Ethnic Groups and Languages |
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
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
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
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
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
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