Last Updated 8 October 2020

Though most famous internationally as a popular tourist destination, the Maldives has been described as undergoing a battle between liberal and literal interpretations of Islam, with serious human rights violations linked to fundamentalists, and attacks on perceived atheists and homosexuals in recent years.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

There is no formal guarantee of the right to freedom of religion or belief in the Constitution of the Maldives. The Constitution designates Islam as the official state religion, and that Islam is the basis of all laws. Other articles in the Constitution appear to make the practice of Islam mandatory, for instance Article 19 that states that “[a] citizen is free to engage in any conduct or activity that is not expressly prohibited by Islamic Shari’ah or by law”. The Constitution also states that every citizen has the responsibility of preserving and protecting Islam.1 Article 9 (b) states that “a non-Muslim may not become citizen of the Maldives” which is interpreted as imposing a requirement that all citizens must be Muslims.2

The Constitution does not prohibit discrimination based on religious preference; religion is excluded from a list of attributes for which people should not be discriminated against.3 According to the Constitution, citizens can engage in activities “not expressly prohibited by Shari’ah” but rights and freedoms can be limited to protect and maintain the “tenet of Islam”. While freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution, it is not respected in practice.4

The government follows civil law based on Islamic law, and this civil law is subordinate to Islamic law. In a situation not covered by civil law, nor addressed by the Constitution, judges must apply Shariah law.5

The Constitution stipulates that the president must be Sunni. Furthermore, the Constitution precludes non-Muslims from voting and holding public positions and to be eligible for an appointment to the Supreme Court, a judge cannot have been convicted of a hudud crime.6

Mosques and prayer houses are under the control of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which has control over all matters related to religious affairs. Law prohibits the establishment of places of worship for other religions than Islam and congregating in public for non-Islamic prayers is illegal. According to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, foreign residents are free to practice their non-Islamic religion in private.7;

International obligations

In June 2020, the office of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih announced the decision to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – a protocol establishing a complaints mechanism for individuals and organizations regarding violations of the human rights prescribed by the convention, and the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance.8

The Maldives is a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with a reservation in relation to Article 18 on freedom of religion or belief. The government’s application of Article 18 of the Covenant “shall be without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives.”9

Education and children’s rights

Article 36 of the Constitution states that it is imperative for parents and the state to provide children with primary and secondary education and subsection (c) requires state schools to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instil love for Islam.”10 Islam is incorporated into the curriculum in all subject areas and Islam is a compulsory subject in primary and secondary school. Foreign students who are not Muslims may be allowed to opt out of studying Islam.11

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs mandates Islamic instruction in schools and the Ministry of Education funds the salaries of religious instructors.12 Foreigners who want to teach Islam can be authorized by the government to do so if they subscribe to Sunni Islam.13

Family, community and society

The government certifies imams, who are responsible for presenting government-approved sermons and imams may not prepare sermons without government authorization. For an Imam to be certified, he must be a Sunni Muslim, have a degree in religious studies, and not have been convicted of a crime in a Shariah court.14 The sermons have to conform with government regulations which stipulate that statements during sermons that can be interpreted as racial or gender discriminatory, discourage access to health services in the name of Islam or demean the character of and/or hatred for people holding another faith than Islam, is prohibited.15 The punishment for such a violation is imprisonment or house arrest for two to four years and a fine of 5,000-20,000 rufiyaa (approximately $325 – $1,299 USD).16

It is illegal to offer citizens alcohol, but the sale of alcohol to foreigners on resorts is legal. Importation of items contrary to Islam is also outlawed.17  Failing to fast during Ramadan without an acceptable medical or health-related reason and the consumption of pork or alcohol is also outlawed by Section 616 in the Penal Code.18

Family law

By law, a Maldivian woman cannot marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he first converts to Islam. A Maldivian man, however, can marry a non-Muslim foreigner, if the foreigner is Christian or adheres to Judaism. A Maldivian man cannot marry a non-Muslim foreigner from a religion not allowed under Islamic Shariah unless that person converts to Islam prior to marriage.19

Adultery, fornication, and same-sex relations are outlawed as unlawful sexual intercourse chapter 410, “Offenses against the family” in the Penal Code.20 Under section 411, such crimes are punishable between 1 and 8 years in prison and fines of up to 400,000 (approx. US$25,000).

