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June 19, 2007

I am the 3rd child in a family of 11 siblings; 7 female and 4 male. I went to secondary school at Aminiya School, Male'. I was an A student, did well in sports and got along well with my schoolmates. In 1976, when I was thirteen years old, I got into trouble with the authorities and had to leave school. At the time, Aminiya School was the only school in Maldives that could provide a decent education to girls. My world fell apart. My father was not rich enough to send me abroad to study, so he approached various people for help. My Mum and Dad could not and would not accept that their daughter's right to a decent education was over. Ultimately my father managed to convince an uncle of mine to sponsor me. In December 1976, I left my island life, the protective surroundings of my home for the neighboring, huge subcontinent of India. In India I went to the city of Bangalore to complete my schooling.

Going to India was exciting; I had never been abroad. I felt I had been given the chance of a lifetime and was determined to make the best of the opportunity presented to me. I worked hard and excelled in both studies and sports. In athletics, I represented my school in the 100m and 200m sprints. I was also captain of the school basketball team. Life in India was not easy; I hardly had any money. I stayed in special boarding and used to cycle many miles to school, as I couldn’t afford even the bus fare. I did finish school with a first class pass. More importantly, such exposure at such a young age made me stronger and more self-reliant.

I got married in early 1981 and was delighted when my son Affaan was born on November 29, 1981. I started playing badminton to get fit after birth and in 1984; I won the National Badminton Championship.

I wanted to start working so I joined the Ministry of Trade and Industries of Maldives, as a Project Officer (trainee), and during my time there I was promoted 3 times. My father, who was the one who always encouraged me to “follow my instincts” and do “the right thing as per my conscience,” passed away in May 1987. This hit me very hard. I realized that life was too short to waste time, just filling in forms and doing administrative work as a civil servant. In September 1988, I left the Government and went to Britain with my little son to do further studies. My husband stayed back in the Maldives.

In Britain, I joined the University of Aberystwyth, Wales, UK where I did an honors degree in law. After my degree I completed my professional exams and got called to the English bar. I then returned to the University of Aberystwyth, and got a Masters degree in Law. Albion Chambers, Bristol was my next stop; I did a pupilage there before returning home.

As a student, I juggled studies with the hard task of being a mother, neither of which I could afford to neglect. I am proud to note that Affaan, my son, also excelled in his studies and is now a trainee solicitor in a city firm in London. I mention this just to let other women know, if I could handle studies with motherhood, they most certainly can.

When I came back I found out that I was the first woman to qualify as a lawyer in this country, and as such there were many hurdles to overcome. Life would have been easier if I would have taken the Government’s offer to join them immediately. However, I decided to establish myself through private practice. It was hard work and took long hours. Despite this, I still found time for sports. I started playing basketball again with a team. In 1995 and 1996 I took part in the National Basketball Tournament and our team won the championship on both occasions. I was chosen as one of the 5 most valuable players in both tournaments.

During this time, I continued to practice as a private practitioner for almost 6 years and managed to have the top firms on my retainer list. Even though the money was good in Maldivian terms, I found it difficult to advise clients in a country where no system exists. In 1998, the then Attorney General managed to convince me that a legal system could not be put in place if they did not have qualified and capable lawyers working with the Government, so I joined the Attorney General’s Office. My exposure to politics and parliament really came when the President appointed me to Parliament as one of his appointees.

On November 29, 1996, my son Affaan's 15th birthday, I got married for a second time to my present husband, Amir. Amir is all and more of what I could ever want or dream of as my partner in life. On May 5, 1999, I had reason to feel ecstatic; my second son Athfaan was born.

Over time Maldivians had gotten used to hearing murmurs about torture and inhuman treatment in Maldivian prisons. The turning point in my life came in September 2003; a 19 year old boy was brutally beaten to death by security forces in prison. His co-inmates protested and many inmates were shot in the back of the head and murdered by the security forces. The Captain of the Security Forces, who was the head of the team who beat up the boy, remains free today. A decision of the High Court of Maldives quashed the earlier decision of the lower courts to convict the said person. The Attorney General has stated he will appeal to the President, which is the highest appellate authority in the country. The President is the head of the security forces as well. He also appoints and removes the Attorney General and the Chief Justice. I do not know the status of the appeal because the appeal to the President is not heard in public. My decision to leave the Government was made; I wanted to dedicate my work to stop the torture and killings. I wanted to see a more fair system in the Maldives, one based on the principles of natural justice. I wanted to make sure that we put a system in place, which respected democracy and human rights. A group of reformists were screaming for it; their numbers were growing, their voices getting louder.

My personal campaign to add my voice to the cry for democracy and reforms started with my campaign to get into parliament as an elected member. I announced my candidacy for the seat of Male’ Atoll. On a personal front, my husband and I had been trying for a baby for sometime and I found out during my campaign that I was pregnant. Campaigning was not easy. You are not allowed by law to have rallies so the only way to campaign is to walk door to door. My constituents are spread over 9 islands, some a fair distance away from the others. I traveled many miles on rough seas, walking door-to-door trying to convince potential voters that I was "their candidate." I had limited financial resources and with an almost 6 month pregnant tummy, I would get physically and mentally exhausted. I was delighted when I got elected. My jubilation was lifted further, when on April 22, 2005, I gave birth to my baby daughter, Amra, my determination increased.

