This article, written by Rae Munavvar, was originally published by The Wire on July 22, 2020. The article has been republished by the IFJ with permission from The Wire. Read the original article here.
Male (Maldives): As a journalist, the most disconcerting aspect of this sort of ‘endeavour’ to seek justice is having to see one’s own face on the news, day after day. We reporters are most comfortable behind the scene, secure in our mobility across the keyboard, shielded by our cameras, armed with the might of ink and microphones.
Nevertheless, when the highest office in the Maldives shirks its duty to protect the rights of citizens, it then becomes the duty of a journalist to call attention to the infraction, even if that means stepping into the forefront themselves – or at least, that’s how I’ve chosen to view matters.
Unwelcome, uninvited and unreciprocated advances
In February 2019, I attended a meeting with the incumbent secretary of communications at the president’s office, Hassan Ismail, during which he propositioned me, offering special treatment for myself and the newsroom at which I serve as the editor, in exchange for “time spent with him” at either a resort or an apartment in Sri Lanka.
[The Wire reached out to Hassan Ismail for his response to these allegations. His denial is carried in full at the end of this article.]
A sickly attempt to “sweeten the deal”, he suggested that he would also be able to alleviate the political standing of my now-retired father, former attorney general and founding member of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), by extending an ambassadorship. Given my father’s fluency in Russian, a well-known fact, he went as far as to suggest an appointment in Moscow.
Having worked with Ismail before, at his family-owned Business Image Group (BIG), I had heard of uncouth behaviour and some lewd remarks directed at other women. The women I worked with always made a point of not working alone with him, myself included, though at the time I had not experienced more than an inappropriate comment.
Today, I do regret not pursuing the issue back then, more than I can say. However, that all took place in 2012 and though it doesn’t seem like too long ago, things were different then. One had to wait a very long time and endure much hardship before being heard, let alone believed. It also took place in a private company, and while that does not make the situation any less wrong, earning off the taxpayers’ coin while serving in the position of a state minister, certainly paints a different context.
During this recent meeting, he himself acknowledged to an external party that this was in fact a formal sit-down between the secretary of communications and a managing editor, to discuss, in his words, “matters related to media, collaboration and state action”.
“Let’s stop discussing politics for a minute. Can I trust you? I am trying to organise a bit of a party crew, to enjoy myself. I think you’d be perfect for this…”
It is difficult to put into words the thoughts that were running through my head at this time, though the memory remains raw. I have worked very hard, in an often dangerous field governed in the Maldives by all manner of machismo, to launch and propel a news product, develop a young, dynamic team and deliver unbiased, original news. The idea that all of those achievements could be condensed into an unflattering stereotype, by this crude older man, was and is, impossible to process.
Feeling dehumanised and distraught, I tried to swerve the conversation away from his torrent of innuendos, drawing his family into the conversation and inquiring about their wellbeing. However, he repeatedly resumed the topic, saying his children were “grown up” and he was being “cool”.
Returning to the unappealing invitation, he stressed that I came alone and that he just had a feeling I’d be “a lot of fun”. Having already said I was busy for the following six months, I even pointed out that I was now 30 years old, to which he leered at me, “I bet you’re still the same young, wild thing, on the inside.”
At that truly disturbing point, I excused myself and left the meeting.
Perks of the president’s office
Not only did I immediately report the experience to my present employer, I told my father the very next day. Both retellings were traumatising in themselves, particularly because my very traditional father and I don’t usually converse about such matters, and appearing vulnerable in front of our senior editorial team does feel akin to weakening my authority.
My father, Dr Mohamed Munavvar, reacted like any parent – he called every figure of authority he possibly could. Only in this case, that meant the president, the speaker and various cabinet members. Within 48 hours, I received certain confirmation that President Ibrahim Solih had indeed caught wind of this incident; he verified and inquired into the details, offering assurances that the matter was being looked into.
Mohamed Nasheed, former president and current speaker of parliament as well as ruling party leader, twice made personal calls to me, checking on my wellbeing and consoling me by saying that the MDP would see to it that justice was served.
While I appreciated his kindness, that the final decision rests solely in the hands of the incumbent, who had personally appointed Ismail to his post, was abundantly clear.
But briefly, I felt comforted. Justice would be served, my career intact and the likes of this man would no longer be in power.
Then a day passed. A month. And then, eleven.
