Comment: Chaperone culture clash

They say women of any language, culture or religious background share a certain kinship. As a Westerner who has travelled in a variety of places, I have rarely been more mystified by my female peers than in the Maldives.

The Maldives is 100 percent Muslim, with a growing penchant for the burqa. A recent United Nations review of the Maldives found gender equality notably low. Many women hold or would like to hold jobs, while others opt for hijabs and house-wifery. Technically, everyone has a choice. But do they make it in reality?

Many Westerners visit the Maldives for tourism or work. Most visit resorts exclusively, but a handful make their way to Male’ or local islands. Given local cultural standards it should be no surprise to anyone that the foreign woman’s experience in the Maldives is unique. And not just dress code – behavior seems a class unto itself.

While staying on a local island recently I was regularly attended by a flock of young women aged 15-20. Their hospitality was impressive, but at times bordered on intimidating. Walking two blocks home from the beach by myself in broad daylight required a level of assurance to my hosts that was almost aggressive. Arriving somewhere alone surprised and even offended my young hostesses. While I took pictures and clapped along during festivities, walking about as I normally would anywhere, they would spend the time searching for me rather than enjoying the celebration.

Moving in public areas could be difficult as my virtual size was magnified by about three other bodies moving in sync. Several times I would turn at the sink when washing my hands to find a girl had followed me from the eating area because – well, I’m not sure. The place was only so big.

I can’t say if young Maldivian women are unfamiliar with independence, but I can say that this foreigner was befuddled by the level of dependency assumed of her person.

The feeling was neither simple nor justified. I had come to experience local culture – who was I to dictate its terms? Hospitality is meant as a compliment, so why was I so frequently frustrated by my caretakers’ intense caretaking?

My reactions came from the core, so I considered the features.

I walked to school alone at the age of 7, and was free to do anything in or out of doors from age 10 so long as it didn’t involve a trip to the hospital or police station. I accept the consequences of my own actions and deal with my own problems. And I simply aim to cause the least disturbance to those around me. This is a fairly standard upbringing for most Westerners. But its collision with the Maldivian method appears brutal on two points: independence and equality. To be so closely, at times aggressively, attended insulted my independence and aggravated a feminist side I didn’t even know I had.

From a practical standpoint, the reception also complicated rather than facilitated my interactions. As suggested by this article’s opening line, I was curious to meet and learn about local girls and women. But bound by hospitality and its assumptions of dependency, my hostesses were at times difficult to truly reach. I feared their company was based on a need to guarantee that I was never alone or asked to do anything, rather than my personal qualities. My mere presence rendered them dependent as well – if I moved to wash my hands they had to escort me. Yet as a visitor, I wanted to know their culture as it stood alone. What was daily life? What would they do without me around? What did they honestly think of me, anyway? Under the dictates of hospitality, this was nearly impossible.

Some girls willingly shared their musical preferences or accounts of village life. We had some nice chats about their schools and families. Many conversations, however, fizzled at the same point: choice.

During a bodu-beru performance a flock of young girls in hijabs urged me to dance. There were no women on the floor, so I asked someone to join me. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t imposing, that my participation was appropriate.

“Oh no, we don’t dance, we can’t!” Why not? “We just can’t!” Too shy? “No….we have this!” The burqa. Or hijab. “You should have come two years ago, I was always dancing! But then I took up this, and you know, things changed.”

If the hijab is a fashion statement as some girls allege, then I can judge these girls in terms I would also use for Westerners whose stilettos, skinnies or furs prevent them from running, eating or holding their dribbling child, or whose nails and false eyelashes, allegedly applied to fetch a man, could also shred his scalp. Why do you build your own cage?

But if these young ladies truly accept the many meanings of wearing a hijab and the lifestyle it endorses, then – can I argue? Where is my place in the debate? I am indeed foreign.

I can, however, go dance with a girl who is not wearing religious attire, be joined by a few of younger burqa’d girls as well as the entire female population too young to start the lifestyle, and then smile afterwards when older women grab my hand saying “Shukriya!” that I, a female, danced. Apparently, they all used to, and apparently, they all enjoyed it.

