The Maldivian government is so against Islam in the Maldives that it has defined performing namaadhu as “extremism”, according to some news headlines. The news reports caution against a nationwide programme under the national counter-terrorism strategy which, it is said, is aimed at brainwashing young minds across the country. The ultimate goal of this government and its education sector, it is said, is the replacement of Islam with secularism.
These particular accusations seem to be based on presentations made to teachers by a state-run counter-terrorism programme briefing them on how to be vigilant of students who have been radicalised. The material from the workshop is the latest in a series of standoffs, between the Maldivian religious clerics and the supposedly democratic government, that have centred around education and the broader subject of extremism. In this battle, the pious (in the media and in general) are arguing that what the state-run workshop warns as ‘extreme’ behaviour in students is actually what should be the norm in schools in a Muslim country: students quitting class if a prayer call happens during one; students refusing participation in the school assembly on the grounds that it includes music, claimed by the clerics to be ‘haram in Islam’; and students refusing participation in events to mark international days such as Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day and even the Georgian New Year. These are activities designed to move the Maldivian student away from an Islamic education and thus towards other religions, and tolerance of people belonging to religions other than Islam.
Over the last decades Salafi and other conservative religious clerics have dominated Maldivian public spaces such as the media and other social platforms both on and off-line. Slowly but surely, they have steered the country towards what they call the ‘right Islam’ or the ‘pure Islam’—i.e. literally practicing it as it was practiced in the first three centuries of existence. They have also established themselves as the guardians of faith inside prisons, in drug rehabilitation programmes and, hard to believe, in the rehabilitation programmes to help Jihadists returning from war in Iraq and Syria to integrate back into Maldivian society. The very society which most Maldivian Salafis condemn as impure and un-Islamic for (at least on paper) following man-made rule of law instead of Shari’a as the only system of governance, judgement and punishment in the country. Taking over the school curricula—from pre-school to university—has been a favourite battleground of conservative clerics and influencers. A large amount of textbooks for teaching Islam in the country’s schools are supplied by Saudi Arabia, not exactly the bastion of democratic Islam. Those who point to the dangers of such conservative religious education, which discourages reason and intellectual inquiry, are condemned as apostate and run out of the country. Or they are killed, so the conservatives can get to work without scrutiny or criticism. Part of the goal of this work is to depict the current education system, which largely follows the British primary and secondary curricula, as un-Islamic and mocking of Islam.
The results of this strategy are clear from recent events. On May 24, a man wielding a knife entered one of the biggest schools in Male’ and attacked the principal. It was early morning, on a school day. Fortunately, no one was killed or wounded. The lack of an official response to such an act of extreme violence speaks volumes. When it comes to religion, despite the clerics’ claim to the contrary, this coalition government’s policy is entirely in the hands of the conservative establishment, mainly Saudi-educated politicians and intellectuals or followers of various streams within the Salafi philosophy.
Today the government is being criticised for ‘applying the MDN report’ in its counter-terrorism policy. But the government, if anyone cares to recall, bent over backwards to distance itself from the report and its authors, going as far as de-registering the NGO and allowing the Islamic Ministry to [without any authority] ‘investigate’ the report and find its authors guilty of blasphemy and apostasy. Now the national counter-terrorism strategy is attempting to address the issue of radicalisation, and the clerical establishment is accusing it of being un-Islamic. It wants counter-terrorism efforts—and any efforts to reduce the dominance of ultra-conservative Islam in the Maldives—to be seen as ‘extreme secularisation.’ It doesn’t seem to matter that MDN and NCTC are addressing two different aspects of radicalisation and extremism. One is showing teachers how to spot students who have been radicalised while MDN focused on how schools contribute to the making of such extremists. What they certainly do have in common is how both issues have been used to create and enforce more extreme norms on society at large.
