Culturally, resorts are European enclaves, and visiting women will not have to make too many adjustments. You should be aware, however, that topless bathing and nudity are strictly forbidden in the Maldives, and both the individual and the resort can be fined heavily if this law is broken. Even very brief bikinis, however, seem to be perfectly acceptable.
In Malé and the inhabited islands visited by tourists, reasonably modest dress is required – short should cover the thighs and shirts should not be too low cut. In more out-of-the-way parts of the country, slightly more conservative dress may be in order.
Attitudes Toward Women
Officially, the status of women is not inferior, and the Maldives has been ruled by women several times (though not in the last few centuries). Women can and do vote, run for public office and have equal rights in law to education, employment, and property. Nevertheless, traditional Maldivian society has delineated gender roles and expectations and is strongly influenced by Islamic religious teachings.
In the villages, men build the boats, go out fishing and do the trading, while women process the fish, gather the coconuts, prepare the food, and look after the children. Girls are expected to do domestic work, which disadvantages their education. They marry young and have children early (the average age of marriage is about 17 for females, but 21 or 22 for males. Historically, men were away for long periods, fishing, trading or working on other islands. Women stayed on their home island with the extended family and took care of everything else. These days there may be a similar pattern, with men working in the tourist resorts for 11 months of the year, but even when the men are home, women make all the important family decisions.
Under Islamic law, men are responsible for their female relative, so a son inherits twice as much of a family estate as a daughter. A man must ask a woman’s parents for permission to marry her, but the woman must also agree. A married woman retains her name and can acquire her property, but she has fewer rights if the marriage ends. A husband can divorce his wife simply by telling her so, but if a woman wants a divorce, she must have the husband’s consent or go through a problematic administrative procedure. The woman keeps half their joint property, plus whatever she owns personally, and theoretically the man must pay the maintenance of his children. In practice, the amount required for maintenance is relatively low and may not always be paid, leaving the mother and the children in a difficult position.
It is not all a Muslim-fundamentalist society and women in the capital, particularly women from higher status families, are less likely to conform to traditional norms. Women hold responsible positions in government and business and serve in the armed forces. No-one is required to wear a veil, though many wear a headscarf. Married women usually dress modestly, covering their legs and arms, but young women in Malé are often bare-headed, use make-up and even wear fashionably short skirts. Educated women, in particular, have a feminist consciousness and are working to improve the general status and welfare of women in the country. They tend not to be confrontational, but they have been known to enter male bastions like tea shops to make a point.
Apart from the government Department of Women’s Affairs, there are several organizations in Malé which visiting women could contact. All of them can be found in the phone book or by asking around, and all have catchy English acronyms.
- FASHAN – Foundation for the Advancement of Self Help in Attaining Needs
- MARDOW – Maldivian Association for Research and Development of Women
- SHE – Society for Health Education
Gay and Lesbian Travelers
There doesn’t seem to be any restrictions on what tourists do in resorts in private, but it’s unlawful for Maldivians to engage in just about any form of extra-marital sex. A gay couple should have no problem booking a resort room with a double bed and can be reasonably open in their behavior so long as they don’t offend other guests or sunbathe in the nude. None of the resorts makes any appeal to the gay market or has any noticeable gay scene.
At the Malé airport, passengers must use steps to get on and off planes, so contact the airline you’ll be using to find out what arrangements you can be made. The arrivals area is all at ground level, but special arrangements may be need to be made for departure, which usually involves going up and down stairs.
Transfers to nearby resorts are by dhoni or speedboat, and a person in a wheelchair or with limited mobility will need assistance – a dhoni is probably more accessible than most motorboats. Transfer to more distant resorts is by helicopter or seaplane, and both are difficult to access. A helicopter might be marginally easier, but it would be better to choose a resort which you can reach by boat.
Most resorts will be entirely wheelchair friendly, with few steps, ground-level rooms and reasonably smooth paths to beaches, boat jetties and all public areas. There’s no traffic to worry about, and staff will be on hand to assist disabled guests. Some of the newer resorts have split-level designs and elevated lobbies and bars, but in the more rustic ones, soft sand floors and paths will be the only challenge to wheelchairs. If you narrow your options down to a couple of resorts, you can call them directly and ask about the layout. It’s usually a good idea for guests to advise the tour agency of any special needs, but if you want to find out about specific facilities, its best to ring the resort itself.
Quite a few resort activities are potentially suitable for disabled guests, apart from the very popular sitting-on-a-beach-doing-nothing. Fishing trips and excursions to inhabited islands should be easy, but uninhabited islands may be more challenging to disembark on. Catamaran sailing and canoeing are possibilities, especially if you’ve had experience in these activities. Anyone who can swim will be able to enjoy snorkeling. Scuba-diving is a possibility – in the USA, PADI has a disabled diver’s group and has developed training standards so that PADI may be a good starting point. A good resort dive school should be able to arrange a special course or program for any group of four or more people with a similar disability.
No dogs are permitted in the Maldives, so it’s not a destination for anyone dependent on a guide dog.
Most resorts have a good mix of age groups, and some guests are well over retirement age. Once you arrive, there are no special deals or discounts for senior citizens, but when you book your holiday, be on the lookout for any tour company promotions aimed at the older market.
Children and Families
Younger children will enjoy a couple of weeks on a Maldivian resort island, particularly if they like playing in the water and on the beach. Resorts offer a very safe environment with shallow water, no traffic, no cliffs, and no unsavory characters – the only people on the island will be resort staff or guests. Though exotic cuisine is sometimes on the menu, there are always some pretty standard Western-style dishes which kids will find alright.
Older children and teenagers could find a resort a little confining after a few days, and they may get bored. Canoeing and fishing trips may provide some diversion, while a course in sailing or windsurfing could be a great way a spend a holiday. Some resorts have table tennis, tennis, volleyball or badminton. Parents should allow an extra few hundred dollars for these activities. The minimum age for scuba-diving is 16 years.
Families would probably be better on a larger resort on one of the bigger islands, where children will have more space to explore and will more likely to find other kids their age. Kanifinolhu Resort has a specialized child care center with play equipment and kid’s games. Bandos also offers child care, and other resorts may be able to arrange a babysitter, but very few promote it as a regular service. Children sharing a room with their parents are charged as a supplement. Transfers from the airport are charged at half the adult rate.
The main danger is sunburn, so bring sun hats and plenty of sunblock. Lycra swim shirts are an excellent idea – they can be worn on the beach and in the water and block out most UV radiation. Children’s swim shows are also available, like little wet-suit boots, which protect the feet when running in the water or around the island. It’s best to bring a kid-sized mask, snorkel, and fins – they may be available in a resort, but it’s cheaper to have your own, and you’ll be sure they fit. Also bring some children’s games, books, and beach toys.