During this time, I received a call from a female state minister at the president’s office. I had great faith in this woman, and when she asked me what I wanted and what had happened, I divulged all relevant details gladly, reiterating that in my opinion, a man such as Ismail should not be allowed to continue in a position of influence, nor allowed to discriminate against or attempt to bribe journalists.
Disappointingly, I did not hear back from her or anyone else in the president’s office.
Then in January of this year, out of the blue, the president’s chief of staff, Ali Zahir, summoned me to the president’s office. I was ushered into a dark room alone with him, the legally mandated independent committee for oversight of harassment cases nowhere to be seen. What followed was an awkward, undignified prodding-cum-justification for what had transpired.
Ali Zahir: “He admitted he said some things. But he guarantees they weren’t sexual in nature.”
Myself: “Is that what you brought me all this way to say? I have not heard of – and being a journalist I consume a lot of information – any man across history, from any part of the world, that willingly and wilfully confessed to having harassed a woman”.
“If he meant to take me for an executive lunch to a resort, why in the world would he offer to instead take me to an apartment in Sri Lanka? What could possibly justify that being a professional request?”
Ali Zahir: “You have a point. What do you want?”
Myself: “At the very least, an apology. From the state, less from him. A guarantee that this will never happen again, to me or any other woman. A way to keep working with the PO (president’s office), without discrimination or difficulty”.
Naively, at this point I thought the worst was over. A resolution, whether I was happy with it or otherwise, would surely be reached. But that was not to be. This barely constituted a beginning to my nightmare, for three hours later, the news would make front page on a small news website, one that I had no previous knowledge of and bears no affiliation to myself.
No matter, I now had a choice to make – would I formally pursue this case, knowing the publicity that would gather? Or would I allow for the issue to die down, exercising my right to silence, allowing for the indiscretion to be swept under the rug, as similar events had been done so many times before?
The truth is, there was no real choice. Growing up in a political household and understanding the pain it can bring to a family meant that publicising such an issue was not a matter I took lightly – but I had to do what I felt in my bones was right. Having lectured long and hard about safeguarding the truth and holding perpetrators accountable, I needed to make a decision that would allow me to sleep at night.
Of deliberate inaction and selective justice
On January 26, I filed an official letter of complaint to the president’s office. Three days later, I received a letter response that roughly translates to:
“The aforementioned issue has been investigated and actions have been taken. We have identified that no information was disclosed from this office. The president has taken note of the matter.”
The letter, which barely qualifies as such, was signed by an unnamed, as-yet-unidentified person, though it bears the official government stamp. A stamp that, it seemed, punctuated the indignity I felt as I read the letter. My disappointment in this system had reached its peak. It is the right of all victims to be notified of actions taken against the accused, and it is the responsibility of the state to have informed the accuser.
Was there a point, in reminding the president himself, of his constitutional duties and a citizen’s constitutional rights? Of this, I am not certain. I did, however, respond by pleading for him to reveal the above, to reconsider the decision, typing in tears over the lack of mere compassion the response held. The same day, a fire I never intended to stoke began running through my veins. Highlighting the attempted bribery of a journalist by a government official, I submitted another letter to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).
Then, having not heard from either entity, on February 4, I wrote to the Maldives Police Service. I was then summoned for questioning, and delivered my account of what happened. To my knowledge, they also interviewed one other former employee, whose information would likely begin to establish a pattern of behaviour.
Though it seemed time my tears ran dry, as I told the story to my parliament representative, MP for Galolhu South constituency Mickail Naseem, asking him to do all he can to ensure the president is informed, I embarrassingly broke down once more. I was tired, drained and hopeless. In solidarity, my mother did the same via her MP, Hassan Latheef, MDP chairperson and lawmaker for Henveiru-North, and received confirmation that he spoke with President Solih.
However, up till July this year, no word came from either the ACC or police. That is, until, fuelled by the selective justice indicated by the president’s abrupt dismissal of his tourism minister Ali Waheed, I finally came forward and tweeted that I had formally lodged a complaint that President Solih had not seen fit to attend to.
The commissioner of police, Mohamed Hameed, replied with the following, “Hello. I have talked to my team and have been told that the case is being investigated. Have instructed to expedite the investigation.”