One strategy successfully applied towards achieving this goal is for religious leaders to criticise the government for supposedly un-Islamic practices and use public outrage engendered by the accusations to pressure the government into adopting increasingly conservative policies. For example, the issue of Female Genital Mutilation was a distant tradition which was on the point of eradication when contemporary conservative clerics revived it by promoting it as a religious duty. Having brought the issue to the forefront by encouraging it, the clerics changed the focus of the debate. Until then the question had been how to eliminate such an inhuman practice from the culture entirely. Now it became a question of when the religious duty to cut a girl, to called ‘female circumcision’ [a religious duty], can be termed genital mutilation [a crime]. The focus is no longer on whether any human being should be treated in this way in a modern democratic society but how much of a woman’s clitoris can their male guardians have justifiably cut in the name of religion before it can be called criminal. This reframing of contemporary human rights questions according to beliefs and standards of 3rd century Arabia has been one of the most constantly applied tactics in the ongoing Salafi-led religious revival in the Maldives.
The current drama will again end with moving the goalpost to a more conservative location. Important questions–what would be the affects of asking teachers to view their students as potential terrorists, to spy on them, or to regard their refusal to attend the assembly as a sign of radicalisation; whether the impact of such a ‘spy’ system in schools on social relations would be positive or negative–will become irrelevant and cast aside. Instead, the focus will be shifted to how necessary it is for students to cut classes for prayer; how important it is that music should be banned in school assemblies; and how vital it is to stop students from participating in international celebrations in order for the schools to be ‘properly Islamic’. In this way, step by step, like the frog slowly getting used to being boiled in hot water, the ultra-religious score win after win in its battles to influence policy and society. With each victory, the conservatism takes root deeper and wider, killing fast and hard any branches of democracy before they ever fully bloom.
Maldives is among only six nations entirely made of coral atolls; composed of 1192 islands grouped into 26 natural atolls over 90 thousand kilometres, making it one of the most dispersed countries in the world. The population of 407,660 inhabit 188 islands with an area of 227 km making it also one of the most densely populated nations in the world (Duvat and Magnan, 2019). Magnan and Duvat (2019) in their study of 107 inhabited islands found that about 60 percent of them have a population growth rate exceeding 5 percent, while on 18 percent of those islands this rate is above 25 percent. They also found that anthropogenic drivers have caused rapid changes on the islands over the last decade. Consequently, the adaptive capacity of most of the inhabited and exploited islands to cope and adjust with climate change induced oceanic pressures has been highly undermined. The anthropogenic changes Magnan and Duvat highlighted as causing major destruction to the reef island system includes artificial island expansion with reclamation; hard engineered shoreline armouring; and sand mining. For instance, in the last decade islands with reclaimed areas increased by 51 percent, and the number of islands with hard engineered coastal protection more than doubled. These developments have direct impact on island coastal geomorphology, such as the destruction of reef flats, resulting in changes in sediment budget around islands and disruption of currents around the islands (Duvat and Magnan, 2019). The desire for fixed, sedentarised rapid infrastructure development with inevitable hard engineering solutions undermines the dynamic biogeophysical system’s capacity to adjust and cope with climate change induced pressures. Consequently, the biogeophysical system is pushed in to positive entropy resulting in the shifting of thresholds and tipping points to undesired states.
Environmental interventions as a trade off
The sedentarisation, permanent fixtures and hard engineering development projects involving the terraforming of the natural island systems annihilate their natural ability to repair and maintain themselves. It is an alien ontology to islandness, devaluing it as a cheap commodity to be exploited for short term benefits. Islandness is far from cheap – it is a culture and a way of life. Theoretically, islandness has been explained as a unique system of relationships underpinned by an array of sensory engagements of islanders, pertaining to their interactions with their environment (Mohamed 2020),. A major aspect of the Theory of Islandness is the non-representational dwellings perspective where the sociocultural dynamics within islands are essential for their adaptation to climate change (Mohamed, 2020). Islandness, synonymous with the local term “jazeeraa vanthakan”, is not just a way of life, but also a campaign slogan promoted by the incumbent government which pledged to make development more sustainable and environmentally sound. However, consecutive governments with their short-term planning for a five-year political term have set a trend of indulging in patronage and biopolitics with no regard to sustainable development as envisaged in Article 22 of the Maldivian Constitution which tasks the State with the responsibility to prevent destruction of natural resources. It requires development to be affected in ways that ensure intergenerational equity and environmental sustainability.
