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Glimpse of Past Matrifocal Society in the Maldives by Ruk Ahmed

March 21, 2010

Historically Maldives was a land known for women power. The Sanskrit word Mahila dvipa from which some believe the name Maldives originate from means ‘islands of women’. The writings of early travellers to the Maldives clearly indicate the influence of women in the governance of the country. The best evidence comes from the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta who documented his surprise in finding a woman ruler when he arrived in the Maldives in the 1400s. This ruler was none other than the most dominant queen of the Maldives, Rehendhi Khadeeja. While the strength of Khadeeja might have surprised an Arab like Battuta, her name has become an iconic symbol of female empowerment in the Maldives.

Besides female authority other norms also stood out among Dhivehi women. To this effect, Battuta described that Divehi women were not covering their hair and wore a cloth from hip down as a garment. Battuta who may have expressed awe at the dressing style, managed to marry into the royalty and became a ‘qadi’, a position equivalent to a judge in the present times. Although he was an influential figure seasoned in Islam Battuta’s attempt in ordering women to wear full body covering clothing (burgha) was unsuccessful. This suggests that Rehendi Khadeeja and her female subjects were assertive and knew to separate faith from fashion. The women obviously were steadfast to uphold their way of dressing and their Dhivehiness[1], a quality depicting women were in control. It was two hundred years after the country had adapted Islam and yet the tradition of Dhivehi women did not change by the preaching of a Moroccan Arab. What Battuta claimed to have abolished was the custom of women remaining in the house of their former husband after divorce until they remarried. This change again implies that Dhivehi women were decisive and accepted what suited their liberty.

The historical accounts of women dominance raise the interesting question on whether Maldives was a matrilineal society. The practices of the people who lived in Male’ atoll Giraavaru aptly denoted as the natives of the Maldives implied what was indigenous to Dhivehin. The Giraavaru natives had unique characteristics both physically and linguistically compared to the rest of Maldives. Besides, they practiced distinctly different cultural norms as late as mid 20th century that were in contrast to the rest of the Maldives islands. One remarkable difference was their strict adherence to monogamy while the rest of Maldives became notorious for its ease of marriage and divorce and polygamy. The other importantly dominant feature was their woman headed community. The Foolhuma Dhaitha, who is the woman in charge of conducting births, was the chosen woman chief of Giraavaru. The matrifocal practice of the woman chief survived in Giraavaru until 1968 when they were located to Hulhule. The shifting of the Giraavaru inhabitants from their native island occurred because their community had less than 40 adult men, which was an insufficient congregation number for performing Friday prayer. Sadly, an Islamic regulation became the cause for the disruption of the self-assertive indigenous Dhivehin from their native island. After the first shift to Hulhule the Giraavaru natives together with the rest of Hulhule inhabitants were once again moved to Male’. Mingled into the urban life of Male’ the once self righteous natives of Giraavaru disintegrated into the far corner of Maafanu area in Male’. With two repeated shifting the culturally ancient traditions of Giraavaru natives faded into history and with that the last surviving indigenous matrifocal Dhivehin disappeared.

One community with remains of some matrilineal practices and historical link to the Maldives is the island of Minicoy belonging to the Indian Union Territory of Lakshadweep. Minicoy, known by the name of Maliku[2] to its inhabitants and to the Maldivians share many similarities with the Dhivehin. Unlike the rest of Lakshadweep, Maliku people use Mahl a form of Dhivehi-bas (language) with the script and spoken language analogous to Dhivehi used in the Maldives. Besides, they have similarities in dressing, cuisines and culture and indeed some direct relatives of Maliku ancestry exist among the families of Kaakage lineage in Male’. Through oral history Maliku natives believe that two princesses from the Maldives settled in Maliku in ancient times. They may have become the ancestors of the current inhabitants in Maliku; however, the matrilineal traditions that came with them linger up to the present day in Maliku. Interestingly in Maliku houses remained the property of females until late 20th century while even today the mothers’ house- name becomes the identifying surname. Indeed Maliku known by its ancient reference given by Marco Polo as a ‘female island’ has continued using some of its matrilineal origins right into the present day.

