Harem Scarum: Marriage and Divorce in the Maldives
It was almost midnight when we finally locked up the office and walked home. Rain pelted down, and water sprayed us as it flew off the wheels of the passing motorcycles. Above the jumble of low, tin-roofed houses and narrow high-rise apartments, dark green palms swayed dramatically in the humid air.
Carrying our laptops and briefcases and carefully stepping off and on the skinny sidewalks to avoid the elderly locals squatting or sitting on low stools, we zigzagged through the maze of narrow streets and alleys: left, right, left, right…then the rain fell harder, and we were starting to get soaked. Passing a traditional coral walled house, we noticed a boy who works as a supervisor for the Project. He was slouched in a kitchen chair in the open doorway, clipboard in hand, and we were surprised to see him working at this late hour, and in virtual darkness.
“Hussain, what are you doing here? Do you live here…or are you conducting a survey?”
“Yes, I am working…this is not my house, but my relative’s,” he said. We were impressed by his initiative.
Just then another one of our employees, a long-haired girl of about 18 named Aanya, emerged from the dark passageway behind Hussain. She smiled when she saw us and told us that this was her family’s house, and that Hussain’s brother is married to her sister.
Two wives and a daughter: Aanya, her mother and her father’s second wife
An older woman next appeared, wearing a bourka and a long dress. Aanya introduced her as her mother, and immediately afterwards another, almost identical woman wandered from a shadowy place in the passageway into the dim light.
“This is my stepmother. That is my mother, and that is my stepmother.”
“Oh! You mean they both live here, in this house?” David beat me to the punch.
“Yes, my father has two wives.” Aanya answered awkwardly.
Now we were intrigued. We were aware that Islamic law allows a man to have up to four wives, but had been told that multiple marriages are in fact rare nowadays.
They surrounded us in the dark entranceway: Hussain, Aanya her mother and her stepmother. It was still raining outside the doorway where we crowded under the low roof.
“Will you come in?” asked Aanya. “My father is inside.” The dank hallway was pitch black. We felt our way along an earthen floor until we saw the dim glow of a light peeking out of a doorway. Just outside the doorway of this room sat a one-burner stove with a pan of fish cooking. I nearly knocked it over as I squeezed past.
We were ushered into the room, which I took to be a sitting room of sorts. Measuring roughly 8 by 8 feet, most of the space was occupied by two wide sets of crudely made bunk beds. The remaining area was crammed with household items such as a radio, clothing on hangers, plastic bags filled with something, a row of mugs, a pile of cutlery, and a few framed photographs sitting on an old wooden bureau.
On one lower bunk sat a short stout man, about 50 years of age probably but looking older, wearing only a cloth sarong, his oversized bare belly hanging over the waistband. He grinned, revealing the typical bloody gums of a habitual betel nut chewer. He reminded me of a small Buddha, sitting regally on his bunk bed throne.
“Please, sit…” motioned Aanya and her two mothers, showing us an available space on the lower bunk opposite her father.
The man grinned again and shook David’s hand, but declined shaking mine, as most men of his Islamic mind-set will never shake a woman’s hand. He looked as proud as a peacock, lazily perching his fat body on the edge of the bed, while his two wives stood in the doorway only two feet away. They looked worn-out but pleasant as they smiled at us, revealing gaping holes between their teeth. I noticed their ankle-length dresses were nearly the same colour and style. Aanya sat down next to me, and kept covering her mouth and emitting embarrassed giggles.
A hundred questions filled our heads. David began.
“Is this room your house?” he asked the father. An affirmative and proud nod of the head. (THIS is the whole house? I thought).
“Do you have a well?” Aanya said yes, and it, as well as the toilet, is somewhere behind the house, shared with three other families.
“What do you think of this, of my house?” she asked us. She was acutely aware that this rabbit-hole which housed herself, four brothers, two mothers and father was not what we were accustomed to.
Immediately we sought to ease her self-conciousness. “In Canada,” I told her, “my family has a very old cottage where they live in the summer. There is no toilet inside, and sometimes there are not enough beds for everyone who wants to sleep there, but that is OK. You have a very nice family, and a very nice house.” She relaxed a little and smiled.
I noticed a young boy asleep on the bunk above the father. “Oh, I am afraid we will wake him with our talking,” I said.
“No, it is ok, he is used to it,” said Aanya. I asked where she slept. She pointed to the bunk where the boy was sleeping. “I sleep there, with my 13 year old and 8 year old brothers.” I did a quick calculation. That left three beds for two other brothers, the father, and the two wives combined.
We chatted some more, with Aanya acting as interpreter for both sides. David tried to put them at ease and made some light-hearted comments about marriage. “In Canada, where my wife is from, women can divorce their husbands – so I had better watch out!” Big smiles from the wives (here men can still divorce women by only saying “I divorce you” three times). The Maldives holds the record for the world’s highest divorce rate.
“And I am only allowed one wife…I can’t afford more!” More smiles and laughter.
The father spoke. “If it keeps raining, you can stay the night here, and sleep with my two wives,” he said to David, with a sweep of his arm, looking very smug indeed. Lots of laughter all around, with a polite decline from David.