I’ve asked girls why they take up the burqa or hijab. Most respond with shrugs, sideways smiles, confused looks, or explanations like, “It’s, you know, I have many friends who have so it made sense,” or “Well, I just like it but also it seems right.”

As an educated Westerner I’ve been trained not to accept “it seems right” as an answer, and my national curriculum instructed against peer pressure. But this isn’t the West, and I have to accept the local consensus. So, the conversation stops.

And with it, the connection. Our fundamental natures are opposed. I walk alone; they believe it inappropriate. I dance; they’d rather wish they could. These are only basic physical movements, but the differences are profound. Though welcomed on the island I felt alienated by my independence, and though invited into events I felt my race excused my gender and justified my in-congruency. I came to visit, not to be served – the reality frustrated my young Western curiosity.

I’ve studied Islam and its history at the college level, have several friends who practice the faith, and have lived in Muslim regions. I have always been accepted, respected, and welcomed into the fold. I have enjoyed open, free discussions with these friends on a range of topics. I think there are many beautiful aspects to the religion.

Yet in the Maldives I have not yet met a woman who can talk candidly or objectively about the Qur’an. In my country, questions and criticism lead to deeper understanding, but here this rhetoric is shunned as base opposition. Acceptance, not choice, is the cultural undercurrent. Acceptance of my hosts’ duty to the Guest, rather than an assessment of me, the Guest, as a person, governed my visit on the island as well.

Culture shock is funny concept. Though standard teachings describe a four-week rollercoaster to normalcy, experienced travelers might note that they are jarred even after a year’s stay in a foreign culture. Is it ever fair to call something right or wrong? Perhaps we can only admit our differences.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


34 thoughts on “Comment: Chaperone culture clash”

  1. Dear Eleanor:

    I think this article fits well into the frame of "clash of civilization" myth steeped in bloc thinking. There is a "West" depicted as possessing "rationality" (as opposed to the "seems right" of local "culture") and "freedom" (as opposed to "dependency" of local "culture").

    I don't really know which "West" you're talking about. But isn't it not the "West" where "seems right" reigns supreme? Is it not the "West" where Counter-Enlightenment, "Nihilism", "Post-modernist" extreme relativism, a culture of doubt/uncertainty, a culture of "authenticity", and even subcultures of Bible Belts, have also thrived? I'm also really disappointed that while working at the Minivan News of all places you haven't met any single Maldivian woman who could talk "candidly" about Qur'an, even if you mean by that harsh critiques of Qur'an. (I mean I know women who had worked at Minivan or women who are closely associated with the Minivan, who could have the most "enlightened" discussion about Qur'an.)

    I do not think our fundamental "natures" are opposed if by which you mean values/propensities like rationality, questioning, freedom, God, transcendence, life's meaning, sex, entertainment, joy, evil, violence, and so on.


  2. Great article. Every independent Maldivian is thinking this, and feel the same way. It's impossible to connect with people when all venues communication are closed.

    Thinking for yourself might give birth to some ideas that do not conform to the views of the community at large. That's why those girls couldn't explain why they chose to wear burqa - because they cannot formulate their own opinions.

  3. So what..!!!!????
    After reading this article i felt like that all the human being in this world should adopt western culture and it is the only culture that make any sense.
    Well i guess if it is so if a Maldivian girl went to west she will come and say those people left me alone.

  4. Dear Westerner Eleanor Johnstone,

    You are not the first person I’ve heard of who are “western” and “educated” and thinks everything the westerner think and does and say is appropriate where ever they are and are superior to the rest of the world.

    And mind you, they always start by saying how well-travelled and exposed they are to other cultures. They also tell us they know more about the people and the cultures of the communities they visited than the people in those communities knew about themselves and their culture.

    I am reminded of a lady from the "West" who once went with me to an island in Maldives to conduct training and in the midst of a session with a group of young people yelled at me “I need coffee… I am English!”

