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UNDP-Maldives staff, Umar Mavee, shares his personal experience of changing gender roles and encourages men and boys to become agents of change to achieve gender equality.

We were all boys. We’d play Halo and fight about which Naruto character was more powerful. Even then, in school we would tease the girls in our classes. In Grade 2, my friends and I thought of starting something funny; we’d go around to classes during break and give cards to girls with phrases like ‘I Love You’ and ‘You’re so pretty’ and trying to hold their hands. Our recipients were embarrassed, near tears, and haunted. To this day, one girl doesn’t speak to me.

We knew we could get away with it because it was mindless fun then. We didn’t think what the girls would feel if we approach them in the middle of a class and say something like that. We did it because we could, and we knew that we could get away with it.

Because boys will be boys.

As I got older my group of friends also changed to include boys and girls, and slowly, I started to notice a difference in the roles that were expected from the girls. They had to help lay the table for meals, serve food and wash dishes. I was appreciated and congratulated over similar chores at home, while this was what was expected from girls as part of their daily routine.

This wasn’t the case when we were younger. Back then, we played sports together- raced to the school stairs together. It didn’t register in our brains that boys and girls had different roles, abilities, and functions.

Adolescence also brought with it puberty and acne. Heart palpitations at the sight of girls. During this time, given the repetitive affirmation that boys were in an elevated position of society, our mentality towards girls also started to change.

We, as boyfriends, felt a certain responsibility to ‘protect’ them, both physically and in matters of us holding on to our delicate egos. In dire cases, the girlfriends had to report to their boyfriend and would get reprimanded if they ‘stepped out of line’ – in normal terms, if they did something independently. Girls were expected to be timid, obedient and to give and give and give.

Along the way, I started feeling queasy about the narrative regarding women. They were being held up to expectations dreamt up in our minds, forever searching for the ‘perfect person’ with a ‘perfect behavior’ and ‘perfect mind’. Every new girl was the talk of the day, and every yester-girl was to be discarded.

I was privy to conversations where girls always had to be ‘good’ and, ‘studious’ and how it correlates to their choice in careers and futures were discussed. Even when we were having fun, any indication of cowardice or weakness was attributed to being ‘womanly’, or ‘like a girl’ (anhen-dhulha). This rhetoric has become so common that today, it passes off as a mere remark that is easily laughed off.

One instance has stayed etched in my mind over the years; I was walking down a road with my then-girlfriend one day. She was headed for a shop and I was headed towards tuition, and we parted ways. I couldn’t have taken 10 steps in the other direction when I heard a loud commotion behind me, and saw my girlfriend being held by the arms by another man. I ran and asked what was going on, to which the man replied that he had only made a passing remark at her and she ‘flipped out’. He asked me to get my woman in check and calm her down.

I realized that she was being harassed, but in my urgency to diffuse the situation I got between them and asked her to let it go. As I dropped her back home, I still remember the way she looked at me and said “Don’t you dare try to stop me when I’m standing up for myself”.

I was shaken. I too was living in a patriarchal bubble, contributing to the masculine bravado.

Title: Fatima’s memory Artist: Refty Ahmed, 2015

Title: Fatima’s memory Artist: Refty Ahmed, 2015

I started looking and listening, and saw that nearly every girl I knew was getting pushed back and forth trying to make their dreams a reality. I saw, firsthand, the hardships and pain they had to go through for something that a boy could access at whim.

Some were forced to choose between their careers and their families, some had to make unimaginable sacrifices in appeasing to the societal expectations, and almost all have faced some form of oppression by our hands at some point in their lives. Seeing all this slowly made me question the attitudes we have been harboring towards women all these years.

I am surrounded by women who are fighting. I am surrounded by women who are suffering and raising themselves above it, breaking their shackles. They are advancing in fields that I, in my youth, could not even have imagined.

It is to these women that I credit the person I am today.

They wait for no tide; they make their own tide. They wait for no man to lead the way; they pave their own road and walk upon it with confidence. I have come to see that there is nothing a man can do that a woman can’t do just as well or better. That the only difference between men and women is biological, and that is no indication of ability or strength.

I realize that the everyday small injustices we perpetuate leads to the bigger issue of marginalizing an entire gender. We, as men/boys must join this fight for gender equality – we must raise our voice and prove it through even our simplest actions- whether through equally contributing to the chores at home, playing on level fields in school, respecting individual dignity both at home and outside, and being active agents of change to achieve gender equality in everything we do.

We cannot keep on saying that ‘boys will be boys’ anymore.


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