I responded, “… I’ve been waiting a long time, preCOVID, more than the allotted period. While I‘m glad this case is moving forward, the same access to justice must be given to all victims…”
Indeed, as these men bided their time, in consideration of the “optics”, the “politics” and the “administrative repercussions”, thus delaying and preventing any semblance of legal procedure or fair justice, a rage had begun running through the veins of this journalist.
‘A culture of mistreating and abusing women’
Readers, I’ve blindsided you a little bit. By now, you must be wondering what may have possessed this administration, elected on pledges of transparency, gender equity, zero tolerance for corruption, judicial and police reform… to behave in this fashion.
While I cannot pretend to understand the inner workings of the leading administration, I can present you with the following facts:
- In December 2018, President Solih issued his first pardon after taking office, for MDP member Ibrahim ‘Hoara Ibbe’ Rasheed, convicted of “sexual conduct with a minor”. He is now a free man.
- During his inauguration address to the Parliament on February 2019, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih pledged that the new administration’s policies would address gender disparity and work to end all violence, harassment and discrimination faced by women.
- By March 28, 2019, local media reported that the president expressed his remorse over having freed an unnamed convict, which was speculated to be in reference to Hoara Ibbe.
- In January 2020 (close to when I was summoned to the President’s Office), a surge in reports of child abuse cases was noted, following the surfacing of a report concerning a two-year-old who was sexually abused by an immediate family member.
- A report published in February also revealed that only 390 of 3,100 child abuse cases has reached a conviction in 15 years.
- In February, audio clips allegedly of former tourism minister Ali Waheed, member of Jumhooree Party, making derogatory remarks toward and about a female cabinet minister was leaked on social media. At the time, no action was taken.
- On March 7, the state appointed Amjad Mustafa as president of the Employment Tribunal, a man who as deputy elections chief was accused of sexual harassment in 2018. Though multiple staff came forward, the Elections Commission maintained that no charges were filed. However, as of July 19, he resigned from his post, allegedly on the grounds that the environment ‘was not conducive’ to his work.
- On June 26, two Maldivian men were arrested over sexually assaulting a Kenyan woman and released the next day with police citing insufficient evidence. No further details were released, but numerous reports allege the accused to be two prominent members of the ruling party, including the husband of an MDP MP with close familial ties to the president.
- Within the first week of July, former Tourism Minister Ali Waheed was ordered to resign over incidents of misconduct which according to local media reports, involved 12 females within the tourism ministry, that was reported by ministry staff to the president, later backed by the gender ministry.
- Appointed in 2019, communication secretary Hassan Ismail is an MDP member and also elder brother of current minister of economic development who, following Ali Waheed’s less-than-graceful exit, is as of July 10, the acting minister of tourism (at the time of publication).
- On July 8, I revealed my complaint on social media, in reaction to the selective justice indicated by Waheed’s sudden, abrupt and definitive sacking.
- Ali Hashim ‘Smith’, senior executive at the tourism ministry openly suggests via Twitter, that he ‘rape’ a girl. The MDP activist was formerly named in a murder investigation and holds zero qualifications for his post. To this day, no action has been taken.
- Mid-July sees a number of survivors speaking up, against the lack of enforcement over sexual offences and demanding an end to impunity.
- On July 19, accusations against fisheries ministry communications director Ahmed Fazeel, member of Maldives Reform Movement (MRM), surfaced. He was suspended the next day, reportedly spurred by an appeal from his party, till investigation concludes.
This disappointing timeline indicates the success with which the Solih administration addressed its pledges to “eradicate difficulties faced by women in social and economic participation, financial empowerment and just treatment in the face of the law”.
And the letter of the law is clear.
Landmark laws, the Bill on Sexual Abuse and Harassment and the Bill on Sexual Offences, were ratified by former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, on May 13, 2014.
Per the Sexual Abuse and Harassment Act (No. 16/2016), every office must establish an independent committee tasked with receiving, investigating and handling all complaints relating to sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace. However, the act does not extend to street harassment and is vague in the consideration of external official interactions.
At the time, gender advocates believed that the main issue keeping women silent was a failure to craft and enact relevant laws.
Six years later, evidenced by the actions of the highest office, the existing legislation continues to be treated as mere suggestion, and has failed to usher in the positive change for which it was drafted.
Systemised abuse and revictimisation
Having faced this injustice first hand, experiencing a system that is designed to victimise survivors a dozen times over, I can confidently say, if I had been assaulted or raped – perhaps I would not have had the strength to fight this hard and this long.
