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Maldives Woman Spearheads Reform, Pushes for Women’s Rights

Washington -- When Mariya Ahmed Didi tried to organize the first women’s rights rally in Maldives in March 2006, she was assaulted by critics who threw bags of oil at her and had her motorbike run off the road by a car filled with government supporters.
Remarkably, however, the rally -- which protested a plainclothes police officer arresting a female activist at her home late at night -- was conducted peacefully as planned and without incident. In one public interview, she said, “It is time for women to let the authorities know that we want these abuses to stop. After all, we make up half the voting population. It’s time to make our presence felt.”
Didi is no stranger to adversity – she is one of only six women in the 50-member parliament, and one of only two elected women (the other four were appointed by the president of Maldives). She campaigned for her position as an independent when she was five months pregnant with her third child. “I wanted to be sure the child inside me would get some rights,” she told USINFO in an interview.
Didi’s determination to affect political reform in her country and greater rights for women has won her recognition from the United States; on March 7, she was awarded the International Women of Courage Award.
This new award is the result of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s desire to recognize women around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating women’s rights and advancement.
Didi was joined by nine other women who received this award during a special ceremony at the U.S. Department of State. The other awardees represented Afghanistan, Argentina, Indonesia, Iraq, Latvia, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe. They were selected from 82 women of courage who were nominated by U.S. embassies worldwide. (See
related article.)
Maldives, with a population of less than 300,000, comprises 1,191 islands in the Indian Ocean. Despite the criticism leveled at Didi for her activism, she said she is pleased to be receiving the U.S. award because it will give Americans and the world a better look at Maldives. “Closer scrutiny will speed reforms,” Didi told USINFO.
Although Didi won her election to parliament as an independent, she later joined the nascent opposition in November 2005, six months after political parties were legally recognized in Maldives. She told USINFO: “I want to be known as a party member, not just as a woman in parliament.”
In the two years she has left in her term, Didi hopes to see constitutional reform make some headway. Proposals for change, she said, have been languishing for more than two years.
Although Sunni Islam is the official religion in Maldives, Didi told USINFO she is concerned fundamentalists are entering the moderate Muslim nation and advocating greater repression of women. She denounced those who use religion as a stepping stone to political power.
Educated in India and earning her law degree in the United Kingdom, Didi told USINFO that she has been denounced by Islamic critics as a “messenger from the pope” simply because she had studied in countries that have a Christian presence. Nonetheless, she became the first qualified female lawyer in Maldives.
She has been quoted in the press as saying: “I think the [Maldives] regime and broader establishment have a problem with women in politics. They don‘t like women who have their own voice. … “[O]nce a woman enters politics and voices dissent, she is made to look like a prostitute.”
Didi told USINFO that her entire life has prepared her for dealing with adversity. “They can’t touch me in here,” she said, pointing to her heart. Reflecting on the privations suffered by her countrymen, she said, “People get strength from us and join us.”
For more information on U.S. policies, see
Women in the Global Community.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)





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