*Aishath Mohamed, a 25-year-old woman from the island of Kulhudhufushi in Haa Dhaal atoll, recalls her first visit to the capital. She was 12 years old, excited to compete in the national Quran recital competition. But on her first night in Malé, in a cramped room with four teenage boys and a girl, Aishath was woken up to the biggest shock of her young life.
“I get goosebumps when I recall the memory. Somebody was touching my leg so I woke up. Three of them were holding me down and the other one was trying to touch me,” she says.
With almost no sexual or reproductive health education, Aishath was at a loss and unsure of how to cope with her ordeal. But she knew what happened to her was wrong and resolved to speak to her mother after returning to her island.
“I was really surprised by the way she reacted,” she recalls.
“She said dirty things happen to slutty women who don’t know how to behave. She blamed me! Can you imagine that? I was blamed for being raped.”
Similar attitudes of blaming the victim are common in rape cases throughout the world. Oftentimes, family members and close relatives are the first to judge and blame, making it harder for victims like Aishath to muster enough courage to seek professional help or emotional support.
A research by the University of Southern California found that one-fourth of all online comments on news articles about sexual assault and rape include victim-blaming statements.
The Maldives is no exception. The reaction on social media platforms to a gang rape in Hulhumalé earlier this month exposed misogynistic sentiments and blaming-the-victim attitudes among Maldivian men.
“She must have been there for group sex. Young people these days really like to enjoy with a group,” one man commented on a Facebook post by a local media outlet about the gang rape.
“A woman living in Villimalé will only go to Hulhumalé on such an invitation so it must have happened with the consent of both parties,” another man concluded, referring to media reports that identified the victim as a resident of the capital’s suburb.
A third man accused “women of being the main cause of fornication” while another questioned whether she was travelling with a male guardian as prescribed in Islamic Sharia.
“It would not have happened if she had stayed home. Our young women will not face these kinds of incidents if they stay within the boundaries,” was the advice another man offered.
Speaking to the Maldives Independent, Humaidha Abdul Ghafoor, a social researcher, suggested that “men are usually exempt from any kind of unacceptable behaviour” because “society has created an environment where women are objectified”.
She added: “There are expectations in our society, imposing certain roles for men and women. This is gender-based discrimination at a very basic level.”
Bringing perpetrators to justice is necessary to combat gender-related crimes, she stressed, decrying the inability of law enforcement authorities to do so.
“This provides the perpetrator impunity over everyone else. Even the society blames the victim. We need to compress this issue publicly and talk about the perpetrators. We have to make sure that the perpetrator is not invisible,” she says.
Shadiya Ibrahim, the United Nations Population Fund’s assistant representative in the Maldives, identified “patriarchial views in our society” as the reason for victim blaming reactions.
“This is the worst form of harassment. We can’t even imagine the situation of the victim,” she says.
“All types of issues from pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, infections and psychological trauma will be present.”
Despite the lack of research to determine the prevalence of misogynistic attitudes in Maldivian society, Shadiya believes conservative views are gaining ground.
“The most recent statistics available on this issue is in the 2010 Human Rights Commission report, Rights Side of Life. Before that, there was a report issued in 2005. When in comparison, we see that these kind of conservative views are actually expanding in our society.”
Shadiya says a “zero-tolerance” policy is needed to change attitudes along with “long-term actions to change the socialisation process for promoting human rights, especially women’s rights.”
The 2014 Sexual Offences Act specifies different types of sex crimes, including rape, spousal rape, prostitution, sexual trafficking, bestiality and incest. The law prescribes prison terms of 15 to 25 years for rape, but convictions are rare in the Maldives.
Aishath never revealed the identity of her rapists. She was shunned by her parents and forced to keep quiet about her experience. She says she faced “severe psychological trauma and underwent therapy for several years” after reaching adolescence.
“I do not want any woman to have to go through it,” she says.
“I know this is not right, but I feel joyous when nude photos of a man are leaked. Why does it always have to be [women] having to face the shame in the face of the society?”
Humaidha characterises the victim blaming attitude in the Maldivian society as “one of the worst cultural practices in the Maldives where our humanity is completely defaced.”
“This conversation should be amplified. It is a terrible, inhumane practice.”
*Name changed for anonymity