4th February 2001
|NEW YORK— At the United Nations last
week, the Maldives was accused of committing an unpardonable sin in the
context of universally-recognized human rights: implementing a national
law that forbids a woman from running for the highest ranking job in the
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reprimanded the Maldives for its dubious distinction: perhaps the only UN member state which constitutionally bars a woman from becoming either president or vice-president of the country.
The law is also in violation of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women which was acceded to by the Maldives in 1993.
But at the time of accession, the government expressed at least two reservations pointing out that it would not comply with certain provisions of the convention if they were contradictory to Islamic law, the Sharia.
In several Third World nations, specifically in the Middle East, the line of succession in political leadership is traditionally from father to son— never to a daughter.
But these countries have continued this practice for centuries, a hereditary custom in all family-run governments in the Gulf, some dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
Unlike the Maldives, they never made the grave mistake of inserting it into their constitutions.
Last year, when Syrian President Hafez al-Assad died after 29 years in power, he was immediately succeeded by his son Bashar.
King Hussein, who ruled over Jordan for over 47 years until his death in February 1999, was also succeeded by a male heir, his 38-year-old son, Prince Abdallah.
In March 1999, Sheik Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa of Bahrain died suddenly after 38 years in office.
And in keeping with family tradition, his 50-year-old son, Sheik Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, was his successor.
King Hassan, who ruled Morocco for over 38 years, died in July 1999 only to be succeeded by his son, King Mohammed VI.
In two other Gulf nations, Oman and Qatar, the reins of power were transferred to sons - both in bloodless palace coups.
In Saudi Arabia, the designated successor of the 79-year-old King is his half-brother, who is also the Crown Prince.
In all— or most of these countries— women are scarce in public and political life.
To its credit it should be said, the Maldives, has offered electoral rights to women, including the right to vote and the right to run for political office.
But most Gulf nations do not concede these basic rights: an issue that troubles the United Nations.
In the Maldives, however, a National Policy on Women had been drawn up and was awaiting endorsement by the cabinet. The government was also planning to set up a Gender Management System primarily for purposes of mainstreaming gender.
The national machinery for the advancement of women consists of the Gender Equality Council, the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Island and Ward Women's Committees. The Council, which was established last December, is chaired by the president.
Speaking before the UN committee last week, Aneesa Ahmed, a woman deputy minister of the Maldivian Ministry of Women's Affairs, admitted that two articles in the constitution bar a woman from holding the two highest ranking offices in the country.
"The question of removing the discriminatory clauses was widely debated upon," she told the committee, "but a two-thirds majority of the Special Majlis, or the Constitutional Council, voted in favour of retaining the clauses."
In a democracy, she argued, the majority view had to be respected. However, this did not rule out the possibility of a change in the next round of constitutional review.
But the chairperson of the Committee, Charlotte Abaka of Ghana, was not convinced. She pointed out that unless "democracy" was based on respect for equality, it could not be called a democracy.
"It did not seem right that women were prohibited from being the president of the country just because the majority of the Constitutional Council had voted to retain that provision of the constitution," she added.
Zelmira Regazzoli of Argentina, who is also a member of the committee, said she was impressed by the high literacy rate in the Maldives - with 99.1 percent for females alone. But still, she said, there was concern that there were few women at the decision-making level.
Meanwhile, the Maldives has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, with 59 percent of the total number of marriages ending in divorce. Asked to spell out the reasons, Ahmed said one reason was the ease with which a man could get a divorce.
According to the Sharia, on which all national legislation is based, the verbal pronouncement by the husband was adequate to terminate a marriage without having to go to a court, she said.
Another reason for the high divorce rate was the lack of any social stigma on the divorced person. But then, she added, re-marriage among the same couple who were once divorced was also fairly common.
Editorial/ Opinion Contents
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