A brief history of women in the Maldives
- from matriarchy to an Islamic state
History of women: what do ancient sources tell
Women in today's society
Impacts of Islamic fundamentalism
Future outlook
Questions for reflection


The Maldive islands are situated south-west of India, on both sides of the equator. The islands are numerous but small, and access to them is difficult because of surrounding coral reefs. Also the people are small, adapted to island life where main nutrition is fish, coconuts and imported rice. The total population of the 1,200 islands is about 270,000.

The nation living in the Maldive islands has been isolated from the outside world for much of its history. The only contacts to other people have been through sea-trade, which is also the route Islam found its way to the islands. Early records tell of female rulers and inheritance of power through female line. The present day society, however, is dominated by male clerics and an adapted Islamic code of conduct. Women still enjoy many freedoms compared to women in many other Islamic countries like equal rights to education and freedom in selecting and divorcing spouses.


The Maldive islands have been populated as early as historical records are available. Estimates based on archaeology and linguistics conclude that the islands were populated around 2,500 years ago if not earlier. The population has arrived in small quantities during a long period of time, and most probably it is a mixture of different groups, some of them coming from India and Sri Lanka, some from even farther as survivors of shipwrecks.

There is a reluctance, if not opposition in the Maldives to the study of early history. The unity of Islamic society seems to demand that - what they see as - the contemptible past before Islamic faith is forgotten. In practice, all artefacts preceding Islamic time have been systematically destroyed up to the present. The Moslem ban of idolatry has been followed literally. Still in 1988 the customs officials picked off Buddha-pictures which belonged to a UN expert.

There is archaeological evidence of Buddhist and Hindu worship in ancient times, which is natural taken the location of islands next to India and Sri Lanka. Thor Heyerdal suggests even earlier, different forms of worship but since his book The Maldive Mystery there has not been any research in that matter. There are numerous un-excavated ruins of temples and shrines on the islands.

The first historical records concerning the Maldives come from first centuries of our era. Clarence Maloney lists Sri Lankan, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Arab and European travelers as sources of information. One of the most complete descriptions of the Maldive Islands and their inhabitants can be found in the account of Ibn Battuta of his travels. He stayed in Male in 1344, and gives detailed information about the economy and society when it seems to have been at its peak.

Islam was introduced to the Maldives in the 12th century, and in 1155 the whole nation was converted after the decree of the king who took the title of sultan. Old temples were demolished and mosques built on their foundations. The rites of new religion were followed from early times: ablutions and prayer-times, pilgrimage to Mecca and recital of the Quaran. Islamic law and moral codes were imposed upon the population much later, mainly in this century. Physical punishment used to be uncommon (as Ibn Battuta records) and women's dress light, not covering the upper body.

There were several female rulers up to the 16th century. The succession on throne was maybe originally to the younger brothers of the king, and in absence of brothers, to a daughter and her sister like in Sri Lankan dynasties. This started to change to the direction of son following father, but it was never firmly established, and because of the unclear orders of succession there was much rivalry and numerous coup d'Útats. The strongest Sultana, Khadeeja, followed her father. Twice she was deposed by a husband, but both times she was able to overthrow and kill the treacherous husband, and finally her sister succeeded her. During her reign Male was a trade centre, and the royal court subsisted on imported rice and the Sultana had a foreign bodyguard of one thousand men. Maldives exported cowrie-shells (which were used as currency in a wide area), coconut products, fine cotton fabrics and copper-vessels. The level of handicrafts were unsurpassed at that time.

History of women: what do ancient sources tell?

Sulaiman the merchant in the early 9th century who does not claim having visited the islands himself but tells what he heard from other travelers, e.g.:

In these islands, where a woman rules, coconut is cultivated. These islands are separated from one another by a distance of two, three or four parasangs (10 to 20 miles?). They are all inhabited and they grow the coconut tree in all of them. The wealth of the people is constituted by cowries; their queen amasses large quantities of these cowries in the royal depots.

