By Zayan Ismael, General Secretary at Uthema, Maldives
As one of the smallest countries in South Asia, the Maldives has gained many achievements when it comes to gender equality – from passing liberal laws to becoming one of the most gender-liberal countries in the region. With the advocacy of Equality Now and Uthema (a gender advocacy CSO started in 2016), we have been able to support the government in bringing amendments to the Sexual Offences Act in 2021 – recognizing Marital Rape as a crime – amongst other progressive amendments. Despite these progressive moves, society continues to hold on firmly to practices that discriminate against women and girls, especially the harmful practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM is Being Pushed as a Religious Practice
In 2021, a religious scholar at the Maldives National University openly propagated the practice of FGM as being enforced and favored in Islam. This led to widespread condemnation from different parties, including within the Maldivian state authorities as well as from CSOs and the academic community. While the scholar was let go from his job in July 2021, he won his appeal before the Employment Tribunal and was reinstated in August 2022. At Uthema, we expressed our concerns about this development through a joint press statement.
The Maldives Demographic and Health Survey (2016-17) revealed that over 13% of women between the ages of 15 to 49 have undergone some type of procedure linked to FGM. This varies by age, education, occupation, and attitudes toward the practice. Furthermore, most FGM occurred before the age of five and was the highest in Malé and the south and north regions of the country. FGM is a cultural practice widely known to have occurred in the Maldives, although it has been reported that the practice stopped during the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, despite no social media back then, the practice lowered in due course because of increased access to education, public health campaigns, and better access to medical facilities, especially in the islands. Women within the islands also realized the harmful nature of the practice despite its link to culture.
The Attorney General released a statement in 2009 warning that “religious scholars are going around to midwives giving fatwas that girls have to be ‘circumcised.’ They’re giving fatwas saying it is religiously compulsory. According to my information, the circumcision* of girls has started and is going on.” It is worth mentioning that a few of these scholars belong to a conservative political party of Maldives called Adhaalath (Justice Party), and mainly propagate religious nationalism and a commitment to conservative interpretations of the Shariah law. Nonetheless, in the Maldives, most state authorities, including the Prosecutor General, Attorney General, and most Justices of the Courts, are opposed to such violence against women.
Social Media is Opening up Conversations
Over the years, the same religious scholars have continued to purport that FGM is a practice that must continue in a country that abides by Islamic law. Studies also suggest that the growing conservatism within the medical industry has significantly hindered access to sexual and reproductive health rights for women and girls – including access to contraceptives, safe and healthy abortions, and general care for STIs.
With the aforementioned flare-up in 2021, there was much debate and conversation within the media about the issue, which in turn led to online discussions on well-known social platforms – for instance, on Clubhouse, one woman described being ‘circumcised’ “at a very young age” and having learned about it only when she was older. “I know many people like this in the same state of trauma,” she revealed.
Pressure from Conservative Circles has Risen
Despite clear evidence of FGM occurring in the Maldives and the recent promotion of the practice by conservative religious groups in the country, the central government and state authorities have chosen a very discreet approach to handle the situation. The Fatwa Majlis (the national religious advisory body in the Maldives), which released a fatwa (a ruling on a matter of Islamic law given by a recognized authority) on allowing abortions under clearly stated circumstances, has failed to release any verdict on FGM. Therefore, the stance of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs on the practice is entirely unclear. The Fatwa Majlis has long been the source to turn to when there are disputes regarding any matter, especially those related to Shariah law.
Meanwhile, there is still no law against FGM in the Maldives, and women and girls are left to wonder when they’ll get justice. With the family law being revised and many liberal laws coming into effect, CSOs have openly called for FGM to be banned and for measures to be put in place to address perpetrator actions.
But a Few Positive Trends Exist
It is noteworthy that the Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Services has replied to recommendations made by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and has stated that the government will bring in “necessary legislative changes to address the issue.” This is a positive reinforcement for the government and the state authorities in the Maldives to ban detrimental practices that harm women and girls and put society in danger of radical views.
Uthema and Equality Now are working alongside our Maldivian counterparts and colleagues to provide justice and bring progress to the community, even when marred with ever-growing regressive values. We will continue to support the government in their efforts to pass appropriate laws and ban FGM in the Maldives, ensuring such practices are stopped once and for all.
*In the Maldives, FGM is termed “Anhenun Hithaanu Kurun” in Dhivehi (the local language). This translates to ‘the circumcision of women.’ This practice was a cultural one in the past but now has been propagated widely as a practice endorsed within Islam. Anecdotal evidence suggests a rise in conversations and incidences of FGM in the Maldives as a result.
Uthema is a national CSO in the Maldives registered under the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment in 2016 for gender advocacy and engaging in conversations, dialogue, and research about the lived realities of women and gender equality in the Maldives. Throughout its 7 years of functioning, Uthema has been widely commended for its research work, its reporting to CEDAW on behalf of the CSO community in the country, and for holding the Maldivian government to account for its commitments.
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