The Maldivian Women in Text

Maldives Promotion House – Isn’t it an ordinary thing in this world to keep on wondering about women; women as a form of creation, women as a subject in history and society, women as sexual beings, or women as opposed to men?  Does not each woman wonder why we are now the way we are as women of the Maldives, as women of this world, as humans of a specified gender?

It is my understanding that women’s stories and status in society happen in relation to what the world has seen before. In Maldivians’ case, our attitude towards the female human form and our image of the contemporary Maldivian woman is linked with what women in the history of the islands have felt, weathered, shared, and strived for. It is for this reason that I search for stories about Maldivian women in history. My search has frequently led me to the journals of Francois Pyrard of Laval written in the 1600s and other shorter accounts written on women by travellers such as Ibn Batuta and Al Idrisi. More so to the former due to the exquisite attention to detail in Pyrard’s journals.

Pyrard often wrote in detail about the nature of women around him, the dynamics of the relationships they had with the world around them, and the place of these women in their society. With a sense of admiration, he wrote of the olive complexion of the women he met. If it is in the writer’s nature to admire women in general or if these women with the darkest hair of black are of the admirable kind is a question I ask. Writing about how the women washed their hair and bathed it in sweet scented oils Pyrard said,

‘It is a beauty among women to have the hair very long, thick, and black; they dress and bathe it often… they let it float in the wind until it be perfectly dry, then they apply oils, very odoriferous, in such wise that their heads are always soaked and oily.’

On the standing of women in society, Pyrard wrote about how exceedingly courteous and obliging the men are towards the women. As much as he wrote about the attractiveness of the women, he also had a tendency to explore their ‘amorous’ ways, as he puts it, whenever there is an analysis of the nature of relationships between men and women. It is as if there is a need to continuously find a justification for the nature of the Maldivian women around him. Describing the reason for the women’s temperament he said,

‘… the principal seems to me to be that they are exceedingly lazy, and do nothing but ever lie rocked in daintiness. Next, that they are continuously eating betel, a very heating herb; and in their ordinary fare use so many spices that sometimes I could hardly put the food in my mouth…’

From another perspective, he also wrote much about the strong traits of women and peculiar customs applied on women, once stating that women are better swimmers than men, while defining most Maldivians as half-fish. He noticed how women are never present at feasts prepared for Ramazan, at table sides on mealtimes, at mosques, and never without a veil or a man by their side when they rarely take a walk at night. In a rather revealing account, he described in detail how a group of thirty women had had their hair cut and beaten with whips for a crime referred as puoy thellun, the sentence delivered by a much respected Pandiyaaru (judge) of that period. Interestingly, the text specifies how the men who committed the same kind of ‘sin’ were left unheeded for. Some writers have later acknowledged that the sound ‘p’ in words like pandiyaaru was later swapped for the sound ‘f’, so that it is now used as fandiyaaru, faadhippolhu, and also maybe fuoy or fui.

Throughout his text, Pyrard seemed to regard womenfolk with a higher esteem and seemed to despise some of the characteristics of the men around him. It is as if there exists an inherent need for the writer to side with the women in a society that practices customs that are unfamiliar to him. Why would an onlooker want to side with a specific group unless they are viewed as a more subdued element in the environment? Explaining how the men are of a lesser force and spirit than the women, Pyrard writes,

‘They are industrious in arts and manufactures, and polite of manners: a people superstitious beyond measure, and much devoted to, their religion, yet, in their indulgence of women, lascivious and intemperate.’

Four hundred years on, why does it seem like such a familiar state for Maldivian women? Where in our history did the Maldivian woman choose to be where we are today?

Several historians have confirmed that female rulers have reigned over the islands up until the 16th century. Ibn Batuta who came upon the women of Maldives in the 1300s saw it rather strange to find a female ruler by the name of Khadija who commanded an army of a thousand men and to find women with half of their bodies uncovered. He also writes in his journals,

‘It is easy to get married on these islands on account of the smallness of 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’.

Why then, until the 16th century? As Pyrard pointed out in the 1600s,

‘A man may have three wives at once, but no more, and these only if he is able to support and maintain them… It is but an ill-considered law for these countries, where three husbands would not suffice for one wife, so lewd are the women.’

A bold statement observed by a foreigner, we may suppose. But it is impossible not to ask about the stories that link these two accounts written by two travellers a couple of centuries apart, and where these stories lead to in relation to life as we know it among Maldivian women now. Men can still be married to three women at the same time in the Maldives. Whether it is now ‘considered ill’ by the Maldivian woman is a question to be asked. The answer to this question may in turn mould the portraits of the Maldivian women to come.

A detailed account of the Maldivian islands and its people in the early 1600s are found in The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, The Maldives, The Moluccas and Brazil, translated in to English from the 3rd French edition of 1619 and edited with notes by Albert Gray. Available at seasiavisions.library.cornell.edu

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