the Maldivian gender identities and cultural norms can be further understood within the wider political, social and economic transformations that has taken place in recent years in terms of rapid economic modernisation, urbanisation and democratisation.
According to Islamic feminist scholar Lamia Shehadeh, Muslims seeking to forge a modern identity fall under two groups; the liberal reformers or modernists who believe in combining Islamic traditions with Western liberalism, and conservatives, who cling to the tradition in the belief that any deviation would subvert all Islamic social structures and efface all barriers facing Western domination.
Within the ongoing clash between ideologies of modernity and traditionalism in the Maldives, women’s bodies often become battlegrounds on which identities, nationhood and dignities are upheld or contested.
On one hand we are witnessing the formal barriers against women are being steadily removed based on universal values, leading to few but increasing number of women to climb up the ladders of politics and corporate sector next to their male counterparts. The passing of several legal instruments (e.g.; Domestic Violence Act, Sexual Offences and Sexual Harassment Act) is also an extraordinary feat in the efforts to curb violence and promote gender equality. On the other hand, from media to the political scene, we are seeing a patriarchal agenda being promoted and justified through orthodox religious discourses espousing supremacy of men and subordination of women.
A rise in hegemonic patriarchal discourses in the recent years can be linked to the pre-2008 democratisation process of the country, as public spaces and media opened for the first time for free expression. Conservative groups in the country including the political party Adhaalath Party, and more hardlined religious groups rushed to the radios, TV stations and public stages as defenders of moral agency and reviving the ummah (Muslim community). The sharp increase in the veiling on women in early 2000s, the same period as the peak of democracy movement, attest to the appeal, influence and legitimacy these religious groups were gaining within the tumultuous political transition process.
In their preachings, women’s bodies are frequently represented as images of moral degradation of the society, representing what Mernissi calls an orthodox Islamic narrative in which women are feared for their disruptive potentials, capable of creating fitna (chaos) provoked by sexual disorder. This gives a religious tone to justify the harassment and violence women and girls suffer as a fault of their own, rather than putting the blame where it belongs; the men who commit the crimes.
New social movements against gender-based violence, such as Nufoshey (Don’t Harrass) campaign has been met with ridicule and opposition from men (and women) who claims religion is on their side.
These religious discourses provides the seal of approval to exert social control over the female body; Sometimes encouraging, shaming, dictating and also violently controlling what is deemed appropriate for women to say, wear, act or how they should engage – or more so – disengage from public life to be an ideal honourable woman. The scale of slut-shaming is also rife, showing the widespread nature of male entitlement to women’s bodies in the society.
It must be noted that gender discrimination and cases of violence against women throughout the world demonstrate patriarchies have emerged everywhere, not just in Muslim communities or even religious societies. Even secular nations are struggling with both discrimination, violence and oppression of women to varying degrees. Patriarchal systems created on a discourse of either divine or traditional male supremacy have been (mis)used for years in controlling the minds and bodies for political ends.
Bringing Islamic feminism and reformist narratives
The evident negative impacts of Islamist patriarchal discourses on gender dynamics have led to Maldivian policymakers and women’s rights groups to seek support from international Islamic feminist scholars, who are challenging what they call ‘patriarchal interpretations’ of the scriptures. Their message is clear; Islamic beliefs and the values of gender-quality are not in contradiction, but the latter is a fundamental aspect of the religion itself.
Leading this discourse is Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian based group consisting of several Islamic scholars, journalists and activists from around the globe. Their MUSAWAH campaign is a global movement targeted towards bringing ‘Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family’. Part of the narrative attempts to provide Islamic female role models such as Khadhija and Fathima, prominent female historical figures in Islam noted for their piety, courage, intelligence and leadership. Meanwhile, the dangerous and extreme masculinities are disputed through an emphasis characteristics of kindness, compassion and generosity of the Islamic prophets.
In recent years, Maldivian NGO Hope for Women and the Sisters in Islam group have collaborated in bringing local translations of books on women’s rights in Islam, and educational training for public institutions.
Questioning the status-quo
However, in the emerging attempts to harmonize the conflict between Islam and gender, there still appears to be a shortfall in challenging the restrictions set by the Islamic rules institutionalized in the Maldives, especially within the existing legal framework.
Women’s rights movements in the Maldives have constantly hesitated from directly contesting the current religious doctrine and legislative environment controlling the sociality and sexuality of the bodies based on what is often regarded as literal and out-of-context theological interpretations of the religion.
Maldives still holds an uncontested blanket reservation to the article 16 of CEDAW, which effectively allows men to practice polygamy and marry under-age girls – a practice rare, but on the rise. The codification of Family law based of certain understandings of Islamic scriptures have also resulted in further limitations and obstacles for women to obtain divorce, thus trapping more women in abusive marriages. The same law also prevents a woman from marrying without consent of male guardian or a judge – who is also required to be a man, as the national Fiqh Academy proscribes a female judge from performing marriage ceremonies.
Furthermore, there is also an increasing push towards stricter Zine laws, under which sex outside of marriage and adultery are punishable by public flogging and disproportionately used against women. The court statistics on punishment for adultery in the period 2005-2011 shows that 85 percent of the flogged were women. Several of these flogging sentences are used to punish victims of sexual abuse, as exemplified by the sentencing of a 15 year-old rape victim in 2013, which was ultimately overturned in the face of international pressures.
These gendered religious rules embedded within the legal framework as unquestionable divine elements, continue to legitimise the gender stereotypes and the notions of masculinity that is partly contributing to the violent acts of abuse and oppression of women. Changing this status quo, by questioning the seemingly unquestionable religious doctrine is one of the biggest challenges facing women’s rights groups seeking to create a culture of gender equality and peace in the society.
Note: This is an edited version of the article that first appeared in German magazine Südasien/South Asia (www.suedasienbuero.de), quarterly published from Bonn.
Hawwa Lubna is a freelance reporter.
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