Women in the Maldives—
A fight for democracy
—and political space

by Aishath Nooshin Waheed

Photo by Dhahau Naseem

Photo by Dhahau Naseem

On September 19th 2003, a young man named Evan Naseem was brutally tortured and beaten to death by guards in Maafushi Prison in the Maldives. Torture in prisons was commonplace and the families of victims who did not survive were told by the authorities that they had either died of a heart attack or committed suicide, their bodies hastily buried to avoid suspicion. The harsh realities of the notorious Maldivian prisons were an open secret, but no-one dared speak against it. Since 1978 Maldivians suffered under the iron fist of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, an autocrat who styled himself like the Ba’athist dictators he admired.   Under his regime there was no freedom of speech, freedom of press or assembly; dissent was expressed in hushed tones, far from the prying eyes of undercover police.

Yet that September in 2003, something changed.

When Evan Naseem’s body was delivered to his mother Mariyam Manike, wrapped in funeral shrouds, she ripped them off so that all those visiting him to pay their respects could see the brutal wounds inflicted upon him. The torture that had been routinely carried out by the state for the past few decades was undeniable. As the news spread, riots ensued in the capital Malé and in the prisons, while the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) announced their formation in exile in Sri Lanka. Evan Naseem’s tragic death set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately lead to Gayoom’s undoing. Yet it would not have been possible without the courage of Mariyam Manike, whose simple act of defiance against the state would change the Maldives forever.

In the years since, women have been integral to the fight for democracy - perhaps unsurprising given Maldivian women in the 20th century enjoyed more freedoms than many of their South Asian counterparts.

During the 50’s, President Mohamed Amin Didi championed women’s rights, even appointing some as Members of Parliament. Moomina Haleem, who was the first elected woman MP, became the country’s first ever woman minister in the 1970s. Women played an active role in the workforce and excelled in higher education by the 1990s. However, at the turn of the century most leadership roles were still occupied by men, with women relegated to predetermined roles and duties in politics. Even with the first free and fair election in 2008, there were only a handful of women cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament in the country.

In 2012, the country’s first democratically elected government was toppled in a coup d'état by the police and military, and once again women were at the forefront of political activism.

The MDP’s policies regarding free health care and allowances for single mothers had resonated with the women at the grassroots of the movement. The thousands-strong MDP Women’s March for Democracy in late February 2012 breathed new life into the fight against the coup. Protests were regularly organised and led by women who did not shy away from standing defiantly in the front lines against the police shields where many were beaten, arrested and hosed down by the security forces. The momentum of the initial protests after the coup was maintained because of the bravery of these women.

Despite the important role women play in activism, the lack of women in leadership roles persists.

I spoke to Sifa Mohamed, President of the Women’s Wing of the MDP and the current Mayor of Malé City. Sifa says that despite the historical prominence of women in Maldivian society, there are obstacles in the way of women entering and succeeding in politics today. Women are expected to step back and give leadership roles to the men. Women in politics, especially those who take to the streets to protest, are often portrayed negatively by opposition politicians, and sometimes the media. The achievements and input of those who fight their way onto decision-making bodies are overlooked. The lack of women in political leadership, she says, leads to women’s issues and concerns not being raised by political parties and the government.

The work of women was integral to the removal of another despotic government in 2018, this time through democratic means, and brings with it renewed hope to the country. There can be no doubt that women will once again take the initiative in order to carve a more meaningful space for themselves in the Maldives’ political future.

  • The Maldives is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, comprising of 1,192 coral islands of which 200 are inhabited
  • It has population of more than 400,00
  • The first settlers are believed to have arrived around 500BC
  • Historically a Buddhist nation, it converted to Islam in 1152AD
  • Made a British Protectorate in 1887
  • First constitution was introduced in 1932
  • The dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom spanned from 1978-2008
  • The country held its first free and fair democratic election in 2008 - Mohamed Nasheed of MDP was elected President
  • MDP’s government was removed by the police and military in a coup d'état in 2012
  • Yameen Abdul Gayoom, former President Gayoom’s half-brother, came to power in 2013, resulting in a further backslide to autocracy
  • President Yameen was defeated in the 2018 elections by the MDP and its coalition members