Owing to patronage politics and biopolitics at the local level, the rapid human driven anthropogenic impacts related to unsustainable development are also being shaped by a new brand of politics driven by government’s desire to demonstrate visible achievements within their short five-year term. Additionally, where the problem of island vulnerability to climate change induced impacts and absolute land scarcity is concerned, politicians view it from the perspective of patronage politics. These permanent fixtures and sedentarisation of islands at the cost of their natural dynamics is politically attractive given that the politicians can use it as an electoral incentive, and they can be displayed as symbols of development. However, the costs of undertaking dredging and reclamation as well as hard engineered armouring of coast lines is prohibitively expensive and hard to reverse. For instance, in the last decade a staggering USD 18.5 million has been spent on shore line protection of 17 islands covering 10.3 kilometers. In addition, the cost of reclamation before COVID19 Pandemic was at a rate of USD 275,000 per hectare including the cost of coastal protection of the reclaimed area, and various surveys and EIA processes. Owing to budget constraints, the government has sought development loans and contractor financing in addition to pleading with donors to cover the costs of these projects, all of which have the potential to make their political standing strong. Recently the government secured a loan of USD 71 million from the EXIM Bank of India for such a reclamation project while also securing more money through contractor finance for the same project, according to the EIA report of the project.
Flirting with the geopolitical order
Turning to donors for money and flirting with them according to domestic political interests, combined with its geopolitically strategic location, has made the Maldives relevant to the emerging new world order. The competition between China and India to increase their influence on the small island nations of the Indian Ocean, has placed these same countries in a precarious situation, while domestic politics become subjected to foreign policy divides looking to the East and the West. Owing to the maritime security interests of India in the Central and Western Indian Ocean and China’s Belt and Road initiative across the Indian Ocean, both nuclear powers are now at loggerheads on who gets to control the Indian Ocean. While China has already put Sri Lanka into a debt trap with huge loans for infrastructure, India has secured an important island of Mauritius as their foothold in the southern Indian Ocean. President Yameen, who led the Maldives from 2013 to 2018 formed close ties with his Chinese counterpart, securing financial assistance from China for various infrastructure projects including the now famous China Maldives Friendship Bridge which cost USD 220 million. The EXIM bank of China provided a loan of USD 68 million while the Chinese government granted another USD 126 million toward the bridge project. In addition, Chinese State Companies have also lent USD 421 million for upgrading Velana International Airport, the main gateway into the country. While ties with India frayed during Yameen’s leadership, the new government which defeated him came with India’s blessings in 2018 and speedily renewed the old India First foreign policy. India was eager to invest and increase trade with the Maldives. Currently, bilateral trade amounts to USD 290.27 million where the trade balance greatly favours India as of 2020 (Vashist, 2021). EXIM Bank of India also has given various loans including USD 40 million for sports infrastructure, while a staggering USD1.33 billion has been loaned for various development projects including in Addu and towards building the Greater Male’ Connectivity Bridge (Vashist, 2021). For India, ties with Maldives is critical given that 50 percent of India’s exports and 80 percent of its energy imports are transported through maritime routes within the Maldives. Moreover, the Indian foreign and military vision for an inclusive Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) requires a strong alliance with the Maldives. Consequently, the current government has abandoned romancing with China and is sinking inexorably into a sea of Indian debt. Opposition politicians have begun their dog whistling against the incumbent regime consistently, using the slogan of “India Out” to mobilize opposition supporters against the government.
Debt bounty of economic warfare
Colonization and conquest of nations in the 21st century has unfolded under a new brand of war. War on terror or war for democracy, depending on where you stand. Most recent wars, while waged under such banners, have also exploited wealth and resources. For instance, crude oil, rare earth metals and other resources of victim nations become the bounty of their “saviors” to be pillaged and exploited with the western world view of nature as a cheap commodity. Such wars have caused huge losses to natural resources and transformed environments rapidly. On a par with such wars is the debt fed to incumbent regimes by larger economic powers, allowing them to strengthen their political competitiveness. The debt money is often used to make visible infrastructure for patronage politics. The huge undertakings of such infrastructure in the guise of development often results in maladaptation and destruction of natural resources, trapping the local communities in a vicious cycle of dependency for politicians. When the common pool of resources available for all, such as coral reefs, are destroyed for development, people lose their economic freedom and have to depend on predatory capitalism and political patronage for survival. It is precisely this type of capitalism that underpins the 50-year-old tourism industry of the Maldives where local communities benefit little from the billions of dollars generated by high end resorts.
