Comment: Open letter from refugee Abraham Naim to people of Maldives

Abraham Naim is a Maldivian who claimed asylum in New Zealand last year for fear of persecution at home due to his homosexuality – a crime under the Maldives’ Shariah-based legal system.

Naim made international headlines last month after New Zealand media wrote about his prize-winning drag act, performed under the pseudonym Medulla Oblongata.

To the people of the Maldives,

There have been a lot of things said about me in the media back home, and I would like to say a few things in response.

Firstly, I am not a transgendered woman, I am a drag queen. What I do is performance art. I do not wish to live as a woman. I entertain people and talk about issues that have affected me while living in the Maldives and abroad.

I am not crazy and I am not a monster. I believe in human rights for all Maldivians, and for all the people of the world. I am exercising my right to self-expression. I care deeply about people no matter how they happen to present themselves physically. Human rights are for all people, no matter how they choose to live their lives.

Some of you think I am an example of what is wrong with Maldives’ society.

I am not what is wrong with Maldives’ society. Kleptocracy is what is wrong with Maldives’ society. Child prostitution is what is wrong with Maldives’ society. State sponsored drug trafficking and addiction is what is wrong with Maldives’ society. Poverty and corruption is what is wrong with Maldives’ society.

I am a Maldivian and proud. I ask all of you that you to take a good look at your situation in the Maldives, rather than at me. You may try and dismiss what I have to say, but try to see the truth: you live in the country that I fled. My asylum was absolutely legitimate. You live in a place deemed one of the twenty-five worst places to live in the world.

I refer you all to the Biological Behavioural Survey of the Maldives done in 2008. The survey was done in conjunction with the UN, WHO, and UNESCO.  It discovered the illness in our society. It exposed the truth that HIV rates climb as people fall victim to something so easily preventable through education, that drug use begins as young as eight in the Maldives, that injecting drug use starts as young as twelve in the Maldives; that prostitution also begins as young as twelve in the Maldives; and poverty and inequality hangs in the air like an odourless gas.

This is not the way society should function. The children of the Maldives, YOUR CHILDREN, are being terrorised and destroyed by this evil – and yet here you all are getting upset by one little drag queen.

Some of you have asked me if my friends and I have lost our minds.

We have not lost our minds, we are exercising our freedoms. I can’t tell if your comments imply disbelief in my lifestyle or a misplaced religious concern for my immortal soul, but let me explain something to you: I am doing nothing wrong by living my life the way I want to, the way that makes sense to me. The way that makes me feel happy.

I am an honest person; what you see on my pages is how I think and feel, and there is nothing in our culture that prohibits me from doing so. I believe you are making up the rules as you see fit, based on the ideas you have about the world and what you feel comfortable with. As the French political thinker De Tocqueville noted, ‘society has a network of small, complicated rules that cover the surface of life and strangle freedom’. These small, silly rules oppress you just as much as they oppress me. How are they serving you exactly?

To all the Maldivian people who are messaging me on social media:

Many of you have been messaging me just saying “hello” and do not know what to say when I message you back. I am a busy drag queen and I am not able to try and befriend all of you, particularly as I never know whether your intentions are hostile or not. If you have something that you want to say, something thoughtful to say, please say it. Otherwise you are free to read my posts to find out what I think.

Some of the messages I get from you have asked me to come back to the Maldives to be some sort of political activist and fight for your rights. If I go back to the Maldives I will almost certainly be killed. The request to come back irritates me no end. I have only just been granted asylum, I am only just settling into my new country and the upheaval I went through in becoming a refugee was enormously upsetting.

I had to leave knowing I would never see most of the people I truly care about ever again. I would not see the young children in my extended family grow up and become adults, and I would have to leave a part of my life behind forever.

If you want to change Maldives society, then change it. The old fat men in power who squeeze the life out of our country only have as much power as you give them. You can be the change that you are looking for.

It may no longer be my place to try and force new ideas on this country that perhaps cannot, or will not change before it slips back into the Indian Ocean, but I still believe all of you deserve so much better. I will not censor myself because what I have to say might make others feel uncomfortable. That I cannot control.

Although I am abroad I promise to keep fighting for what I believe in – civil and human rights. I am always happy to hear your stories. I am happy to talk about the oppression you are facing, my door is always open, and I will always support you.

Before I am a drag queen, before I am a gay man, and before I am even a man, I am human.

As the philosopher Kierkegaard once said; to label me is to negate me. It may make it easier for you to see me as the enemy, but I am simply a person trying to live my best life in peace and happiness, and I wish the same for all of you.

I promise to do everything I can to bring your voices to the international stage. I know how hard it can be. I have lived it.

Live the life you want.

Sincerely,

Medulla Oblongata A.K.A.Abraham Naim

P.S.*

I would also like to address my winning performance at Miss Capital Drag this year, which many Maldivians were very upset about. It was reported in the Maldives as me winning a stripping competition. It was not. It was a drag competition. Nobody in the Maldives has ever seen the performance because only a snippet was uploaded on to the internet.

The Maldivian reaction to what I did thousands of miles away speaks volumes about the brutal outlook of the country. I am not saying that you are wrong because you don’t know, care, or understand what drag is; but what I am saying is that the government reacting to the performance by sending thugs around Malé to viciously assault anyone who seemed a bit too well dressed or sophisticated was disgusting and pathetic and hurt me deeply.

There are cultural aspects of what I did that may be lost in translation, but I will try to give you an idea of what it was all about.

In the West, drag is part of the rich cultural tapestry that reflects the diversity of people and outlooks. It is a vibrant part of the world’s cultural history, and has been an art form in one way or another going back since before ancient Greece.

I wanted to talk about myself through my performance. I wanted to show that I was from the Muslim world using an iconic piece of clothing, the abaya, a garment that is worn by both men and women. I removed it to reveal a tailored haute couture garment that I had been sewn into. I am not the first drag queen from the Muslim world to have worn Muslim attire.

Indian drag queens can wear divine hand painted saris, African drag queens can wear the most colourful tribal attire, but somehow because the outfit I wore was symbolically Islamic, it has taken on almost sacred qualities. Have any of you ever stopped to consider that the issue existed before I stepped on to that stage? I did not create it; Muslim women’s attire has been a battleground since before I was born. Yes, I was aware of that. I have been aware for some time that exploring many aspects of my culture holds implicit criticism, because they are things already bathed in controversy.

The mere concept of what appears to be a woman removing Islamic clothing and revealing western clothing has scandalised a nation all the way over in the Indian Ocean somewhere. You have surrounded women’s appearance in so much mystery that it has overtaken a deep part of the cultural psyche. I performed this for the benefit of the audience that was there on the night, not for Maldivians to choke on their breakfast reading the morning paper. The hang-ups of people in a society which ostracised and oppressed me, and ultimately caused me to seek asylum in a foreign country are no longer mine to worry about.

*This is an edited version of the original postscript which can be read in full here

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