What is told about coconuts, cowries and corals in Sulaiman's story, is all relevant, thus it would be surprising if the references to queens were not true.

Al Mas'udi visited Sri Lanka in 916 and tells about Maldives:

The 1900 islands are all very well peopled, and are subject to a queen: for from the most ancient times the inhabitants have a rule never to allow themselves to be governed by a man...He then goes on giving other accurate facts about the islands.

Al-Idrisi, who lived 1099-1168, tells even more about Maldives, e.g.:

All these islands have a chief (ra'´s), who unites them, protects and defends them, and makes truce according to his ability. His wife enacts as an arbitrator among the people and does not veil herself from them. When she issues her orders, her husband, the chief, though he is present, does not interfere with any of her ordinances. It has always been a custom with them that a woman arbitrate, a custom which they not depart. This queen is called Dmhra. She wears garments of woven gold, and her headwear is a crown of gold studded with various kinds of rubies and precious stones. She wears gold sandals. ... On ceremonial occasions, and the feast days of her sect, this queen rides with her slave girls behind her, in full procession of elephants, banners and trumpets, while the king and all other ministers follow her at a distance. This queen has riches, which she collects by means of certain known taxes, and she then gives in charity the wealth thus acquired to the needy inhabitants of her country on that day. She does not distribute any portion of her charity except when she is present and watching.

Excerpts from Ibn Battuta:

Their womenfolk do not cover their heads, not even their queen does so, and they comb their hair and gather it at one side. Most of them wear only an apron from their waists to the ground, the rest of their bodies being uncovered. When I held the qadiship there, I tried to put an end to this practice and ordered them to wear clothes, but I met with no success.

It is easy to get married on these islands on account on the smallness of the dowries and the pleasure of their women's society. When ships arrive, the crew marry many wives, and when they are about to sail they divorce them. It is really a sort of temporary marriage. The women never leave their country.

It is a strange thing about these islands that their ruler is a woman, Khadija. - Her army comprises about a thousand men, recruited from abroad, Though some are natives. ..they are paid in rice monthly.

The first bad custom I changed (as a qadi) was the practice of divorced wives of staying in the houses of their former husbands, for they all do so till they marry another husband.

The kinship system could be originally matrilineal which means that family was traced along female line. Maloney uses linguistic material, anthropological material from the nearby Lakshadvip islands and from the coast of Kerala in India, and historical descriptions, and compares these to the traces found in the present society to prove this point. The present system of kinship and matrimonial location is a confusing mixture of different forms which is another indication of the society still being in a kind of transitional state.

The Nayars of Kerala were warriors and landowners. They lived in great houses called taravads, which was occupied by a matrilineal extended family. The titular head of the household was the great mother, but her brother was the manager of the household. People lived in the same taravad through their whole lives. Even married men just visited their wives overnight but returned to eat and work in their native taravad. There was a matriliny in inheritance as well.

In the Lakshadvip islands matriliny has survived until this century even though Islam is the religion. On the northern Maliku island which is closest to the Lakshadvip houses are inherited through female line and men have only the right of residence.

Women in today's society

Maldives is a low-income country where both fertility and mortality are high: average number of children born to one woman being seven. Infant and child mortality on some of the remote islands is very high, in worst cases only half of the children reach adulthood. A woman marries in average four times in her life. Divorces are common because Islam makes divorcing easy for the husband (more more accurate explanation, see http://www.maldivesculture.com/maldives_divorce.html), and marriages are not considered as a family business but an individual choice. There is also much suspicion and interest in other sex for possible future spouses. People often live in their birth homes, even married couples may only visit each other. Or a woman may stay in her ex-husbands house after divorce together with her children. A child in the capital Male may tell to her teacher that on Friday she "went to park with my mother's children" meaning the children of her father's new wife. It is said that the record of number of marriages for one couple is 99 - after every quarrel they divorced but then again married each other.

