The Maldives: Once Matriarchal Society is pushing women away from Leadership Roles

ECONOMYNEXT – The Maldives is on track for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) on quality, inclusive and lifelong learning opportunities for Maldivians, but is stagnating in achieving the goal of Gender Equality.

A webinar on the Role of Women in Maldivian Society, organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, South Asia on November 7th, heard that although laws have been passed supporting increased roles for women, implementation of these regulations has been poor.

Panellist Dr Marium Jabyn, co-Founder and Chairperson of Equal Rights Initiative, points out that there are more women law graduates than males and more female batch toppers, yet those numbers are not reflected in public service or in the corporate world. Even where women are appointed to the Bench, she states, they are rarely assigned even a minor criminal case. That’s indicative of society’s perception of a woman’s role, she points out.

The webinar which included MP Jeehan Mahmood, who chairs the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, Child Protection and Gender, and Yumna Rasheed, entrepreneur, and Founder of ‘The Gift Basket Maldives’, was moderated by Journalist and Media Consultant Raaia Munavvar. The keynote address was by Lakshmi Sampath Goyal, CEO of Centre for Civil Society, India.

Despite the enactment of several laws, Domestic Violence Prevention Act (2012), Sexual Offences Act (2014), and Gender Equality Act (2016), the application of these legislations leaves much to be desired Jabyn notes, stating that there are some atolls which have no women police officers. Victims of abuse are often advised by the first point of contact, to accept the situation and return home.

Even when women apply for leadership positions in the legal system, they are often advised by clerics that such posts are not for them. Society’s perception of women too must change she says, adding that often there is a preference for male clerics or religious scholars to deliver a religious discourse. Women themselves, she says, do not accept that they are good enough for these roles.

“Family courts in the Maldives is a women’s court,” she says pointing out that one would hardly find any women flocking to the other Courts, as they do the Family Courts. That, she adds, is owing to the gaps in the support systems available to women.

The amendment to the Decentralisation Act in 2019 allocating 33 per cent of seats to women in local government paves the way for the election of 370 women. However, the story is quite different at the People’s Majlis (Parliament) level in this once matriarchal society, where of the 87 MPs only 4 are women.

MP Mahmood, whose parents did not adhere to the strict stereotyping of gender roles, says her entry to Parliament was an eye-opener. Having previously worked in women-led enterprises, she had ‘the shock of my life’ on entering parliament, where there is a ‘very gendered view on how to do politics; where the louder one is and name calling is the name of the game. She had asked her father for guidance on how to adapt to this new situation and was advised to be herself and more assertive to break the model.

Jabyn concurs, stating that in the legal field too, those who are louder, usually the male, are perceived as being the better lawyers. The younger generations grow up with certain expectations, only to face a harsher reality when they enter the real world, Jabyn says.

Getting pregnant while a Member of Parliament was quite another experience Mahmood says. Standing Orders do not address the issue of pregnancy, and she was determined to attend every session and be present during the voting period even if it meant not taking a toilet break, to prove that women do not have to compromise on their womanhood to be in leadership roles.

They are worn thin, she says, with just four women in parliament, and the need to be in as many committees as possible. She has proved her ability to read and understand budgets and points out that the absence of appropriate policies makes it difficult to question inadequate financial allocations for areas such as food and health. It is, she says important for parliamentarians to be cognizant of the fact that “We are legislating not for one gender, but for both the genders.”

The trick is also to continue asking questions without giving up, Mahmood says, adding that after more than two years of prodding, the Maldives is set to open a separate rehabilitation centre for females on November 13th.

Yumna Rasheed, who has handled World Bank and UN projects for the Maldivian government, says on returning to the workforce after maternity leave, she was told she would not be able to cope with the work, despite her education and experience.

But she chose to turn a deaf ear to criticisms and carry on.

Rasheed turned to business to cope with insomnia and says the opportunity to introduce locally produced crafts to the market has given her much satisfaction. She put the long sleepless nights to good use, designing and crafting local products to break into an imports-dominated market.

She says she had concerns about discussing her insomnia publicly, but when she did, she received a positive response. The Covid-19 pandemic provided women more opportunities to become entrepreneurs and break out of the stereotypical role of homemaker and caregiver; “many women came up with business ideas,” a change from what it used to be three to four years earlier.

The panellists stress that though gender parity has been achieved in the field of education, and though more women are in civil service, they continue to be in lower-paying, clerical positions. MP Mahmood states that maternity leave and other family needs result in women taking that much longer to reach leadership positions. A recent study reveals that women are treated far worse in the private sector and small business enterprises, where there is little or no adherence to Employment Law, Mahmood points out. Forty-four per cent of the informal workforce is women, she says, and they have little or no social protection.

The situation is worse for disabled or otherwise vulnerable women such as widows, senior citizens, the girl child, and migrant workers the webinar heard.

And as Jabyn points out, there is a disparity between the needs of women who live in the North and South atolls, too.

If these issues are to be adequately addressed, says MP Mahmood, then they must be all represented at decision-making bodies.

She also says that males who promote gender equality must be given more space both in the Maldives and across the world. Rasheed adds that while women bring more value and awareness to the table, ‘true change comes when women do not have to be better but are accepted as just as good.”

While previous generations had the support of extended families, freeing up women to concentrate on careers, in today’s nuclear families both partners must share family responsibilities, says MP Mahmood, who adds that younger generations must be brought up to be aware of gender biases but away from such practices.

It is heartening she says that women colleagues include girls on their campaign teams and make a point of supporting women in whatever their needs are. In her case, she constantly reminds herself that she not only ‘represents the rural, but also the rural women.’ Jabyn points out that though Maldives is on the right path, more needs to be done in terms of gender sensitization.

Clearly, one would expect that gender parity in education would result in women’s emancipation, especially when the Maldives was formally a matriarchal society.

Jabyn’s doctoral research centered on women in public life, and she says it is time to ask where these perceptions of a support role for women and leadership for men come from; “is it Islam or have we created it ourselves?”

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