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Maldives Culture

Social Structure    |   Ethnic Groups and Languages    |   Religion    |   Education

Social Structure

Maldives was a caste society well into the 1920s. Modernization efforts however, have helped make Maldives more homogeneous in the early 1990s. Traditionally, a significant gap has existed between the elite living on Male and the remainder of the population inhabiting the outer islands--those atolls distant from Male. President Gayoom's development philosophy has centered on decreasing this gap by raising the standard of living among the 75 percent of Maldivians who live in the outer atolls as well as making Maldives more self-sufficient. Fortunately, social tensions that might have affected these two distinct societies were lessened by the isolation of the outer islands. The geographical advantage of having many islands, for example, has enabled Maldives to limit the impact of tourism to special resorts.

Male, the traditional seat of the sultans and of the nobility, remains an elite society wielding political and economic power. Members of the several traditionally privileged ruling families; government, business, and religious leaders; professionals; and scholars are found there. Male differs from other island communities also because as many as 40 percent of its residents are migrants.

The island communities outside Male are in most cases selfcontained economic units, drawing meager sustenance from the sea around them. Islanders are in many instances interrelated by marriage and form a small, tightly knit group whose main economic pursuit is fishing. Apart from the heads of individual households, local influence is exerted by the government appointed island khatib, or chief. Regional control over each atoll is administered by the atolu verin, or atoll chief, and by the gazi, or community religious leader. Boat owners, as employers, also dominate the local economy and, in many cases, provide an informal, but effective, link to Male's power structure.

The family is the basic unit of society. Roughly 80 percent of Maldivian households consist of a single nuclear family composed of a married couple and their children rather than an extended family. Typically, unmarried adults remain with relatives instead of living alone or with strangers. The man is usually the head of the family household, and descent is patrilineal. Women do not accept their husbands' names after marriage but maintain their maiden names. Inheritance of property is through both males and females.

As Muslims, men may have as many as four wives, but there is little evidence to suggest that many have more than one. Islamic law, as practiced in Maldives, makes divorce easy for men and women. Divorce rates are among the highest in the world. According to the 1977 census, nearly half the women over the age of thirty had been married four times or more. Half of all women marry by the age of fifteen. About 60 percent of men marry at age twenty or later.

The status of women has traditionally been fairly high, as attested to in part by the existence of four sultanas. Women do not veil, nor are they strictly secluded, but special sections are reserved for women in public places, such as stadiums and mosques.

Data as of August 1994


Ethnic Groups and Language

The contemporary homogeneous mixture of Sinhalese, Dravidian, Arab, Australasian, and African ethnicity in Maldives results from historical changes in regional hegemony over marine trade routes. Clarence Maloney, an anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in Maldives in the 1970s, determined that an early Dravidian-speaking substratum of population from Kerala in India had settled in the islands, leaving its legacy in the language and place-names. This group was subsequently displaced by Dhivehi-speakers who arrived from Sri Lanka and whose language became the official one. Arabs compose the last main group to arrive beginning in the ninth century. However, a rapidly disappearing endogamous subgroup of persons of African origin called the Ravare or Giraavaru also existed. In 1970, facing the loss of their home island in Male Atoll because of erosion, the Ravare moved to Hulele.

But a few years later, the community of 200 people were transferred to Male to permit the expansion of the airport on Hulele.

The only distinct ethnic minority is found in Male among the trading community of Indians, who settled there in the 1800s. Several hundred in number, they are also a religious minority, belonging to the Shia branch of Islam. In addition, a small number of Sri Lankans have come to Maldives in recent years to work in the tourist resorts because Maldivians, as devout Muslims, refuse to work in facilities serving alcoholic beverages. This situation has created some resentment on the part of local Maldivians facing unemployment.

The language Maldivian Dhivehi belongs to the Indo-European language family. Derived from Elu, an archaic form of Sinhalese (the language of Sri Lanka), it has numerous loanwords from Arabic, from Hindi--which is used in trade with Indian merchants- -and from Tamil. It has contributed one word, "atoll," to international usage. In Dhivehi, the numbers from one to twelve are of Sinhalese origin, and after twelve, Hindi. The names of the days are Sinhalese and Hindi. The names of persons are Arabic.

Dhivehi is spoken throughout the atolls. Dialect differences are pronounced in the four southernmost atolls, however. The traditional script, Thaana, is written from right to left. This locally invented script contains twenty-four letters, the first nine of which are forms of the Arabic numerals. In 1977 a romanized script was introduced to be used along with Thaana for official correspondence, but since 1979 the requirement is no longer mandatory.

Data as of August 1994


Religion

With the exception of Shia members of the Indian trading community, Maldivians are Sunni Muslims; adherence to Islam, the state religion since the twelfth century, is required for citizenship. The importance of Islam in Maldives is further evident in the lack of a secular legal system. Instead, the traditional Islamic law code of sharia, known in Dhivehi as sariatu, forms the basic law code of Maldives as interpreted to conform to local Maldivian conditions by the president, the attorney general, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Majlis. On the inhabited islands, the miski, or mosque, forms the central place where Islam is practiced. Because Friday is the most important day for Muslims to attend mosque, shops and offices in towns and villages close around 11 a.m., and the sermon begins by 12:30 p.m. Most inhabited islands have several mosques; Male has more than thirty. Most mosques are whitewashed buildings constructed of coral stone with corrugated iron or thatched roofs. In Male, the Islamic Center and the Grand Friday Mosque, built in 1984 with funding from the Persian Gulf states, Pakistan, Brunei, and Malaysia, are imposing elegant structures. The gold-colored dome of this mosque is the first structure sighted when approaching Male. In mid-1991 Maldives had a total of 724 mosques and 266 women's mosques.