Neocolonial geopolitics and predatory capitalism versus biopolitics.
The land reclamation of Addu is a major concern, and scientific wisdom puts it under the precautionary principle. The only decision tool for the environmental consideration of such developments is the Environmental Impact Assessment report which, despite being heavily watered down, shows clearly the inevitable loss of our environmental inheritance were the project to go ahead. The sheer scale of dredging it requires in a relatively small atoll will have devastating consequences on the environment, with rapid transformation of the entire atoll’s biogeophysical system.
Addu has always been the sacrificial lamb for the elitist ruling class of the Maldives. The atoll is critically positioned at the very southern end of Maldives, making it invaluable in the event of warfare in the east and middle east. This makes Aduu attractive to any international actor with intentions of war or other maritime security interests. The biggest achievement of the incumbent regime has been the large cash windfall from India for allowing Maldives to become a part of India’s SAGAR vision. Given how much Maldives is in debt to China, the influx in cash from India has allowed the Maldives to avoid the same conditions that have hit neighboring Sri Lanka once China called in the debts. Crucially, this has also allowed the current government to stay in power. India has moved rapidly to establish itself in the strategic Addu, pushing the government to undertake large development projects in the atoll that strengthens Indian presence in the area. One such project is the land reclamation for Addu. Despite having the potential to become maladaptive, this project is being driven forward partly due to the availability of a huge loan from India and Indian political pressure on the incumbent regime. The biopolitics used as such a destructive means to an end may be tenable in the short term, but the irreversible damage done to the environment will have major consequences for generations to come. In a contemporary world on the precipice of great conflict, climate induced disasters and being caught in a debt trap, will not only create political chaos, it will also set the Maldives on the path to a dire future.
Development in the Maldives is often about the un: unbalanced, uncertain, undesirable, unfit, unjust, unhealthy, unplanned, unrepresented, unsustainable and unsystematic. This tendency for (un)doing appears soon after major infrastructure projects are commissioned. An example are the social housing towers recently constructed on the island of Hulhumale’ . What was envisaged as a remedy for crowding has also come with the seemingly unexpected ‘side effects’ such as ghettoization and a sharp rise in social inequity. The focus on patronage politics in the development agenda means gaps remain in both legal and planning aspects. .Given the partisan environment of Maldivian politics and the tendency to put party before nation, the sustainable development envisaged in Article 22 of the Constitution becomes impossible within a five-year term. For sustainable development, envisaged in the Article 22 of the Constitution of the Maldives, a political term of five years is insufficient. What political parties and elected leaders aim for is to make development as visible as possible within those five years. Concrete thus becomes their favored choice to showcase their achievements. . For instance, paved roads, airports, hospital buildings, land reclamations, harbor development and many other concrete based infrastructures are erected to display as achievements against rival politicians. Consequently, scientific wisdom, nature and economics is often undermined or traded off to favor the most politically attractive options. For instance, development criterions are invented and manufactured as electoral incentives during elections, often with no regard to island needs and necessities or context. For instance, the majority of lands reclaimed in the past decade remain barren and unused, even though a land use plan is approved before the reclamations.
For centuries, Maldivians relied on the sea for their sustenance. Fishing and seafaring is still considered as the primary economic activity. Until tourism became the major driver of economic growth, trading among islands was also common among the dispersed islands. The vulnerability and exposure and the low biogeophysical thresholds in the natural system of the tiny islands of the Maldives makes it senseless to create human settlements akin to mini-Dubais in the Maldives. However, short sighted politicians with five-year targets sell Maldivians the vision of development as epitomized by Dubai, that Mecca to capitalism once alien to the island culture and environment of the Maldives. The Maldives does have poor soil and scarce freshwater in common with Dubai, but that’s where the similarities end. For one thing, it does not have the financial capacity to transform into a real estate haven for international markets. From a sustainability point of view, especially with climate change projections related to coastal hazards, making human settlements and tourism products with reclamations is untenable.