When the Government allowed political parties to register in the country, I joined the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which is one of the two parties that have members in Parliament. The President {who is the Head of: The Executive, The Judiciary, who appoints The Speaker of the Parliament (not necessarily from those elected or appointed to Parliament), who is the Head of The Security Forces (including the police, which are supposed to be a civil force and the military, which includes the navy and the coast guard) and who employs, fires and controls all Government employees} formed his own party, the Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP). With all of the capacities mentioned above, one can imagine the plight of the opposition.

On January 24, 2006, I was the flag bearer in the first-ever official protest, organized by the MDP, against police brutality. I did organize a Woman's Rights Protest on March 31, 2006 to protest the security forces’ unacceptable treatment of women and their invasion in our sanctified homes without any arrest warrants and even in the middle of the night. I have used my knowledge in law and my voice in parliament to advocate our cause, i.e. the advancement of democracy and human rights in the Maldives. I have been beaten up in protests, arrested, had old urine and black engine oil thrown on me, run off the road, defamed on internet sites and in print media, etc. Anyone who is a player in the fight to get democratic rights do so with full knowledge of the consequences of such action, which include arbitrary arrests, detention, trials, jail sentences, being beaten up by the police, getting fired from jobs, and much more. I am no exception to this and have in turn spent a lot of time representing, free of charge, several activists who have gotten arrested in the struggle to get democratic rights.

It is widely believed that President Gayyoom, who has been in power for the last 28 years, has started his campaign to bid for the next 5-year term. The Maldivian Constitutional Assembly has been assembled to bring about the much needed democratic reforms to our constitution. I am a member of the Constitutional Assembly; members of parliament have a seat in the Constitutional Assembly for their parliamentary term. Two and a half years have elapsed since the Assembly convened. The President’s Party and its group of Appointees, including the cabinet and 16 further Appointees, commands a clear majority; furthermore, not one provision of the constitution has been amended to date. The future of democracy in this country seems bleak. The country is getting ready to experience mass arrests before the next elections and it is likely that all opposition leaders and activists will be in jail by election date.

The fight for democracy in our country continues. I, like all other activists, am a soldier in this fight to obtain our rights. Everyday is a painful struggle, but the spirit of the pro-democracy activists remains high. The men, women and youth activists take huge risks. President Gayyoom's security forces have killed people in order to put down a small prison protest. There is absolutely no doubt in any of our minds about the possible consequence we may face for standing up for our rights. However, as General Patton said “The real hero is the man who fights even though he is scared”.

In 1988, India came to our rescue when there was an attempt by a group of Maldivians and Tamils to overthrow the Government. The people of Maldives then thought of India as a friend. However, since the democratic struggle began India has donated coastguard ships, which the Government uses to intimidate people in outer islands who demand rights. India has an embassy in the country but refuses to publicly acknowledge the struggle of the Maldivians to obtain their democratic rights. It is difficult for the reformists to understand how the world's largest democracy, our neighbor, India can turn a blind eye to our struggle for democracy. At times, the European Union has made public statements condemning certain actions by the Government. I, personally feel more let down by India’s refusal to publicly acknowledge our struggle. I studied in India and admire many Indian freedom fighters and take inspiration and guidance from their leaders, such as, Gandhi and Nehru.

In March 2007, The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice honored me by awarding me and nine other women from around the world the prestigious “International Women of Courage Award”. The Maldivian Reformists were pleasantly surprised and saw this gesture by the world’s most powerful democracy, the US, to be publicly acknowledging the struggle for democratic rights in these tiny archipelagic islands. The Government fined our party, the MDP, because our supporters were there to welcome me home from my trip to the US. The fine is Rf 25,000 (about $2000 US dollars) which, judging from past action will probably be unilaterally and arbitrarily deducted by the Elections Commissioner from the money payable to our party from the Government. I personally think the fine is an expression of the Government’s annoyance that the US, a nation celebrated for its democracy, has deemed it fit to award a woman from the opposition for her efforts to promote democracy here and has in turn inspired other women to become more politically active.

It is my fervent hope and prayer that the international community will not let this country, described by many international visitors as "paradise on earth," be a "living hell" for its inhabitants, but rather that they give their support so that Maldivians can make Maldives "paradise on earth” for its citizens as well. As John F. Kennedy said, “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

As for me, the struggle goes on painfully slow. My day starts early with prayers and ends with prayers; prayers for a better tomorrow. A tomorrow where oppression and repression is history, where all countries and its people take care of each other, where the citizens of the world respect each other and where we as the citizens of the world, want for the other, what we want for ourselves and work to achieve that. I pray for a world where its people live and not exist, a world where its people can speak freely and be heard freely; a world and its people who can live in peace with themselves and with others and from which we can die in peace, in the honest belief that we have done our bit to make the world a better place for the citizens of the world of tomorrow. As for myself, I will put in every effort to make these prayers come true. May Allah bless the people of Maldives and the people of the world. Aameen

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