    Have you read Barbara Cartland’s romance novels? She appears to me as one of those “royal” ladies in her stories.

    Your comments indicate you are anything but educated and informed of not only our culture but other cultures except the culture you grew up in.

    I have also met with some “western” people with “white” skin from whom we learned to appreciate the differences between the two cultures. They left a remarkable impression on many of us and we continue to always recall them with respect and admiration.

    I hope you get a good job with a decent wage in your own country when you return back with all the “experience” you got in the Maldives. If you are lucky you might even get asked for a live comment on Maldives by some global news channel or by some “Western” magazine based on your “expert” knowledge of the Maldives.



  5. To have a critical discussion of the Quruaan, one can read this book.

  6. this is pure bullshit, you should take at least one class in social anthropology and then consider yourself as a journalist. this is a shame to fellow journalist; geez, get an education. complete bullshit

  7. Indendemt thought is indeed something new to the Maldives which makes it even more of a god given miracle that Mohamed Nasheed was able to oust a dictatorship and feudal system almost singlehanded.

  8. I wonder which Island this lady Eleanor Johnstone visited.
    Could be a Wahabi hub in Ari atoll.

  9. Dear Eleanor,

    In the Maldives there is a number of sub cultures from different regions of the country, not huge difference mind you, but mindset slightly differs. And this is seen to the southerners, central region, northern region. In a broader categorization that's what I have noticed. Well this is excluding the actual Male' inhabitants. The mindset ranges from interdependent thought, how females are looked at to how much of a importance is given to Education.

  10. Welcome to the Always Natural Maldives. The south had been known for its fiercely independent women. Even now, the buruga does little to enslave most of them, though things have changed. Peer pressure spread heroin, now its spreading buruga.
    Sad to see the very foreign culture of buruga and conservative Arabic culture being imported into our small islands. These islands have lost its charm.

  11. Dear Eleanor,
    This subject of Maldives women is a tip of iceberg. Much remains undiscovered underwater. And you are accurate in what you observed.

    Sure, there is the usual ‘feminine mystique’ in women across cultures. But Maldivan woman is a breed apart.

    Living in geographically isolated communities, the small island life over the years has naturally shaped Maldivian woman in a certain way. Their character is a result of pressures of conformity, righteousness, religion, family dependency and hopelessness.
    AND as if that is not enough, add another interesting layer of blind feminism and religious fundamentalism in to the mix. And lo and behold - what you get today is a very hybrid creature.

    There is not just a problem with hijab. Infect its best that all ugly women wear it. Hope you write more on this topic. Their attitude towards sex is also an interesting area and its not good news.

  12. Despite my first comment, I also think the article brings about something important. It is undeniable that when it comes to subjects such as Islam our education system is less than acceptable. There is no encouragement of doing research into alternative viewpoints, histories, and philosophies of Islam, for example.

  13. Dear Eleanor,
    As a Maldivian woman, I am frustrated by the many constraints my culture places upon me and Maldivian women. But I agree with Azim. This op-ed is quite orientalist.

    I do think you raise important issues, especially that of the burqa imposing a lifestyle on women that limits their public movements.

    But you make the mistake of referring to the West when you are actually only referring to yourself, where your experience is emblematic of the entire Western experience. You should have framed the article as "you" in opposition to Maldivian culture, than the "West" in opposition culture.

    Also one question to ask is: would your experience have differed if you were a man? I think not, my impression is that as a guest in a Maldivian island, a man would have found himself being waited upon in the same way that you were.

    I currently live in America, and I can tell you our fundamental natures are not opposed. There is as much bigotry and intolerance in America as there is in the Maldives.

  14. Maldives women lack imagination to appreciate life. And as one would expect, quite naieve and boring in matters of sex.

    It would be interesting to find out more foreign mens experience with Maldives women. I have haear male women flirts a but there is nothing after that

  15. Eleanor, in all totalitarian societies minders follow foreigners. Here you are not just a foreigner. You are a personal envoy of the Pope, here to convert Muslims to Judaism. That was why they were keeping an eye on you.