Utopian dreams of climate smart islands
The dredging company which won the contract to protrude more land in to the reef edge of Addu Atoll by burying coastal ecosystems, envisions transforming Addu city into a utopian climate smart economic hub to attract a particular type of traveler. This illusory comprehensibility of predatory capitalism which undervalues environment and ecosystem services as cheap by separating humans from the rest of the interconnected web of life is a western ideology alien to centuries old culture and islandness of the Maldivians. The spatiality of islands is a lure for “on-and off-island power holders” to manipulate them economically, socially and politically (Baldacchino, 2010 and Grydehøj, & Kelman, 2016), especially when the geopolitical stakes are high. Consequently, for predatory capitalists, islands are suitable spaces for political and economic maneuvering and environmental exploitation (Grydehøj, & Kelman, 2016). Terms such as “climate smart”, and “economically viable” are often coined by governments and investors for reaping economic benefits, while neglecting various social issues such as equal and equitable accessibility, social justice and economic freedom as well as ghettoization and widening of gaps between rich and poor (Grydehøj, & Kelman, 2016). The creation of land by filling coastal regions adjacent to islands also opens up the possibility to create exceptional regulatory spaces like special tourism zones which may favour the corporate elite while adjacent island communities may lose their economic freedom due to over-dependency on rich investors who will own the spaces for over 50 years. Consequently, reclaiming land through debt money is a freebie for global corporate elitists to take advantage and grab land at the behest of current and future generations who will pay for these debts.
With the looming threats of climate change impacts and frequency of cyclones and storms developing in the Indian ocean, as well as food insecurity where ship to mouth is the norm, Maldives needs a respite. Even though climate change induced coastal hazards have increased, the impact is yet to become severe. Hence innovative ideas which enhance sustainability of islands are essential. The coastal and marine systems and the socio ecological systems of most inhabited and exploited islands are gradually reaching their tipping points. Hence, we need transformative innovations where technology is fully utilized. We must create hybrid solutions by working with nature-based solutions and hard and soft engineering. Instead of reclaiming and fortifying with hard armoring, we need to explore how we can enhance our islands’ ability to retrieve and accommodate for climate change induced hazards. We need to create and recreate edge conditions and explore the possibilities of developing over the water structures with minimal impacts on coastal geomorphology and ecology. It is time our policy makers accept that tradeoffs for politically attractive options have already undermined the capacity of most inhabited islands to cope and adjust with climate change. Consequently, we have to fight a constant battle against nature, which results in a huge financial burden. We can transform our islands by safe, small-scale hybrid, nature-based solutions and garner adaptation finance for such projects. We must become more flexible to building adaptive pathways instead of relying solely on hard engineered fixtures against the natural dynamics of our islands.
Baldacchino, G. (2010). Island enclaves: Offshoring strategies, creative governance, and subnational island jurisdictions (Vol. 14). McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.
Duvat, V. K., & Magnan, A. K. (2019). Rapid human-driven undermining of atoll island capacity to adjust to ocean climate-related pressures. Scientific reports, 9(1), 1-16.
Grydehøj, A., & Kelman, I. (2016). Island smart eco-cities: innovation, secessionary enclaves, and the selling of sustainability. Urban Island Studies, 2, 1-24.
Mohamed, I., King, D., & Cottrell, A. (2020). Adaptive Capacity for Climate Change in Maldivian Rural Communities. International Journal of Social Research & Innovation, 4(1).
[photo credits and renders: Margret Ikeda and Evan Jones and the author]
Ibrahim Mohamed has a doctorate in Environmental Science and Management from James Cook University, Australia. He is a specialist in environmental social science related to climate change adaptation focused on small low-lying islands. He has a research interest in climate change impacts on small island communities and adaptation for post sea-level rise scenarios. He has published in various aspects related to climate change adaptation and mitigation in small island nations.
I was ecstatic to get this text message from the other side of the world. Eman Ezekiel had been in Australia for almost two years, hoping to be granted asylum. They had been forced to flee from their native Maldive islands in 2019, their life in danger for failing to meet society’s norms and demands. As someone forced to flee the Maldives around the same time—for broadly the same sin of not conforming—I felt a sense of kinship and deep relief that Eman finally found safety.
Eman was born in 1994. He identifies as trans-masc and non-binary. Trans people have a hard time the world over but the danger to their lives is particularly acute in an ultra-conservative society like the Maldives where anything LGBTQ+ are evils from which the society needs protection and purifying.