Even once I had the letters and legal counsel, having to put on a brave face and reiterate my experience at institution after institution took a toll. After my claim was publicised, media outlets’ initial hesitation to report the story, out of fear of losing state sponsorship or blocks from the president’s office, felt like a betrayal.
So, you can see, without the access I have to multiple legal minds both from family and within my close circle of friends, devoid of contacts with multiple journalists in the country and around the globe, not having job security or savings, I certainly wouldn’t have come this far.
I am, without a doubt, one of the 10% in the Maldives. If I cannot use my voice to give strength, credibility and validation to the thousands of women, children and men that have survived harassment, abuse, assault or rape, then there is very little hope for any of us.
This is by no means an easy battle. According to the study on women’s health and life experiences conducted by the Maldives’ ministry of gender and family in 2007, one in every three women aged between 15-49 years have experienced physical or sexual violence or both at some stage of their life.
Unfortunately, it is thus apparent that there is an entire ‘culture’ of sexual misconduct that prevails in our homes, our streets and our working environments. It did not appear with one party or president, it has snuck up and embedded itself into our society for decades, writhing and seeping into policy, profit and propinquity. Ancient island communities that worked in unity and cohesion, valued irrespective of gender, have become what it is – forgotten history.
With regards to workplace harassment, with the civil service, such stories are worryingly common and date back many, many years – the responsibility of not having eradicated this misconduct thus falling on the shoulders of several regimes.
In November 2018, the minister of foreign affairs, Mohamed Asim, was accused of sexual harassment by at least four female junior staff. Mohamed Fahmy Hassan served as chairman of the Maldives Civil Service Commission till he was dismissed in 2012 by parliament for sexually harassing his staff, but this incident did not affect his later appointment in 2015 as the Maldives high commissioner/ambassador to Malaysia, a position he enjoyed till 2019. A string of such complaints trail behind Fahmy, from as far back in his work life as when he was principal of Iskandhar School.
Similarly, the present director general of the Local Governance Authority, Adam Shareef, unpopularly known as ‘woody’, was previously reprimanded for making inappropriate advances to underage students in the all-girls Aminiya School during his designation as ‘discipline supervisor’. From an observational standpoint, this has not affected the trajectory of his career.
In 2012, global rights’ watchdog Amnesty International released a statement urging the Maldives to investigate sexual harassment of detained women protesters, arrested during the February 7 rallies over the alleged coup d’état that ousted former president Mohamed Nasheed.
Women journalists have also highlighted harassment to varying degrees, both outside and within their news organisations. Notably, a CEO of a large media group was accused of exchanging sexual favours for jobs and a male editor of another large news outlet was arrested for assaulting a female journalist. The aforementioned CEO has furthered his career uninterrupted, and in 2019, received the most prestigious national award in journalism.
Turning our glance toward the police, a quarter of female officers interviewed for the study ‘Rough Roads To Equality: Women Police in South Asia’ conducted by the Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said they faced “recurrent harassment” but did not report it to a higher authority. In one case, an officer was suspended after 11 girls complained of harassment, only to be later acquitted and reinstated. Lawyers that have worked with police, have also reported instances of crude misconduct, such as accused officers being assigned to oversee the cases.
Then-opposition, now ruling coalition’s main party MDP was, predictably, at the time very vocal against the foul legacy of sexual offences that were both tolerated and ignored, within the public sector, as well as private.
A pity the same principles do not carry the same weight in the present day, especially as the courts too are blemished by the same terrible visage.
While sexual harassment allegations were raised against the chief magistrate of Maakuraathu court in 2015, this year an investigation was launched into chief magistrate of Kanduhulhudhoo Cout Hassan Didi for seven different allegations. In June, Judicial Service Commission moved to dismiss Thinadhoo court’s magistrate, Ibrahim Rasheed, over a sexual harassment issue.
Small victories, but more telling of the depth to which these crimes are rooted. The examples above are only the tip of the iceberg, illustrating the unlikeliness of justice, even on the off chance that one’s case makes it to court.
Revulsion fuels this revolution
Over the last month, it has been heartening to see a number of women rise up in solidarity, and come forward with their own horrific tales of harassment, assault, abuse and rape. As my story gives them power, so their words spur my strength to face these obstacles head on.
But the fight is far from over, this much is abundantly clear.