    "I had come to experience local culture – who was I to dictate its terms?" When they come to your country, be assured that they will dictate terms to you.

  16. PS: Eleanor, they were also keeping a close eye on Buddhas you may be concealing in your pockets to help you convert the locals to Judaism.

  17. for once, why cannot people look at issues objectively. I'm sick of comments blaming islam a islam like a broken record. it's true that the mullas are screwed up but so are people on the opposite side of the fence like Wine and Pork lover

  18. Dry humour doesn't call for objectivity. On the other hand, dry wine....... Sagrantino di Montefalco or Segal's Argaman Dovev goes well with tandoori pork and naan done in the tandoor.

  19. V to the point. Maldives community is a very confused lot. The infusion of western education, the exposure to Indian cinema on the one end to Hollywood on the other, the frightful preaching of so called mullahs, the promise of equal rights to women we all hear from all sides to the confinement and abuse experienced by many women at the hands of barbaric men... we are a confused lot.
    U r right. Many Maldivian women are dependant on others for simple stuff.
    And as seen by the comments here we cannot unf

  20. @ Zaheena Rasheed on Thu, 17th Nov 2011 7:27 AM

    Are in SOUTH AMERICA? Is so you will not see or experience too much of a good civilized society.

    If you're in USA, tell us your experience? Did you learn any good? And why the hell are you in a back-ward America with ppl of of bullshit and anit-islamic stuff? Why don't you get good education from the WORLD's BEST MALDIVIAN UNIVERSIRY? (I mean on the beach with a charcoal blacked pot and wearing a black Landiki and a black bugaa or maybe topless)

  21. ok. coming back to the topic, I have to that what what seems odd about Maldives women is lack of sophistication. A bit more exposure (no pun) could help

  22. My over all impession after I read this article is:

    Eleanor seem to have lived in an extremely tiny bubble because of which she has only a tiny bit of knowledge about anything outside her bubble. Yet she would like to expose her 'expert opinion' and perhaps 'expert advice' too, about how matters outside her bubble should be.
    What a joke!

    Honestly, I think Eleanor cannot be well travelled or well educated. Her mind seem too small for a person who had done these. I also think she has spent less time even on the internet compared to most Maldivians.

    Widen your horizons Eleanor. Its still not too late.

  23. Rooster, is that "tiny bubble" called Maldives? That is certainly what the Maldives looks like on an atlas.

  24. @ W&PL

    "Rooster, is that “tiny bubble” called Maldives? That is certainly what the Maldives looks like on an atlas."

    Shows how little geography you know.
    Maldives does not look like a bubble in any atlas.

    Btw, in case you do not know, my reference to a bubble in my earlier comment was metaphorical.

  25. I have interacted with many expatriates from the"west" and the majority have the same feeling. Those that don't usually have an open mind and try to integrate with enjoyable results. It is obvious that the writer has a set of established norms and judges the people she meets against her percieved norms. I could suggest a number of Maldivian women in my family, relatives and friends who could discuss Quran, Islam and Maldives objectively and candidly.

  26. I have no clue, why people are so ignorant and believe in a god with human attributes. Allah hates, so the human, Allah gets angry so the human, Allah is vengeful, so the Human, Allah like to be praised so the human. Allah has a prison to punish so the human punishes people in their way. Why these people who blindly believe in a God he is no different from them. Anyone who has enough neuron to compute can come up with a rational conclusion that Allah is man mad concept.

  27. Mine was metaphorical too, Rooster. Amazing you didn't realise that. But then what else could I expect from a raving jihadist like you?

  28. Mohamed Rasheed, I am a Maldivian too and I am sure I am a lot older than you. I concur with Eleanor totally on this. I don't always agree with her and I am on record of having mercilessly criticised her.

