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Gender Advocates in Maldives Discuss Ways of Mobilising to Promote Gender Equality in Islam

Muslim women around the world have seen their participation in the private and public sphere curtailed or restricted, to varying degrees, on the basis of religion. This is also the case in the Maldives, where religion is often used as a weapon to justify violence against women, to prevent women’s participation in public life and to reinforce discriminatory practices that put women at a disadvantaged position.

The 2012 study “ The Rights Side” of Life – Second Baseline Human Rights Survey” by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives indicates that the shift towards more conservative views when it comes to equality for women within marriage and in the family is a result of the assertion of certain Islamic values.

Maldives has come a long way since it ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW in 1993 and its optional protocol in 2006. The reservation to Article 7(a) was removed and reflected in the 2008 Constitution. Currently, the reservation to Article 16 is based on Islamic interpretations. Family Law has for the first time codified aspects of Shariah with the introduction of progressive aspects such as prenuptial agreements, setting minimum age at marriage, defining procedures for divorce for women and child support after dissolution of marriage.

However, its implementation and a significant attempt to aware the public has not resulted in a positive change. For example, only 5 prenuptial agreements have been registered in the family court since 2001 and child marriage is registered despite setting a minimum age.

The United Nations in Maldives, in collaboration with partners including Musawah Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family, the Ministry of Health and Gender and Asian Development Bank, has brought together key players from varying backgrounds for a four-day workshop to share knowledge and experience of removal of reservations to the CEDAW in other Islamic countries and strategies to develop capacity of stakeholders to mobilise on advocating for an effective gender equality law.

The workshop could not have come at a more appropriate time than this as the Maldives is up for review at the CEDAW Committee in 2015 and the pressing need to address emerging women’s rights related issues stemming from rooted conservative values is more urgent than ever.

A variety of issues pertaining to promoting gender equality in Islam were discussed over the course of the workshop led by prominent scholars including Khalid Masud and Zaina Anwar who has shared valuable insights into the area of Islam and gender equality. Major areas covered in the workshop included construction of gender in Islamic legal thought, CEDAW and Muslim Family Laws, Musawah framework for action and its application on specific issues, lifting CEDAW reservations and mainstreaming CEDAW and creating public voice.

The main challenge for women to seek equality in both public and private lives is because of the lack of opportunity for women to raise their voice. According to advocates of gender equality, there is a way we can change this undesirable scenario: by giving women a voice, a platform to raise their concerns and talk about their rights within the Islamic framework.

‘At the national level, it is important to open spaces for voices and debates and it is important to keep that space open’, noted Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a founding member of the Musawah Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family who was one of the facilitators at the workshop.

Creating an alternative voice for the voiceless has been a major focus of the 4-day inclusive workshop conducted in Maldives in June on the issue of Islam and Gender Equality, a follow-up to the successful workshop conducted last year on the theme of “Realising Gender Equality in the Family within an Islamic Framework.”

A total of 28 individuals participated in the workshop. They include staff and policy makers at the Ministry of Health and Gender, Ministry of Education, Attorney General’s Office, Prosecutor General’s Office, Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), curriculum developers, civil society actors gender activists, lawyers and media representatives, staff and members of independent commissions and authorities (HRCM and the FPA) and UN staff.

“We never had this number of diversity in our workshops. We never had this number of men,” exclaimed Zahiah Anwar, founding member of Sisters in Islam (SIS), an NGO working on the rights of Muslim women.

A collaborative effort by UNFPA, UNWOMEN, UNDP and the Resident Coordinator’s Office together with the Ministry of Health and Gender, the workshop was aimed at expanding the democratic space to share experiences and knowledge from around the world with gender advocates in the Maldives to empower them to promote and utilize Islam-based strategies.

Another objective of the workshop was to enable policymakers to push for the incorporation of gender equality measures into national legislation and to advocate the government to commit to the elimination of discrimination against women.

The workshop also provided the space for gender advocates from different professions and background to engage in dialogue on the key strengths and challenges for gender equality, and working together to increase gender equality using Islam-based strategies.

Furthermore, this workshop also presented a unique opportunity for the like-minded to utilize knowledge and learn from each other and empower nations raise their collective voices in issues such as Islam and gender equality.

The feedback received from the participant has been largely positive. One of them described the workshop as an “eye opener” and another hopes to use “the new voice in the future”.

‘We have many challenges, but we have opportunities as well. We have different backgrounds, but we still have the same target. It will take time, but it can be achieved,’ remarked another participant.

‘This workshop has given me important tools. I hope to use them and move forward to change society for the better’, one participant expressed.

Prior to the four-day training, the Ministry of Law and Gender discussed the proposed Gender Equality Bill from an Islamic perspective.

“It is amazing to see policymakers in Maldives encouraging alternative voices in public debate on Islam,” Ziba noted.

A major outcome of the workshop is the creation of two working groups: one of them will oversee the removal of CEDAW’s reservations and the other will work on creating a public voice on women’s rights in Islam.

The UN remains committed to facilitate and support the working groups emerged from the workshop and their selected initiators in realizing their important goals. UN Maldives urge other key players to empower the civil society to have an alternative narrative to ensure women’s rights as envisaged by international conventions.

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