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]

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Maldives to sign UNESCO convention to protect country’s intangible heritage

The Maldives will participate in the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, a UNESCO programme established in 2008. It is already a participant in the World Heritage Convention and the Cultural Diversity Convention.

The proposal to join the convention was made by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, and was approved at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting.

“We have had no effort to safeguard either tangible or intangible cultural heritage in the Maldives,” said Minister of State for Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Naseer. “It is very easy to see things like poetry, music, language, and dance disappear if they are not practiced. We need to have a law enacted to outline these practices.”

A draft of the new legislation is before Parliament, and Naseer hopes it will be passed before the end of the year.

UNESCO defines ‘intangible cultural heritage’ as “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.” The convention states that cultural elements must be protected by local and international communities.

Some aspects of intangible cultural heritage in the Maldives have been overshadowed by religious scholars, “or individuals who claim to be religious scholars,” said Naseer. “For example, some performing arts, especially on local islands, have come to a stop because of religion. It’s a problem of interpretation,” he said.

Naseer noted that the Maldives seeks to gain expertise and guidance from UNESCO, but that “the aspect of money is not the priority.” He said training Maldivians in cultural preservation was one priority.

Deputy Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture, Mamduh Waheed, said protecting cultural heritage would improve tourism in the Maldives. “We have a market for the natural aspect of the Maldives, and now we will be able to add cultural attractions and destinations. I think it will draw tourists interested in cultural conservation,” said Waheed.

Waheed noted that this is the third UNESCO cultural convention that the Maldives has been involved in.

Other non-government organizations (NGOs) have shown interest in the convention, claimed Naseer. International NGOs are expected to be involved in the research and design process. The involvement of local NGOs is less clear.

“Local NGOs have been coming into the forefront lately, but not many NGOs cover this material,” said Naseer. “I feel there’s a huge gap when it comes to safeguarding heritage in the NGO sector. It will take some time.”

Over 130 countries are signed participants in the convention. The convention’s stated purposes are to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage; to ensure respect for the intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups and individuals concerned; to raise awareness at the local, national and international levels of importance of the intangible cultural heritage, and of ensuring mutual appreciation thereof; and to provide for international cooperation and assistance.

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Q&A: Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat

Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat is the President of the Islamic Affairs Council in Maryland and founder of Civilisations Exchange & Cooperation Foundation (CECF). Born and raised in Damascus, Imam Arafat was an Imam in Damascus in the 80’s before moving to United States and continuing his work there. He has taught Islamic Studies and comparative religion in various universities in the States and is currently teaching in the college of Notre Dame of Maryland. Imam Arafat talks to Minivan News about whether there is room for individual cultures within Islam.

Minivan News: In recent years there has been a lot of debate about whether the concept of different cultures is compatible with Islam. Do you think there is room for diverse cultures within Islam?

Mohamad Bashar Arafat: In the past 50 years or so there has been an effort by certain countries to influence other countries with their own school of thought, their culture and their tradition. This created a lot of tension between Muslim communities. During my travel to different continents, I have come across this problem with students from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, who talk about this issue. This imposing of a specific culture is something that contradicts the true teachings of the Quran.

The Quran, first of all, gives people the freedom to worship, the freedom to choose their own religion, right or wrong. Allah says ‘there is no compulsion in religion’. So, even when it comes to religion itself, Allah is saying you should not force people to adopt it. Then what about culture, dress or certain ways of life or even songs?

This is a problem we did not see in the lives of the early Muslims that spread out of Arabia in the 7th century AD. They didn’t ask Syrians to change their culture or Egyptians to change theirs as long as it did not contradict the teachings of Quran and the core principles of Islam.

MN: Were there instances in the early days of Islam where a cultural practice contradicted the teachings of the Quran?

MBA: Yes. For example, in Egypt, during the time of the Second Caliph of Islam, Omar ibn al-Khattab, an issue arose over the tradition of ritual sacrifice of a girl to the Nile River. Amr ibn al-A’as, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad and the military commander who lead the conquest of Egypt, wrote to the Caliph.

He explained that Egyptians have a tradition of sacrificing a beautiful girl to the Nile every year and believed that this would get the Nile to flood and overflow onto their parched land. Amr refused permission for the sacrifice, however he wrote that the Egyptians were getting upset over this as the land had little water and the crops were failing. The Caliph praised his actions and sent a paper addressed to the Nile saying, ‘If you flow on your own, then we don’t need your water, but if you are flowing by Allah, we pray to Him to keep you flowing.’ Amr was asked to throw the paper into the Nile as a symbolic gesture for the people to put their trust in Allah. The Nile flooded that year and the practice of sacrifice was stopped. The point of this incident is that in cultural matters, where a person is going to be harmed or where it’s contradictory to Quranic teachings, it should not be practiced.