  29. @wine and pork lover
    Pigs love all kind of shits. They will eat if it is a shit. Weather it is human or and even their own shits. They shit and eat it. Tasty Yummy.
    And even they invite their friends and others to have sex with their mother. Isn't it great.
    I have heard the high class western change their wife after parties. And they love having group sex etc. I think this is because they eat this so called pig.
    What you eat comes out from you.
    What a waste..!!???

    @Eleanor Johnstone
    Mind your own business. We are happy as we are. We do not want our women to sell theme self like you. You western women thinks that they are very smart. But reality is they are using you as marketing tool to sell their products. And to have some fun in their office.
    You think that you are independent but in reality you are not. Think about it.

  30. Dhon Kalo, hens and cocks do exactly the same as you have alleged pigs. Do you eat chicken? As for group sex, have you had a look at the Malaysian Islamic Sex Guide lately?

  31. As a Maldivian I agree in 100% that Elanor has written an excellent topic.

    We Maldivians almost smother their guests simply because we're a ppl with limited knowledge and lack of proper education. We never had a true culture. We've been completely isolated from the rest of the world and don't know how to respect others rights. Some examples are that we never wait for our own chance to talk while with others. There will be continuous interruptions and/or misconceptions due to not listening to what the other is really talking about. We jump to conclusions too quickly thinking that we're too smart. Originally we're a ppl who didn't have the words 'excuse' and 'thank you' in our vocabularies. (Pls, see what early travelers had written about this with regard to their Maldives trips).

    In short we've been living in a primitive life. Accept this fact.

    Elanor, has tried to let us know that we should learn to respect others freedom such as 'walking on a beach alone and without anyone following just to if he/she's ok'. It's their freedom. Also she's very clearly though us that when we choose to do something we must not just do it simply because others does it (i.e. peer pressure). For eg. wearing Buruga in the Maldives is not very much related to Islamic faith - otherwise why should the gals just over their hair and let her breasts and buttocks be in tight clothes.

    Imagine a Christian nun wearing the Christian Burugaa and wearing a micro-mini skirt and a blouse that shoes her cleavage. Does these two examples really fit to the purpose of their faiths?

    Elanor has said that she has got some Muslim friends else where in the world but our way of practicing it and our social behaviors do need some reviews. She never suggested to the Maldivians to convert into a Christian or eat pork or drink wine. She's was just surprised to see how different our women folks were from the rest of the others - "They say women of any language, culture or religious background share a certain kinship." But Elanor didn't see this here in the Maldives. That's why she wrote this in the first place, I guess.

    She also has said floated the idea of how we could change into a civilized society of not getting hooked up with peer pressure or how to gain self-confidence, solve one own problem and to be independent. Our curriculum! That's where our education is based on. Our educational system can change our way of thinking, attitude and behavior.

    From all these negative comments one can really know that we really don't listen or read or comprehend what's being talked about. And that many have a very backward and village-ish thinking. Many don't get the message. This is sad. We need to be more logical and rational - use our brains/intelligence.

  32. Hi Eleanor,

    I do not believe you have got a good education. As, such you do not have a proper upbringing to understand the world of cultures. Cultures differ from place to place, country to country and island to island in the Maldives. Do you ever thought of finding why these girls never left you alone? Do you know that it was their belief, as you were a 'mehemaanu' a visitor to give you the full respect that you were never left alone, not because they did not want to give you freedom.

    I also do not think ' white' ways of life is the best way or the perfect way to live in this world. Do you know these 'white ways' have destroyed some genuine cultures during the colonial days. And these people are trying to give those people chances of their own cultures such as people of New Zealand, the Maori and people of Australia ' the aborigines.

    Your mind is indeed a narrow mind and with a person such as you writing about cultures. Indeed you have not studied Anthropology and Sociology. May be you should take these subjects when you go back home.

    My advice to you is watch programmes from National Geographic channel, history channel and programmes which advices not to impose your own way into other cultures.

    Whatever you believe is not the 'best way' and you should keep this in my mind when you write about other cultures and remember , how colonialism has destroyed many genuine ways of living in their own cultures before you take up your pen to write about other cultures.



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