UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. Photo: Reuters
WHEN the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay visited the Maldives late last year, she urged that the practice of flogging women for having sex outside marriage - and very rarely punishing men in the same way - should be abolished.
''This practice constitutes one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women,'' she told local reporters.
The response was as vicious as it was unexpected.
The next day protestors rallied outside the UN building, carrying placards that read ''Ban UN'', ''Islam is not a toy'' and threatened to ''Flog Pillay''
Similar protests have followed, and a growing religious divide between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims - constitutionally, all Maldivians are obliged to follow Islam - has led many to question the direction of religion in the Maldives and, in particular, the place of women in Maldivian society.
Anecdotal reports suggest female circumcision is undergoing a resurgence in the Maldives, particularly on the outer islands.
Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed conceded an emergent religious fundamentalism had changed the way women were viewed, and were treated, in his country.
He said he was distressed by groups who campaigned for girls to be circumcised or to be kept home from school.
''We were a matriarchal society, our inheritance, also, in the past was from women,'' he told The Age. ''But with a new kind of radical Islam, the perceptions some of them have on women are not familiar to many Maldivians.'' Shadiya Ibrahim, a member of the newly formed Gender Advocacy Working Group and a long-time campaigner for women's rights, said the society was growing steadily more oppressive of women.
''Day by day, it is becoming harder for women to live in this country,'' Ms Ibrahim said.
She told The Age the practice of flogging women for extramarital sex was common. ''It happens everywhere. Normally, this punishment is given when you give birth, which is why it is almost always women. If you have 140-odd women being flogged, you have only two or three men.''
Aneesa Ahmed, President of advocacy organisation HOPE for Women, said a domestic violence bill before the Maldivian parliament, would raise awareness of an issue rarely discussed in the Maldives.
But the legislation has been in parliament more than 14 months.