Hundreds of men and women stand on the side of the road waving placards under the hot sun. Police and military are nearby, watching. I'm in Male, the capital of the Maldives and standing in the middle of a protest. The Maldivans aren't happy. Beyond the idyllic beaches and luxurious resorts I've discovered another side of this small island nation. As part of my long running work to raise attention about violence and discrimination against women for my foundation Project Monma, I came to the Maldives. I wanted to learn more about how this country's precarious human rights situation and unsteady relationship with democracy was faring with women. I approached some of the burqa clad women in the street and asked them why they were there. 'We are protesting against corruption,' they told me.
'We have no rights here,' they yell showing me their signs. 'There is no democracy.'
Democracy was ushered into the small Muslim country for the first time in 2008 when President Nasheed was elected to power. However, when he was thrown out in 2012 democracy took a downward spiral.
Standing back from the crowd I watched the police forces confront the crowd. A special woman's police force was brought in to deal with the angry female protesters.
Democracy did indeed appear to be in decline. All of the women I interviewed asked me to not use their names, they were scared of repercussions. My first indication that democracy was not thriving in the small island nation.
I first went to meet with a small NGO called Hope for Women. We met in their small office in the centre of Male. 'The move to democracy was difficult for the people of the Maldives,' they told me. 'People didn't know what to do with freedom of speech.' It has also had a negative impact on women. Before there were limits on who could preach Islam, now anyone can.
What this means is that the small group of extremists in the country are using religion as an excuse to oppress women and they're using freedom of speech as a means to do so. Girls are being raised to think they need to obey their husbands and cannot leave their homes without a man accompanying them.
'Women don't have freedom,' they say. 'And the problem is women don't question these things.'
Meeting with Society for Health Organization, an NGO working on women's issues in Male, they agree that democracy has encouraged the rise of Islam in the country, which has not been good for women.
'The veil and the burka is something that is becoming more forced. When we were growing up we didn't see this so much. We have started to see women covering up more and more.'
Like Hope for Women, they attribute this change to freedom of speech, which has allowed the more extreme Islamists a platform, many of whom come from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
They are advocating that women must be subservient to men and are using social media and public meetings to spread their message.
Hope for Women are working to counter these violent attitudes by going to schools to speak with young girls and are using Islamic scholars to teach that violence is not Islam.
'Democracy has been exploited by people who want to oppress women,' she says.
I next went to visit Transparency International, the only independent organization that observes the elections in the Maldives. I met with two young women, both who had returned from studies abroad and wanted to bring a more free and fair governmental system to the Maldives. Their efforts have been received with death threats.
'There has been a failed transition to democracy which has led to instability,' one woman explains to me. 'Most Maldivans want to have democracy but when it comes to rights is difficult especially with Islam and women.'
'The role for a man and a woman has changed a lot,' says one of the women. 'They have changed for the worst. Democracy and Islam are a constant negotiation.'
My final meeting was with Humay a Freelance researcher in a small café in Male. 'One of the worst things that has happened with the democracy movement was Nasheed giving a platform to the radical Islamic groups. They now have an Islamic ministry where preachers are promoting a more radical view of Islam. They are promoting child marriage for example,' she explains. 'We never had this before. We do not need an Islamic ministry.'
'I feel like there is a loss of our identity,' she says.
'There's no freedom here, no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion. You have to be a Sunni. The constitution says that if you are not Muslim then you are not Maldivan.' She looks at me concerned and reminds me to not use her name, she is worried about death threats.
The irony that the move towards democracy has resulted in a decline of women's rights, is obvious. A system that is supposed to promote freedom has instead allowed individuals with an agenda against women to deny women freedom. As the Maldives hangs delicately in the balance between democracy and dictatorship, it will be interesting to see where they go from here. With freedoms for all increasingly becoming curbed, such as that as the right to protest, will the Maldives continue to promote themselves as a democracy and if they do, how will they explain the declining rights of women? How will the Islamists in the country defend their right to exclude women from public spaces while at the same time promoting democratic principles? Freedom, an essential element of being human must be allocated equally amongst all members of society. Beyond being a core principle of democracy it is simply what is right and fair. Part of being free and fair includes including women, at all levels of society with rights to freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom to make their own choices about what they wear, where they go and who they go there with. Maldives, what will you do next?
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