I was both repelled by the repugnant little chauvinistic man, and wanted to leave soon, and touched by Aanya, and wanted to stay and assure her that she is a worthwhile and valuable human being, regardless of her living conditions.
We chatted awhile longer, and noting the late hour, thanked them for their hospitality and stood up to leave. An invitation to return was issued by the father and wives, and we ducked out of the low doorways and stepped into the rain-soaked alley.
We walked home silently through the dark streets, struggling with thoughts of Islam and the repression of women. We had grown to know Aanya because she was employed as an enumerator on the Project. After that night we thought of her often, and would frequently see her in the neighbourhood. David thereafter would refer to her as “the girl in the box”, not as an insult, but because he would sometimes forget her name (there were approximately 50 girls with similar names working on the Project). We were starting to learn about these young people in our employ, and our hearts broke for them on a regular basis.
As each day comes and goes, we learn of more such families, crammed like sardines into tiny rooms. We feel very sorry for the girls in these homes. Often girls are treated unfairly, like possessions, and not allowed to leave the home or their island.
Many young men here tell us that they believe in only having one wife, even though they know by law they are able to have up to four. Apparently, it is the older generation, age 45 plus, who are more apt to be involved in multiple marriages, and even these tend to be limited to wealthier individuals. One of the President’s sons, for instance, has two wives.
Remote Island Scene
One of the young female enumerators, Riya, returned home early from the islands after more than a month away. She had been conducting the survey on nearly 30 islands along with her team. On her first night back home in Mal?, her husband confronted her with a rumour he had heard that she had been involved in an affair with one of the other team members. Despite her protest that it was completely untrue, he proceeded with three “I divorce you’s” and she was then legally divorced, wiping out a 9-year relationship and 3-year marriage in one miserable moment.
Mohamed befriended us the first day we arrived on Malé. His good-hearted humour was received warmly by us, and in a matter of a few weeks we felt we had known him a lifetime. If we had questions, Mohamed would candidly answer them.
Late one night we were cruising around town with Mohamed in his Daiwoo. He knew we needed to buy a mobile phone and suddenly he stopped the car and parked it on an unlit street. “Come on,” he said. “This is my wife’s father’s house.”
Winding our way through a coral-walled alley, we entered a leafy courtyard. There was a small house to one side, and in the doorway stood a bearded man of about 70. “This is Ismail. The father of my wife.”
The man was tall and seemed friendly as he reached his hand out to David. Not one to learn from past experiences, I also offered my hand but it was ignored.
“Ismail has phones. New ones, good prices.” So that is why we were here.
A couple of young teenaged girls ducked their heads out the door to see who had come. I noticed a few more people inside. “He has two wives. And those are his daughters.”
“Do both wives live here?” I asked.
“Yes. He divorced the first one when she brought him tea that was too cold. They divorced three times. Remarried three times. But before they could marry again for the third time, she had to sleep with another man for one night.”
“Why did she have to do that?”
“So she could see what another man is like.” I considered whether this was rather like a punishment to the woman. The man does not have to be subjected to such requirements.
I was told by several locals in Malé that the main reason that the first wife or wives stay on in the home after her husband marries another woman is that she usually has no money. Traditionally, a woman stays at home and cares for the children. But she has no rights if her husband divorces her, or decides to add another wife to the household. And traditionally, the man goes to live in the wife’s home, and if he divorces her she can leave, but he will stay in the house.
Financially, it is difficult for a woman to leave and so, they stay. Another reason is that the man has all parental rights. The children stay with the father. If a divorced woman or the first wife of a multiple marriage household wants to remain with her children, she must stay and accept living with another wife in the house.
Frequently, babies are handed over to the father to raise. Usually it occurs when a divorce has taken place and the wife chooses to leave the home. A single, divorced woman is faced with a very difficult life ahead: she is often shunned by society and considered ‘damaged goods’. If a child is involved, the woman is pressured to give it up to the father.
Shaliza was another of the Project enumerators. She was in her late twenties, married and had one son. One day she explained that her husband had a wife before, and that the son was actually ‘given’ by the former wife to Shaliza and her husband when the boy was one year old. Unaware at the time of this tradition, I asked Shaliza why did the mother of the boy gave him up?
“I don’t know, maybe she didn’t like him?!” she said with a shrug.
Although a husband can divorce a wife merely by saying “I divorce you” three times, until last year, women did not have the right to initiate divorce. Recently, changes to the law now allows the wife to do so, but first she must pay a fee. The fee is high enough that most women cannot afford it.
Nor can the wife dispute the divorce. The couple has the option of a 30-day grace period, where if they should reconcile within that time, a 2,500-rufiyaa fine does not have to be paid to the court. The fine is one reason why some men decide to attempt reconciliation, before the 30 days is up.
The winds of change are in the air for the Maldives. Modern fashions are seen on the street side-by-side with traditional dress and headscarves. Though the younger generation still very much respect cultural norms and the Islamic tenets, a new open-mindedness is emerging.
I asked Mohamed before we left how he felt about his own marriage. He has a young wife whom he married when she was just 17.
“I believe in everlasting love with just one woman,” he said with a sparkle in his eye.
And then he sped off on his motorbike down the busy street, slowing down to check out a group of longhaired, blue-jeaned girls.