What effects (and setbacks?) the popular Indian serial may have on Maldivian women's empowerment movement
By Hilath Rasheed
Some find it an exhilarating experience to watch films or read books that have strong and independent women as central characters. Thank Jane Campion and Sidney Sheldon for that. But others dwell in socially constructed patriarchal societies, infatuated with women characters who are submissive to the extent that they suffer gross injustices at the hands of men, whether physical or emotional.
Where does the Maldivian woman stand? Perhaps, we don't need go further. The Maldivian society is not subtle. The clues are all there to see. A look at Maldivian women's obsession with soaps that have central stories woven around submissive women, such as the likes of the Indian serial Heena, reflects Maldivian women's outlooks on their social roles, and where their sympathies lie.
"The fact that many Maldivian women identify with Heena is because they themselves can identify with the character of Heena--submissive, obedient and very much protective of her husband Sameer, whatever injustices he does to her," said a 28-year-old mother of two.
However, we have to take into account the cultural differences when we relate Heena with Maldivian women. In Indian culture, divorce is very much frowned upon; women and their families will go to great pains to preserve the sanctity of marriage even if it means the woman has to undergo a lifelong suffering in a loveless marriage.
But that is not the case in Maldives. Though divorce is still frowned upon, Maldivian women still have the option of ending a loveless or oppressive marriage without so many social complications as is apparent in Indian culture. But the surprising thing is many Maldivian still try to "stick it out", regardless of unhappy marriages they may have entered into.
Take the case of Aishath (who wouldn't give her last name for personal reasons) who is from an island but came to Male', pursued higher education and got a white-collar job. She then married, got two kids, resigned her job and took up the role of housewife. She later found that her husband had been keeping other lovers but she choose to give a blind eye to her husband's double life. Why?
"For the sake of my children," she said simply.
Give her credit for taking into consideration the sensitivities of her children. But look at how depressing it is for her to live the rest of her life with a husband who is taunting her human dignity--and her self-dignity--by seeking pleasure in other women while he is still married to her. In a Maldives context, Aishath could very well be another Heena--protective of her husband, ready to struggle to save her marriage regardless of the injustices he is doing to her.
Some call such a situation a "silent suffering." Some women argue that women like Heena and Aishath are actually "emotionally strong", the reason being that they are able to take the emotional onslaughts of the husband with calm and quiet.
But women who argue against this doesn't think that being "emotionally strong" necessarily makes a "strong woman." In fact, they take "emotionally strong" as being a kind of weakness--a weakness that disables the woman from standing up to her husband.
"I would describe Aishath as strong if she would really stand up to her husband and demand that he treat her with dignity and equality," a 24-year-old unmarried girl said in relation to Aishath's case.
"We women have to believe that we have a good life ahead of us. We don't have to take sufferings that we don't deserve, tortures that others inflict upon us. In the case of Aishath, I would strongly argue her to end her husband's humiliating treatment of her by going separate ways and seeking someone who really loves her and who will treat her as equal partner. Where's her dignity? Isn't dignity the most valued asset of any human being?"
Perhaps the individuality is lost when a woman gets married?
"Independence and individuality--a lot of this is lost when a woman marries," commented Maryam, a teacher trainee.
"Talk about sexual oppression. Heena was sexually unfulfilled but she stuck it out. Aishath is, too. And so does a lot of others. We're taught that everything other than 'the big picture' is not important, 'the big picture' being that one has to hold the marriage together."
However, divorce can turn out to be messy. You might have to run to court for days. And even then the trauma of laying open your personal life and your emotions to an indifferent judge could turn out emotionally frustrating. At the end, you may be left drained.
"And after a divorce, where will she go?" questioned Maryam.
"We are talking about an average woman with adequate educational background with about a Rf2,000 (about 200 US dollars) salary. Can she go back to her mom's place, where their is hardly any space and where she'll be considered a burden? In most of the cases it is."
Perhaps Heena--and the Maldivian woman--should adopt, to some extent and to suit her own needs, some of the traits of Ruby who seems to be everything that Heena is not--ruthless, independent, ambitious, manupulative.
"Personally, I would want a diluted version of both Heena's and Ruby's qualities," agreed Maryam.
"But if anybody asked me who would be the most happiest of them in the long run I would have to say that it would be Heena because if a person is considerate about others, then she will find happiness, as against Ruby who does everything out of self-interest."
Coming to the root of the problem: why are women--not just Maldivian women--generally submissive? Is it an inborn thing? A biological phenomenon? A natural instinct? A trait of "being a woman"? Some don't think so! And with good reason, too.
"It is not a natural or biological phenomenon," said Aneesa Ahmed, the Deputy Minister of Women's Affairs and Social Security.
"Gender roles have been socially created. From childhood, we have been taught that men are breadwinners and women the dependents. It is only when someone becomes dependent that the person becomes submissive, regardless of whether it is a man or woman. That's why there is a need for women's empowerment movement."
"Think about what girls have been taught from the day they are born: the duties of a daughter, a wife, a mother comes before the individuality of being just a woman with the needs of a woman," echoed Maryam.
Some question the validity of the existence of a women's empowerment movement, claiming that Maldives enjoys gender equality in all walks of life, as it is sanctioned by the Constitution. But the reality is that although the government recognizes equal rights of the sexes, society and tradition do not. And this is why a women's empowerment movement is needed. We need to educate women on their rights, the need for them to be independent and strong, the need for them to demand equal treatment, the need for them to be on an independent and sound economic footing, so that they won't have to be dependent on any one--whether it be their peers, superiors, partners or husbands--in case should they become subject to neglect, suffering and other injustices.
Equal rights are not about a war being fought to determine whether who is physically strong--man or woman. Equal rights are about treating every woman with dignity, the dignity that a human being deserves and has a right to. Equal rights are about loving and caring, about sharing, about treating your partner as your equal, because in a relationship where one partner does not treat the other as his or her equal, love won't bloom.
What a pity! If only men and women could learn to love one another, treat one another with respect and concentrate more on expanding the horizons of their relationships could they discover how fantastic and blissful our short lives here on this earth could otherwise be.
This article was published in The Monday Times