The rights of women and minorities

In 2019, two female judges were appointed to the Supreme Court for the very first time, despite pressure and push backs from religious clerics. The representation of women in parliament deteriorated after the parliamentary elections held in April 2019, where only six out of the 85 members of parliament are women.21

According to Human rights Watch, gender-based violence is endemic and women often face harassment in public.22

In March 2019, the government pledged to grant civil service employees six months’ paid maternity leave and one month paid paternity leave.23

Section 411 of the Penal Code criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct with a punishment up to eight years and 100 lashes.24; Similarly, same-sex marriage is prohibited.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The Constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press, but only in a manner “not contrary to the tenet of Islam.” The tenet of Islam is defined as “The Holy Qur’an and those principles of Shari’ah whose provenance is not in dispute from among those found in the Sunna of the Noble Prophet, and those principles derived from these two foundations”.25 Statements or actions believed to be contrary to this object are subject to criminal sanctions.26

While it was expected that the Solih administration would respect freedom of expression to a larger extent than its predecessor, individuals vocal about the rights of minorities or basic freedoms are still at risk of attacks by non-state actors. Freedom House states that local human rights groups have had to relocate several social media users who have received death threats for exercising their right to freedom of expression.27

Freedom of the press

The Maldives ranked 79 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index, jumping up 19 positions from the year before. Two months after being elected, President Solih’s government repealed the 2016 draconian law on defamation that had been used frequently by his predecessor to target the media. However, police violence against journalists had increased during Solih’s first months in office. While the situation appears to have now improved, impunity remains an issue.28 Freedom of the press and expression in general is still constrained as it has to be in line with “the tenet of Islam”, possibly leading to self-censorship in the media.29

Suspension of Maldivian Democracy Network 2019

In early October 2019, parliamentarians from the Adhaalath Party issued a statement calling for an investigation into the activities of the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) – a leading human rights organization – following a report published by the latter in 2016, titled ‘Preliminary Assessment of Radicalisation in Maldives’. The political party asserted that elements of the report contradicted the “tenet of Islam”.30 The MDN report criticized the Maldivian education system and claimed that the rhetoric used in certain textbooks encouraged extremism. The Adhaalath Party condemned the report accusing the MDN of deriding Islamic religion, with the support of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs the case was handed to the police and an investigation launched. Members of the public also condemned MDN’s report, with some demanding the organization’s closure. Islamist groups issued  threats on social media against the staff of MDN and two men were detained for threatening the founder of MDN with death.31

On 10 October 2019, the government issued a statement imposing MDN’s temporary cessation of activities “due to [the report’s] content slandering Islam and the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH)”.32 The statement assures that the government continues to be committed to “upholding the democratic rights of our citizens including those of expression and peaceful assembly” as recognised by the ICCPR, however emphasises that “these rights cannot be exercised maliciously, in the form of hate-speech, or in a manner that contributes to public discord and enmity”. The statement also reminds that the government condemns “those who foment hatred, send out threats, and call or violence against others in the name of defending religion”, but nonetheless reminds that “Islam is one of the fundamental sources of our country’s democratic framework as well as a source of unity and peace within our community.”