Prayer sessions are held five times daily. Mudimu, the mosque caretakers, make the call, but tape recordings rather than the human voice are often used. Most shops and offices close for fifteen minutes after each call. During the ninth Muslim month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during the daylight hours. Therefore, cafés and restaurants are closed during the day, and working hours are limited. The exact occurrence of Ramadan varies each year because it depends on the lunar cycle. Ramadan begins with the new moon and ends with the sighting of the next new moon.

The isolation of Maldives from the historical centers of Islam in the Middle East and Asia has allowed some pre-Islamic beliefs and attitudes to survive. Western anthropologist Maloney during his 1970s fieldwork in Maldives reports being told by a Muslim cleric that for most Maldivians Islam is "largely a matter of observing ablutions, fasting, and reciting incomprehensible Arabic prayer formulas." There is a widespread belief in jinns, or evil spirits. For protection against such evils, people often resort to various charms and spells. The extent of these beliefs has led some observers to identify a magico-religious system parallel to Islam known as fandita, which provides a more personal way for the islanders to deal with either actual or perceived problems in their lives.

Data as of August 1994


Education

Only primary and secondary education, neither of which is compulsory, is offered in Maldives. Students seeking higher education must go abroad to a university. Maldives has three types of schools: Quranic schools, Dhivehi-language primary schools, and English-language primary and secondary schools. Schools in the last category are the only ones equipped to teach the standard curriculum. In 1992 approximately 20 percent of government revenues went to finance education, a significant increase over the 1982 expenditure of 8.5 percent. Part of the reason for this large expenditure results from recent increases in the construction of modern school facilities on many of the islands. In the late 1970s, faced with a great disparity between the quality of schooling offered in the islands and in Male, the government undertook an ambitious project to build one modern primary school in each of the nineteen administrative atolls. The government in Male directly controls the administration of these primary schools. Literacy is reportedly high; the claimed 1991 adult literacy rate of 98.2 percent would make Maldives the highest in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

In Maldives primary education comprises classes one through five, enrolling students in the corresponding ages six through ten. Secondary education is divided between classes six through ten, which represent overall secondary education, and classes eleven and twelve, which constitute higher secondary education. In 1992 Maldives had a total of 73,642 pupils in school: 32,475 in government schools and 41,167 in private schools.

Traditionally, education was the responsibility of religious leaders and institutions. Most learning centered on individual tutorials in religious teachings. In 1924 the first formal schools opened in Male. These schools were call edhuruge, and served as Quranic schools. Edhuruge were only established on two other islands at this time. The basic primary school on the islands in the 1990s is the makthab, dating from the 1940s. Primary schools of a slightly larger scale in terms of curriculum, enrollment, and number of teachers, are called madhrasaa. During the 1940s, a widespread government campaign was organized to bring formal schooling to as many of the inhabited islands as possible. Enthusiastically supported by the islanders, who contributed a daily allotment of the fish catch to support the schools, many one-room structures of coral and lime with thatched roofs were constructed. The makthab assumed the functions of the traditional edhuruge while also providing a basic curriculum in reading, writing, and arithmetic. But with the death of reformist president Didi and the restoration of the sultanate in the early 1950s, official interest in the development of education in the atolls waned.

Throughout the 1960s, attention to education focused mainly on the two government schools in Male. In 1960 the medium of instruction changed from Dhivehi to English, and the curriculum was reorganized according to the imported London General Certificate of Education. In the early 1990s, secondary education was available only in Male's English-medium schools, which had also preschool and primary-level offerings. Dhivehi-medium schools existed, but most were located in Male. These schools were private and charged a fee.

As of the early 1990s, education for the majority of Maldivian children continues to be provided by the makthab. In 1989 there were 211 community and private schools, and only fifty government schools. The results of a UN study of school enrollment in 1983 showed that the total number in the new government primary schools on the atolls was only 7,916, compared with 23,449 in private schools. In Male the number of students attending government schools was 5,892, with 5,341 in private schools. Throughout the 1980s, enrollment continued to rise as more government-sponsored schools were constructed in the atolls. In 1992 the first secondary school outside Male opened on Addu Atoll.

In 1975 the government, with international assistance, started vocational training at the Vocational Training Center in Male. The training covered electricity, engine repair and maintenance, machinery, welding, and refrigeration. Trainees were chosen from among fourth- and fifth-grade students. In the atolls, the Rural Youth Vocational Training Program provided training designed to meet local needs in engine repair and maintenance, tailoring, carpentry, and boat building. On the island of Mafuri on Male Atoll, a large juvenile reformatory also offered vocational training. Established by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1979, the reformatory provided training courses in electrical and mechanical engineering, carpentry, welding, and tailoring, as well as a limited primary school academic curriculum.

International organizations enabled the creation of the Science Education Center in 1979 and an Arabic Islamic Education Center opened in 1989. Japanese aid enabled the founding of the Maldives Center for Social Education in 1991. In the latter half of 1993 work began on the Maldives Institute of Technical Education to help eliminate the shortage of skilled labor.

Data as of August 1994

 

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