The matrifocal societal roots of Maliku had clearly originated in the matrilineal society of the ancient Maldives. The indigenous Giraavaru inhabitants exhibited traditions of matrifocal society. Rehendi Khadeeja may have become a historically recognised name, but before, during and sometime after her reign the Maldives continued to be a dominant matrilineal matrifocal society. The females in Dhivehi society were no doubt influential in the ruling of the country. Evidence although limited indicates a mother centred family rule with a recognisable matrilineal society existed among Dhivehin. Looking backwards on the way society has evolved in the Maldives one important question arises; when and why did the matrilineal society disintegrate? Could the coming of the new religion the argument accounted for disappearance of many other matrilineal societies justify changes in Maldivian society. The way in the current Maldivian society females are fading behind the veil makes one wonder whether a mutation have occurred among Maldivian female genes. There is indeed scope for more research for understanding the evolution of matrilineal society in the Maldives.

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Note: In this article Dhivehi people refer to people that inhabited and inhabiting the islands of the Maldives. In similar context Dhivehi women – denotes women of the Maldives and Dhivehin is used interchangeably for Dhivehi people and Maldivians.

Dhivehiness is used as an adjective for describing Dhivehi characteristic.

2 Maliku in this article refers to Minicoy and is used to denote the name the inhabitants of Minicoy island and the Maldives use for it

References:

1. Gibb HAR; Beckingham CF. Translation and eds (2000) The Travels of Ibn Battuta AD 1325-1354. London. Hakluyt Society.

2. Bell HCP; (1881-1921) ‘The Maldive Islands: Monograph on the History, Archeology and Epigraphy’. Ceylon Government Session Papers no: 53 (1881) 15 (1921).

3. Bell HCP; The Maldive Islands; An account of the Physical features, History, Inhabitants, Productions and Trade. Colombo 1883.

4. Xavier Romero Frias; The Maldive Islanders, A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom. Barcelona 1999.

5. Clarence Maloney, (1980) People of the Maldive Islands. Orient Longman.

6. 6. Kattner Ellen: Union Territory of Lakshadweep: the social structure of Maliku (Minicoy) in International Institute of Asian Studies (11AS) Newsletter 1996; 10: S19-20. http://www.maldivesroyalfamily.com/minicoy.shtml. accessed 6 March 2009.

7. Chris A Wahhab, www. Maldivesroyalfamily.com

8. Bertha Diener (1930) Mothers and Amazons quoted in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertha_Diener. accessed 6 March 2009.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Aisha R permalink
    March 22, 2010 4:50 am

    Well researched and well written. But most importantly, a truth we seem to be forgetting in this country. Thanks!

  2. MNJ permalink
    March 23, 2010 6:23 pm

    Nice article, very informative, but Mahila dvipa in Sanskrit means “garland of islands”.

  3. Ruk permalink
    April 1, 2010 1:11 pm

    Thanks MNJ for the correction. I took it from a credible document though. Anyway consider it metorphorically, women as the garland of the islands ! cheers.

  4. April 11, 2010 7:51 pm

    Excellent article, Ruk. Although Queen Khadeeja was iconic as a tower of Divehi women’s power, she was not alone. Maldive history is well-endowed with several other such ladies. Buraki Ranin comes to mind instantly. While Khadeeja disposed of two of her husbands to become three times queen, Buraki restored her husband to his throne twice; on one occasion having won a duel with her brother on the battlefield. Even as late as the 20th century we have fine examples of stong ladies who were held in awe by their contemporary males in power. One such lady died only a couple of years ago and was a constant thorn on the side of Mr Gayoom when no man would dare raise his voice against the ex-dictator. She used to sign-off her monthly letters to the dictator “ihuthiraamaa medhu hitthevi gotheh”. Now that was insulting with class!

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