Traditional roles for men and women encourage soft-spokenness. Aggression is strongly suppressed, even small children are discouraged to express their emotions by crying or romping. Traditional beliefs in witchcraft are still strong. People are afraid of spirits, jinnies, which may come from the sea or live in trees. The so called Fandita men are specialists against bad jinnies and sicknesses.

The capital Male' is a small island populated by over 60,000 people. The congestion is unbelievable, people live in small dark houses often without any yard or garden space, average 14 people and three families living in one house. The ground water is polluted, and in the dry season there are severe shortages of water. Some people have to sleep in shifts because there is not enough space or beds. Women and kids mainly stay inside their living-quarters except upper- and middle-class women who are employed in clerical professions in offices. All manual labor except household chores is done by men. Men do most of the shopping and trading and spend time in tea-shops. Cooking takes a long time every day, and much time is spent in sitting and chatting with other women.

Tourism has brought affluence to the Maldives, thus they can import foreign workers for manual labor to do construction. Hotel staff comes often from Philippines, and many teachers from Sri Lanka. 93% of Maldivians are literate but very few have secondary education. They have their own language Divehi which is related to the Indo-Aryan languages of India, and their own script. Higher studies are in English, however.

Some American influence has also reached the islands: there are marching girl-bands in all celebrations!

Impacts of Islamic fundamentalism

Arabic countries have been financing the building of several new Mosques, and they rival of influence: both Kuwait, Libya and Iran have been donating funds for construction.

The traditional dress of women on islands is one-coloured and simple but decorated with a colourful collar. In Male' women wear a covering though tight gown of shiny material, and government employees additionally a kerchief attached to hair. Women like to dress fancifully in glittering materials, and young women also wear Pakistani-style tunic-trouser-combination. Introduction of a head-cover and Arabic-style dress has been a recent phenomenon. Girls who want to show that they are not vain and interested in only worldly matters like Indian music and movies (which I find sometimes obscene despite the censorship which cuts out all kisses and naked body parts) but have a spiritual inner life, wear the scarf even though it is usually made of shiny white and bright-blue materials.

Future outlook

Young people normally go to school, and they love watching Indian movies. There is also paramilitary training for youngsters. Tourism also has had its influence despite of the effort to isolate tourists on resorts without any native population. Short pants and sleeveless shirts were not allowed in Male' in the early years of tourism but already in 1988 one could see very scant clothes on many tourists, who were no more harassed by the police. Alcohol rules for tourists are more relaxed, as well, but for a Maldivian sipping beer could still cause criminal penalties.

Officially the sexual relations are strictly controlled - sex is only allowed within marriage - but in practice there also seems to be lax behaviour. A young man who was suspected to have pre-marital relations with scout-girls was placed under house-arrest for several months. Banishment to remote islands and house-arrest are typical traditional punishments.

Global warming threatens this nation's existence: Researchers had recently detected a slight rise in the Indian Ocean around Maldives. The islands rise only 1 or 2 meters above sea level, thus rise of waters could wipe them out.

Questions for reflection

At the present time, there are several competing trends: a growing secularization and modernization of the young generation; the influence of Islamic fundamentalism; a rising level of education accompanied by increasing calls for freedom in speech and religious observance. There is no women's movement as such, and it is hard to predict how the status of women will develop.

Sources of information:

Ibn Battuta. 1984. Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354. London: Routledge& Kegan Paul

Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1999 Standard edition

Heyerdal, Thor. The Maldive Mystery

Maloney, Clarence. 1980. People of the Maldive Islands. Madras: Orient Longman.

Personal observations and conversations mainly during my stay in Male in 1988-90


http://www.maldivesculture.com Maldives history and current events

http://maj.s5.com/giraavaru.htm The story of Giraavaru women

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Copyright J. Holvikivi
Last updated: 26 July 2001