When I asked him when he began his transition, Eman said, “I try not to put an emphasis on that – it’s a privilege I once didn’t have and one that my community back home still doesn’t have.” They have been on testosterone for nine months. He spoke in a sobering tone about the changes it has brought to his voice and body “in a way [he has] always felt aligned.”
“I feel like Spiderman who has been bit by a radioactive spider,” he said. “Like when he’s coming to grips with his newfound powers.”
He never fails to make light of the situation.
“Essentially, though, it’s puberty, I’m just a little late to the party,” he summed it up with an impish grin.
When I spoke to him in late January this year, Eman was, as always, animated, and charismatic. He had always been trans-masc, but the timbre of his voice had changed, deepened more, since our previous conversation in May last year. The calmness and ease with which they spoke remained the same, regardless.
Things had not always looked this bright and full of hope. Far from it. Eman’s journey has been a parlous one. They have been ostracised, ridiculed and humiliated nationally before being confronted with the choice of either leaving everything behind and fleeing for their life or facing certain violent death. Many ‘religious warriors’, it was made clear, were waiting in the lines to purify the Maldives of such evils. Estranged from their family, distanced from friends, they had no choice but to try and find a new home and community that would allow them to be.
His accent is Australian with Maldivian undertones. A decade ago, at twenty years old, Eman lived in Australia as a student, but he spent most of his childhood in Malé, the island capital of five square kilometres which sees itself as a major world city. It is one of the most congested places in the world. It is also full of contradictions. Same-sex intimacy is criminalised (for locals) in the Maldives although it lures same-sex couples from other countries through targeted marketing campaigns. Discourses around LGBTQI+ rights are often talked about from the perspectives of tourists visiting the islands, rarely ever in relation to Maldivians who belong to those identities. Tourists and Western expats operate in a parallel legal system that allows exemption from sharia laws. The result of these parallel systems is that non-religious or LGBTQI+ locals, however, are not offered the same protections. There have been reported instances where criminal gangs targeted minorities with violent threats and disappearances. It offers safety and security to some: mostly cis-gendered, observant Muslims, or those with the means to dip in and out of the capital with ease. An island metropolis on paper that sometimes catches political fire, burns and flames into violent mobs.
Eman’s presence is hard to ignore but courting the limelight is not part of their personality. In the Indian Ocean paradise of Maldives, however, the insidious nature of heteropatriarchy and ultra-conservative religious beliefs make their mere existence a spectacle. “I was raised with the expectations of a Muslim woman in a religiously radicalised society that defined gender strictly within the binary. I’m comfortable identifying myself as someone that exists outside of the gender binary, but I don’t entirely reject ‘woman’ from my library of gender definitions for myself. For a while, that was all I had and knew.” They alluded to the hurdles of how they are perceived in a self-consciously conservative society like the Maldives, or even in the West, where many are coming to terms with gender self-identification. The gender vernacular is presented as a new thing we must all poke holes in. The truth is that these identities have long existed and were heavily criminalised in the global south through colonial intervention. When they were growing up, Eman says there was “a clear expectation” for him to fit into “a strictly binary presentation of colonial femininity.” Racial and religious heritage, he says, further complicated these expectations. Little do people know, Eman doesn’t think their gender presentation is entirely a reflection of their sexuality: a fact that will be lost on many accustomed to the man-made binary world we live in.
A harrowing escape from all that is familiar and everything they saw as home hasn’t hardened their gentleness. Just as distance hasn’t mellowed the hardness of their abusers.
In July 2021 Eman uploaded a video on Tiktok. It went viral, and, found its way into the Maldivian social media sphere. Maldivians were not their target audience. In fact, they had taken steps to distance himself from the person who had been hounded out by society and its threats of violence. “I don’t know why it’s happening now”, they say of the new wave of horrendous abuse that have been made to rise against them from the Maldives. “I made a new account. I wasn’t following anyone random. I think they go out of their way to find out about me.”
