Putting our heads above the parapet: let's vote for women

Peace and Development Advisor, Jomart Ormonbekov, shares an interesting comparison on women’s political participation in Maldives and his home country.

Peace and Development Advisor, Jomart Ormonbekov, shares an interesting comparison on women’s political participation in Maldives and his home country, Kyrgyzstan, and encourages us to vote for women leaders.

Ever since I became eligible to vote I would always cast my ballot for any female candidate during presidential elections in my home country, Kyrgyzstan. In most of cases, the only woman in the list would finish last in the race, however I would still feel that my vote should go in support to a brave individual, courageous enough to defy the stereotypes and take the stand against traditionally hawkish male politicians, who would not even consider her as serious competition. In the past cases I did not even agree with campaigning platforms of female candidates, but I would still vote for them, not out of sorrow, but out of principle that women need to be represented in political decision-making in a better, wider, and bolder way.

In 2010, when Kyrgyzstan was first hit by a violent popular uprising, and tragic inter-ethnic clashes followed a couple of months later, this dream of mine has suddenly come into reality. The country`s patriarchal political elite felt that a woman should lead the country during the times of turmoil and turbulence, and agreed to have Roza Otunbayeva, as an interim president for eighteen months. Otunbayeva, one of the most prominent politicians then, was never elected to office, and had a brilliant career serving as the country`s chief diplomat four times and excelling crucial ambassadorships in Washington and London.

Despite many criticisms she took up the job and showed the way for sustainable democracy, ensuring smooth parliamentary and presidential elections highly lauded by the international community as the first free and fair in the country, and transferring the power peacefully, also for the first time in the country’s short history of independence. Unlike many rulers we had in the past she did not try to cling on to power afterwards, and focused on her charity and development work. Otunbayeva demonstrated the maturity, integrity and wisdom other politicians, predominantly men, failed to master.

When I came to work in the Maldives I knew that encouraging women`s better political participation would be one of my priorities. Besides feeling passionate about this personally, I have quickly grasped on a special role of Maldivian women in the local politics. I felt that women have always played a crucial role in decision making. I read all published works on the history of the archipelago, and I was surprised to see that all researchers, including distinguished Pyrard, Bell and Maloney, mentioned that the existence of female rulers in Maldivian sultanates was not something unusual. Same references are also made in the historical chronicles, Tarikh.

In the modern day, the new Maldivian Constitution enacted in 2008 allows women to be elected as a head of the state, and there are no restrictions for women to be elected or appointed for office. There may be no limitations, but there are no encouraging mechanisms either. As of now, the Maldives ranks very low globally with only 5.9% of women in its national parliament, Majlis. Similar statistics is applicable to the representation on the local levels, with even worse figures in the judiciary.

The more I became involved in observing Maldivian politics – ‘The House of Cards meets The Game of Thrones’ is not an understatement here – the more female voices I heard, always vocal and passionate. In an attempt to prepare much-needed political dialogue process to find solutions to the ongoing tensions, numerous meetings with politicians and activists along the political spectrum were conducted. It was striking that the voices of women were always distinct and clear. Even in most complex situations it was women, nonetheless of the side that they took on, who would take up a more constructive approach, and show more flexibility, which was crucial to continuing with the process.

I got to see another side of female politicians when I was interviewing them for the in-house study to better understand how the women`s wings of political parties are organized and function. I listened to their personal stories, thorny paths to politics, their successes and failures. All these journeys were all set in different contexts, but the experience of being in the constant struggle – against harassment in media, to be listened to and heard, to stay relevant in politics without big networks and money – was something that united these stories for me. All of them have had to deal with expectations of their roles, in the family, at workplace, and in a wider society, set by the societal and religious restrictions.

Every time one discusses the issues related to gender equality in the Maldives horrifying statistics comes up that one out of three Maldivian women have experienced violence of some form during their lifetime. The way we treat our wives, mothers, sisters and daughters is the indicator how our society treats women. Equal opportunities and equal outcomes do not start in the government, or in the text of the law, they become materialized in the most powerful way when families grasp on their importance and make the equity routine in their daily lives.

There are not so many direct links between my two homes – Kyrgyzstan and Maldives. Interestingly, one is of literary character. In 2012, a blogger made a list of most important books for each country: it was unsurprising that both books – Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu by Abdullah Sadiq, often penned as Maldivian “Romeo and Juliet”, and Jamilia by Kyrgyzstan`s most influential author, Chingiz Aitmatov – are, in fact, stories about strong women making difficult decisions. The second link I found in the recent LSE researchAbove the Parapet: Women in Public Life, on journeys taken by high profile women who shape public life: Maldives’ Mariya Ali, and Kyrgyzstan`s Roza Otunbayeva are both inspirational in their interviews.

I come from a country where women always played an important role in political life. Our legends are rich with inspiring stories about women warriors, and our history has seen many female rulers who helped Kyrgyzstan to survive through many turbulent times. It was a bitter surprise when in 2005 the country failed to elect any women to its parliament making shameful statistics of becoming the only country in the world with zero women in the legislature. After special gender quotas were introduced in 2007 for the first time, a quarter of the parliament is now reserved for female politicians. The norm became constitutional in 2010, when the political parties were obliged to make their candidate lists for parliamentary elections more diverse by nominating every 4th person of different sex, every 5th person under the age of 35, and every 5th individual belonging to a national minority.

Despite many attempts, there are currently no temporary special measures for women in the Maldives. But there is a way for political parties to encourage and support their female members with the internal quotas and secured funding. There is a way for voters go and vote for female candidates during the elections. And there is a way for all of us to talk about it with our sons and daughters to shape their future that is tolerant, inclusive and diverse.

Men often like to act as gentlemen, for example opening and holding doors for their female peers, colleagues and friends. So let`s be true gentlemen and open the door for substantive equality for women, and not close it.

Written by
Jomart Ormonbekov
Peace and Development Advisor
UN entities involved in this initiative
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
United Nations
United Nations Population Fund