MDN apologized for their unintended offense to religion and removed the report from their website. However, following pressure by Islamist groups and the political opposition, the president ordered the dissolution of MDN on 5 November 2019.34 In April 2020, the Police Commissioner stated during a press conference that there is an ongoing criminal investigation into the alleged blasphemy.35

Atheism and criticism of Islam

Criticising Islam is outlawed under Section 617 of the Penal Code. A person commits an offense if he or she “engages in religious oration and criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intention to cause disregard for Islam”; or “produces, sells, distributes, or offers material criticizing Islam with the intention to cause disregard to Islam”. The “production, possession, sale, distribution, dissemination and importation of idols of worship in the Maldives”; and “attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizens of Maldives, and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause religious segregation amongst people” is also outlawed.36  Individuals convicted of these offences face imprisonment for up to one year.37

While many religious ‘crimes’ are not individually spelled out under the penal code, discretion is given for the prosecution of ‘hudud‘ crimes under Shariah law.38

Muslims are prohibited by law to convert to another religion and conversion may result in the loss of citizenship. Judges can impose a harsher punishment in accordance with Shariah jurisprudence. Conversion from Islam may be viewed as apostasy, which is punishable by death according to Shariah as it is a hudud crime.  Propagation of religions other than Islam is also a criminal offense, punishable by two to five years in prison. Proselytizing to change denomination within Islam carries the same penalty.39

In November 2017, the government launched a new initiative, under which people making fun of Islam on social media will get house calls from government officials to “educate” them about

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders have been targeted and subject to verbal attacks, hate speech and death threats. At least 15 human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and NGO workers have reported that they have been subject to online threats and harassment repeatedly since November 2018.41 The targets included individuals who promotes freedom of expression and religion, published content viewed as offensive to Islam, or supported the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals.42

In July 2020, it was reported that violent ultra-nationalist or islamic ideological groups had worked to shut down Uthema, a prominent women’s rights organization in the Maldives, by launching a social media campaign demanding that they be banned. The call came after Uthema published a report assessing the country’s adherence to its obligations under the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The organization has been accused of being anti-Islam.43


In July 2020, Human Rights Watch reported that more than 80 migrants had been detained for protesting against unpaid wages, labor rights violations and inhumane living conditions.44 The government has been accused of violating human rights when they restricted migrants’ right to peaceful assembly and threatened civil society groups for supporting them. The migrants had gone six months without pay since the outbreak of COVID-19. About 100,000 migrant workers, mainly from Bangladesh, work in the construction and tourism industries in the Maldives.45 The government responded by saying that the protests and marches could only be with a written approval from the police and that they acted in accordance with the 2013 Freedom of Assembly Act, which has been criticized for severely restricting citizens rights to hold protests or gather for rallies and political events.46

Civil society was criticized by the Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment Ministry after a petition was launched in support of the migrant workers. The Ministry stated that NGOs should not support “actions that are detrimental to national security and national interests.”47

Highlighted cases

Human rights defender and blogger Yameen Rasheed, who worked as an IT professional, was found stabbed to death in the stairwell of his apartment in April 2017. He had been an ardent campaigner for justice in the case of the apparent ‘enforced disappearance’ of his friend Ahmed Rilwan (see below). Rasheed had also made a series of satirical posts about the spread of radical Islam and the Maldivian government through his blog ‘The Daily Panic’.48 He was previously arrested along with others in 2015 after taking part in an anti-government rally in the capital. Rasheed had in the past reported receiving regular death threats to police, but had failed to get a response and often his complaints were dropped without investigation.49 The trial of the six men accused of the murder has been subject to multiple delays.50

Journalist and well-known blogger, Ahmed Rilwan, was abducted at knife point in August 2014. Rilwan was outspoken about corruption, and the connections between politicians, criminal gangs and Islamist extremist groups in the Maldives.51 Minivan News, an independent online publication and Rilwan’s place of work, subsequently received a death threat in the form of a machete through their premises door and an SMS text reading: “You will be killed next”. In September 2019, a presidential commission investigating cold cases of unsolved murders and disappearances stated that Rilwan was abducted and killed by a local affiliate of Al-Qaeda. The investigation by the commission revealed that there were attempts by the then President Yameen to divert the investigation and his deputy had tried to obstruct justice in the case.52


1, 3, 6, 10, 25
2, 5, 11, 13, 16, 17, 19, 26, 37, 38, 39
4, 27, 29
14, 15
18, 20, 36
21, 23, 50
22, 31, 34
45, 47
46, 51

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