At the time of publishing, I have not yet heard from either the police, the ACC or the president’s office. On July 13, my all-female team of lawyers wrote once more to President Solih, demanding on my behalf that action taken be revealed in 10 days. Thus, we have another nerve-wracking week ahead.
In the space between when I first publicly revealed this issue on my personal Twitter handle, harassment-sympathisers have emerged from the cracks, subjecting me to a severe amount of scrutiny.
Religious leaders have, in response, stated that for safety, women should always be accompanied by a guardian, they have compared hijab-less women to candies without wrappers, iPads without covers and so on.
Some have questioned the legitimacy of my claim, assumed lack of evidence, stated this is all a ploy to further my family’s political agenda and of course, have dragged my life’s journey into the conversation.
This battle is not politically motivated. To say so is to undermine the greater cause at stake. Doubtless though, this is an opportunity, and not just for me. It is a time when women have become emancipated to a degree where the volume of our concerns is more difficult to ignore, than ever before.
#JaagaEhNei – No Room [For Us]
“This marks the beginning of the #MeToo movement in Maldives”, says Shafeea Riza, lawyer and founder of Family Legal Clinic, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to women, children and men in Maldives.
And she is not wrong.
Together with Shafeea rose a number of women, creating the #FundOurSafety program.
Soon after, another three attorneys; chief operating officer at the Maldives Stock Exchange and Bar Council member Noorban Fahmy, Public Interest Law Centre founder and partner at Shunana & Co LLP Mariyam Shunana, vice president of Women and Democracy NGO Aminath Aryj Hussain, along with well known advocate from the #Nufoshey (Do not harass) movement and research and communications officer at Transparency Maldives Sara Naseem and my humble self, banded together with Shafeea to form the #JaageEhNei collective, holding a protest against impunity for sexual predators on July 12, where the demands raised by #FundOurSafety was also represented.
The gathering was joined by Maldives’ newly formed ‘Voice of Children’ movement, which has also held three protests in 2020, calling for the protection of young ones, to implement swift action on child-related issues and the injustices faced by them.
However, two days later, in a controversial move that has drawn much ire and scrutiny, the Ministry of Home Affairs declared that protests and all forms of public gatherings cannot be held without “prior written approval by Maldives Police Service”.
Since then, rights groups, activists, parliamentarians and other local entities have slammed the government’s decision as a clear violation of fundamental rights – particularly at a time when travel and other restrictions have been lifted by the Health Protection Agency.
The same Tuesday, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment expressed concern that the narratives and initiatives of certain non-profit organisations were encouraging the violation of the law, claiming they posed a threat to national security. Though it was widely believed to have been issued over a series of migrant-worker demonstrations, the ambiguity with which civil society is chastised is ‘deeply’ concerning.
Despite the government’s current stance, as the main opposition during Yameen’s administration, MDP had lambasted the invocation of amended Section 24 (f) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2013, calling it “unconstitutional” and a “violation of rights”.
Strangely, post-election, Solih’s government did not move to repeal the prickly law, even with MDP’s super-majority in the parliament, but it was seldom enforced until this June-July.
At the same time, support from the international community has been helpful. On July 15, Reporters Without Borders issued a strong statement of support, which reads “The shocking inaction in response to Rae Munavvar’s complaints is indicative of serious problems with the Maldivian administration and police.”
“We call on President Ibu Solih to intervene at once by firing his communications director and launching an internal investigation into this unacceptable case of sexual harassment combined with an attempt to bribe a journalist.”
The Maldives Media Council then issued its own statement, calling on state institutions to conduct a transparent investigation into the case and highlighting the often discouraging challenges faced by the country’s female journalists and media personnel.
And so, it is with mounting optimism that I observe how the ripple cast by the series of avoidable horrific events that began in 2019, which eventually led to my own ‘coming out’, followed by the #JaagaEhNei movement and at least a dozen more voices filling the air, have themselves begun emitting waves of their own.
Today I stand one part incensed, two parts inspired and firmly determined – powered by the knowledge that although this system is broken, change is crucial and better days seem far, there are thousands of women and men standing with me, declaring that ‘Time’s Up’.
Rae Munavvar is, at present, the Editor at The Edition in the Maldives. Having worked in different capacities across the media spectrum for a decade, Rae has reported extensively on current affairs, environment and gender issues. She can be contacted at [email protected].