Locating Maldivian Women's Mosques in Global Discourses

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Jacqueline H. Fewkes
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , March
     2019.
     220 pages.
     $109.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783030135843.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Maldives—if they are thought of at all by most people today—generally evoke images of stunning beaches dotted with high-end tourist villas. The modern Republic of the Maldives is, however, the only constitutionally defined 100% Muslim nation-state on earth and has historically been at the crossroads of Muslim commercial and cultural circulations between Africa, India, Arabia, and Aceh, Indonesia. Nevertheless, the experiences and understandings of Islam by the inhabitants of this Indian Ocean archipelago of coral atolls have been almost totally neglected by scholars of Islam. Locating Maldivian Women’s Mosques in Global Discourses should thus deserve a warm welcome, and it is hoped that its publication will stimulate new academic work on Islam and Muslim society in the Maldives.

In this book, Jacqueline H. Fewkes presents a critical reading of the (little known) official history of the construction and operations of women’s mosques in the country. These institutions are viewed by government officials and others primarily in relation to the Maldives’ participation in the “government’s social initiative to provide public spaces for women” and were “developed by women’s committees on the islands, which had been formed by the 1979 National Women’s Committee (NWC), in preparation for the 1985 United Nation’s World Conference on Women in Nairobi” (89). The dominant narrative here has framed the story of women’s mosques in the Maldives within the broader trends of the nationalization of the administration of Islamic religious affairs under the long rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (1978-2008). Fewkes, however, produces some anecdotal evidence for the existence of Maldivian women’s mosques in some form even before World War II, while also remarking on the “afterlife” of these institutions in the post-Gayoom period.

Changes in government policy have, in fact, been the dominant factor in determining the fluctuating fortunes of women’s mosques in the Maldives. Fewkes refers to these institutions as ‘nisha miskii’, and notes that while in the 1990s there were 266 of them across the nation’s two hundred inhabited islands, in 2009 it was reported that the Ministry, of Islamic Affairs had plans to close them (202-205). This proposal does not seem to have been carried out in its totality, but the number of such institutions actively maintained in the Maldives has certainly decreased significantly since then. Over the past two years my team and I, working on the Maldives Heritage Survey, have visited over a hundred and fifty islands but have found only a handful of dedicated women’s mosques open and operational—and those with only very limited local attendance.

Fewkes was in the Maldives gathering material for this study in 2006. Her time in country was, however, limited to a short summer visit to Malé, Hulhumalé, and an “unnamed northern atoll” (8). There were, moreover, apparently some significant limitations on the fieldwork that she was also able to accomplish during that period.  Fewkes makes it clear, for example, that she was unable to attend Friday congregational prayer at any mosque in the country (161), and the only primary ethnographic material presented in this book comprises the profiles of three women—all of whom it seems were met and interviewed on a single island, and two of them on a single day (21-28).

Rather than ethnography forming “the heart of this book” (8), what is presented here, then, is for the most part an attempt to situate the phenomenon of “women’s mosques” in the Maldives in relation to a much broader (but previously unconnected) body of literature on what might be regarded as analogous institutions in other parts of the world stretching from Africa to China. Fewkes makes this point clear from the outset by stating “I am using the region as a starting point to discuss much larger issues associated with women’s mosques, issues that have global significance” (v). This is a worthy project—pushing discussions of “women’s mosques” beyond the level of an unexpected novelty and toward a more sustained critical discussion that is long overdue.

At times, however, this pulls her quite far from the limited ethnography that she has conducted in the Maldives to engage extensively with some questions that simply don’t seem to resonate very broadly with local conversations, such as “Are the mudahim (leaders) of women’s nisha miskii ‘imams’?”  and “What does the presence (or absence) of a female ‘imam’ in a Muslim community signify?” (2). Moving across the multiple scales that that the author outlines in the introduction, readers might have hoped for her exploration of these broader questions to be complemented by other lines of discussion framed more directly in relation to local questions and concerns. Fewkes has, nevertheless, done us all a service here in putting the discussion of contemporary Maldivian Muslim religious life on the agenda for broader engagement in the field of Islamic Studies. It is hoped that from here other scholars could follow her lead to conduct more sustained historical and ethnographic studies of the understandings and experience of Islam and Islamic institutions within the lives of local women and men in the Maldives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

R. Michael Feener is Professor of Cross-Regional Studies at the Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and an Associate Member of the History Faculty at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jacqueline H. Fewkes is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University.

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