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When the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay visited the Maldives, she wasn’t expecting to make much of a splash there. Officially the Republic of Maldives is a Constitutional democracy with open elections that any Muslim can vote in (not being a Muslim happens to be against the law in the Maldives). Unofficially it’s a paranoid theocracy based on Sharia law where an Indian teacher who drew a compass had to be hurriedly evacuated after students mistook it for a cross.
The United Nations Human Rights apparatus generally tries to avoid looking too closely at human rights in Muslim countries because it knows exactly what it will find. The Maldives is a case in point. So when Navi Pillay stopped by the Maldives she followed the formula to the letter, praising the human rights progress in the Maldives and after a few minutes of that, briefly suggested that perhaps they should stop flogging women accused of premarital sex.
Naturally Pillay did not put it as harshly as I just did. In her words, “The fact that people, especially women, are still flogged in the Maldives is a serious blot on the country’s otherwise increasingly positive and progressive image overseas.” But how progressive can a country be when it outlaws the practice of any religion besides Islam and holds blasphemy trials and where a judge ruled that four men who gang raped a 14 year old would not be imprisoned because the girl had reached the age of puberty?
Despite Pillay’s careful wording, Muslims in the Maldives reacted by holding a protest that accused her of being a “racist Zionist” out to undermine Islam. This was an unfortunate setback for Pillay who had spent a good deal of time condemning Israel, only to be accused of being a “racist Zionist” for suggesting that flogging women might be undermining the progressive image of a country where a cross shaped design on a water bottle is a major scandal.
Maldives’ Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem reassured his fellow Muslims that the government was not about to do anything crazy like ending the flogging of women. “”What’s there to discuss about flogging? There is nothing to debate about in a matter clearly stated in the religion of Islam. No one can argue with Allah. Our foreign ministry will not allow that to happen.”
That is literally true as arguing with Allah is against the law in the Maldives. Two years ago a drunk who tried arguing with Allah was sent to court and was forced to recite the Shahadah, the Islamic profession of faith. But Pillay had been careful not to argue with Allah. In her remarks she praised the Maldives for “reaching out in the Islamic world to promote dialogue on the compatibility of Islam and human rights” only to get a harsh reminder that in the real world Islam and human rights were as compatible as oil and water.
The Republic of Maldives, along with Libya, Cuba, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council, which has not been paying much attention to the right of women not to be flogged in the name of Allah, as it has to the right of Hamas members to blow up Israeli children. The Maldives had met most of the official benchmarks on human rights, so long as no one looked too closely at the fine print.
CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, had been ratified by the Republic of Maldives, with one very minor caveat. “The Government of the Republic of the Maldives reserves its right to apply article 16 of the Convention… without prejudice to the provisions of Islamic sharia, which govern all marital and family relations of the 100 per cent Muslim population of the Maldives.” Which is to say that the Maldives will only grant those rights to women that don’t conflict with a 7th century document that treats women as legal and moral inferiors. But from the UN point of view, that makes the Maldives better than the US which has not ratified CEDAW at all.
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