Of all the criticisms leveled at Muslim countries by far the most common is the position of women in society. It is a subject that has appeared more than once during this year’s presidential primaries. Some have dismissed Islam as inherently misogynistic religion that has no tolerance for gender equality, exacerbated by the false narrative perpetrated over decades that muslims hold values that are incompatible with other nations or cultures. It is a convenient argument for those who see the world as a series of entrenched camps.
But to distill religion or international relations into such simplistic terms is unhelpful. It also ignores a core development that has emerged over the last few years where multi-party democracies in the Muslim world are making strides towards gender equality. While so much work remains—and the toxic grip of religious fundamentalism continues to hijack efforts at reform—we must continue to reassert our desire as legislators to continue along this path of transformation.
Clearly, the success of women directly reflects the success of a society as a whole. In the Maldives, we are starting to witness tangible benefits in terms of social cohesion and economic output, and we are not the only Muslim nation challenging the naysayers. In the last decade we have seen legal and political reforms in many countries including Gulf states such as Qatar and Bahrain. They may not be the giant leaps that would satisfy some critics, but in the context of centuries of entrenched social and political culture they remain benchmark moments, and if we dismiss efforts at reform, not matter how nascent, then we in turn damage these young movements before they have hardly begun.
As with so much social policy, our efforts in gender equality start with our young people. A more educated, healthy female population brings economic benefits in terms of a more dynamic workforce. Educated women are less likely become mothers too young and fall into a cycle of dependency. We must let women find their potential academically and then in their careers.
This year, we are proud to see 55 percent of students passing out of high school in 2015 were girls. In fact, gender parity in Maldivian schools was reached a few years ago. 100 percent of Maldivian children are now enrolled in primary school. Our co-ed policy is a strong and unmoveable principle that is entrenched in our education system.
The work is not over. Quality of education needs to improve and girls must be encouraged to go into non-stereotypical careers. Yet we are reaping the benefits of this inclusive education policy.
In Maldivian state owned companies, there is a target of at least a third of female board members. Most companies have already reached 30 percent, and in our central 80 percent of the managing teams are women. This level of parity would be unheard of on Wall Street or even in London. For a young nation with existing cultural and societal norms, these are impressive statistics. They also repudiate the lazy stereotypes and veiled ignorance towards post-colonial nations that often emerges from commentators abroad.
What is clear is that gender equality must be based on pragmatism. For example, our government realized that women were the backbone to our agricultural sector, with over half our farmers being female. That is why we have set about increasing training and financial loans with strong focus on this demographic and sector. Where once our economy was throttled by a lack of skills or access to credit for women, we are giving a crucial section of our economy a well needed boost while creating an army of female entrepreneurs whose newfound skills can be passed down the generations.
That also means being sympathetic to the constraints put on working mothers. There is no reason why pregnant women can not work from home and these provisions should remain after birth. In the Maldives, we are determined to ensure mothers are able to spend more time with their newborns while not compromising their ability to be economically independent. Now they can do so for up to a year.
For those seeking tangible and permanent change, it must be backed up with well-crafted legislation. A Gender Equality Bill is now on its way for mid 2016. This was drafted with help of Asia Development Bank and actors from across civil society. Without these legal protections, change can be easily undone or reversed.
The campaign for gender equality is a multi-faceted one. And the task is not small. Across the developing world, daycare centers must be properly funded and staffed to assist working mothers, reproductive health facilities free of stigma, safe houses available for victims of domestic violence and strong legislative recourse available for women to challenge injustice and harassment either in the workplace or within their communities. That includes fair treatment during divorce or other legal proceedings. Governments must ensure ministries, state agencies and private companies not only abide by these new legal requirements, but also buy into the decision to place gender equality at the center of the national conversation.
Crucially, all social and political change emerges from within. It should never be forced from outside. Men and women were described in The Quran as equal members of society. Therefore the opportunity to achieve gender parity for young democracies like the Maldives should similarly be sourced from within nations’ own social and religious lexicon. The movement towards true gender parity within the Muslim world will require efforts across generations and political divides. It will continue to rely on the bravery of women to challenge discrimination as well as on the support of men. Yet we should be encouraged. In the Maldives the process has begun in earnest. It is down to all of us to see the story of gender equality to its rightful conclusion.