Eman felt like they had back in 2019 when the initial abuse had begun. The daily barrage of abuse from the public and media both online and offline seemed never-ending three years ago. Local media were cartoonish and sensationalist: “Maldivian woman changes her gender, becomes a man!” read one awkward headline. They had to endure, yet again, the uniquely awful comments sections on online news outlets. One comment read, “Not a man. Not a woman. Not an animal either. You are the devil.” Disturbingly, a verified account of a Maldivian cleric, Dr Mohamed Iyaz, tweeted in response to a news article about Eman’s gender transition to the cleric’s 43,000 followers on Twitter: “Changing the way that Allah created you is highly forbidden.” Out of hundreds of other comments on news sites and social media, many reminded Eman that he would face Allah’s wrath and reminded him of the day of judgement. If it wasn’t clear from the 2019 smear campaign, their expulsion from society was made clear last summer in response to their TikTok video.
It was at a red-carpet event in 2019 that the rug was pulled out from under Eman’s feet. The Olympus theatre was hosting the 2019 Film Festival Awards. Eman was chosen to be on the judging panel at the awards. He dressed for the occasion in a blue suit. Their hair was cut short, dyed silver, and spiked up. Out of all the pictures of the event in the media, it was the picture of Eman that grabbed the limelight, and the imagination, of the public. Their sexuality and gender identity became the subject of a nationwide smear campaign that gripped the entire society. Eman had not been seeking publicity, but the public could not get over its hatred of them. The homophobia that spilt onto Maldivian public space in the form of hatred against Eman during this time is the most hateful and abhorrent I’ve encountered on social media yet. A Maldivian-born person being trans is outside the realm of comprehension for most of Maldivian society. There’s no room for this pageantry in their world.
Many take a victim-blaming stance to say these attacks are justified in a country like the Maldives. The fluidity in Eman’s gender identity offended local cultural and religious sensitivities. “This is the Maldives – people dress a certain way, especially girls”, many say, criticising Eman’s decision to not shrink their non-binary identity. He should’ve played the cards he was dealt. How can one mute a core part of one’s identity simply because it’s deemed offensive by the society one is born into? It’s a question of identity that goes deeper than the clothes one is comfortable wearing. The rapid upward transformation of infrastructure and lifestyle coincided with an increase in religious conservatism that caused a downward transformation in terms of tolerance and personal liberties. There was an accompanying upsurge in violence in the name of religion. Targeted attacks in the name of religion became commonplace and continued with impunity. Numerous Maldivians have fled or gone into hiding in the last decade. Eman, it was said, was not well-adjusted to Maldivian society. Their gender non-conformity was villainized repeatedly. Speaking about the smear campaign that coincided with the pandemic, he said his overwhelming feeling was one of disassociation.
Eman’s dislocation from society happened during a once-in-a-century pandemic. To remain connected to the heritage he had become estranged from, he used the pandemic-driven isolation to cultivate his love of cooking Maldivian food. It helped him cope with life and a world spun into disarray. Social media companies based in Silicon Valley are not helping the security situation for minorities, or those who speak up for them. If people can get away with threatening vulnerable communities in plain English, of course, the algorithm wouldn’t detect any violation of the company’s guidelines when the threats are in a language spoken by around 300,000 people worldwide. These Western companies’ role in fuelling sectarian violence in the global south is well-documented, including the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar; anti-Muslim mob violence in Sri Lanka and India; and attacks against minorities from violent non-state actors in Muslim-majority countries. It’s an ecosystem muddled with impunity thriving with risks of stochastic terror.
We’re living through a time in which racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia is on the rise everywhere. As a trans man of colour, Eman finds himself at the cusp of all these potential harms. But he has also found solidarity. Had it not been for the LGBTQI+ community in Australia welcoming them, he would not be where he is today. Although the risks to their life were clear, the asylum process took almost two years. “With all the evidence, my case was relatively ‘fast’ in the grand scheme of things – everyone should have equal access to safety regardless of where you come from or how you came here” he rightly lamented.
On top of displacement and transphobia, gender-queer people of colour have to face racial discrimination and micro-aggressions in their new host countries. A continuous process of proving their worth, belonging, and right to life and safety. In some ways, it’s assimilation or death for sexual and religious minorities fleeing Islamic autocracies. No matter how hard it’s been, Eman wants to stay on the course of truth. As bell hooks, one of his favourite authors so eloquently said, “The heart of justice is truth-telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be. More than ever before we, as a society, need to renew a commitment to truth-telling.”