The Quran created a standard for basic human rights and understanding such that no matter what your culture is, people cannot be harmed or killed as sacrifices to obtain good luck. We cannot deny the basic human right to life in the name of culture. Likewise cultures that associate days of the year in celebration of drinking or eating pork, which is in contradiction with Islamic teachings, should not be continued. The Quran came to curb these cultural practices and improve them. But other than that, when it comes to certain behaviors, folklores and even group dances such as the ones that do not have mixing between men and women, which are in the DNA of societies like Egypt, they are acceptable practices.

Travel through Muslim countries in Ramadan and you will see the cultural diversity in the types of food eaten, clothing worn and ways they honor Ramadan. We should celebrate this diversity and the beauty of Muslims around the world, which varies from country to country in their color, languages and accents, shapes and architectural preferences. Muslims in China have their own cultural flavor, even when it comes to the structure of their mosques.

MN: What about one’s choice of clothing?

MBA: When it comes to clothing, Muslims in Arabia have the Jalaabiyya and the Abbaya, which is part of their culture. The Prophet Mohamad (PBUH) was an Arab. If someone wanted to dress like that out of love for Allah’s Prophet (PBUH) and wanted to dress his children that way, it’s fine, but to impose that on others is wrong. In recent years we started noticing indirect pressure on people and especially on new Muslims – those who have not read a lot or gone deeper into the spirit of the religion. The pressure is to wear his Jalaabiyya a certain way, smile a certain way or even talk in a certain manner, and the same Hadeeth (tradition of the Prophet) is repeated.

The Quran, revealed in Arabic to an Arab in Arabia, is particularly instructive. Despite this, the Quran imparts stories and information about an array of cultures and customs. It tells us about the Egyptians, the Pharaoh and the stories of King Suleiman. It talks of magic carpets and about how the jinn (supernatural creatures) served Suleiman. The Quran talks to us about foods of different people, about other civilisations, and even speaks to us about people of Hell. It is not exclusively a compendium of dogmatic do’s and don’ts; instead it is a treasure trove of cultural, historical, ethical, spiritual, and civilisational information.

The Quran has inspired people, their behavior and even Muslim architectural style. Their cultural diversity is what makes Muslims around the world unique. When you go to Hajj, or pilgrimage in Mecca, you will see Muslims from around the world and can identify them by the unique way they are dressed. You can see that she is from Malaysia, Africa or other regions. The Prophet (PBUH) used to receive garments as gifts from other areas and he wore them. There is a hadeeth about the Prophet (PBUH) wearing an Omani garment, which shows that the Prophet (PBUH) appreciated gifts from other cultures.

MN: How do we differentiate between cultural practices of that time, and ways of living that we have to follow?

MBA: The Sunnah (way the Prophet lived his life) about praying and fasting should be observed. Those that talk about people’s eating habits, like saying the Prophet used to eat with his hands, so you should discard cutlery, is not right. During his time, there was no cutlery. Instead, he taught a proper and hygienic way of eating out of one main serving dish – to use only three fingers and eat from the spot closest to oneself only. Each culture is special and valid in its own practices.

Whether or not they use cutlery does not determine their worth. It is wrong to look down on people when it comes to such. When it comes to breaking the fast, there are certain things the Prophet said to do or recommended, and these we should follow. But when there is no emphasis on other things, it is up to the people to do it the way they want. There are things the Prophet liked to do personally such as fasting on Mondays and Thursdays or fasting for three days in the middle of the month. He liked to do it that way, but nothing exists that prevents us from not doing it.

There is the example of how once when the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions were eating together; the host put a plate of lizard as part of the “meal.” The Prophet (PBUH) asked what it was and when told, he pushed the plate away. One of his companions, Khalid Ibn Waleed, said, “Oh Prophet, is this forbidden?” The Prophet (PBUH) said, “No, I don’t like it, I am not used to it.” Khalid then pulled the plate closer and started eating it.

Some Muslims eat shellfish, while others don’t. As long as there is no prohibition on the food from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, you can eat and indulge in whatever food your culture is accustomed to. Islam’s etiquette about food is that one should not eat until one is hungry and when he eats he should not overindulge.

MN: Give us an example of a time in early days of Islam when there was diverse opinion on issues?

MBA: When the Prophet (PBUH) passed away, the companions spread to other countries. This eventually gave birth to two schools of thought, the Ahl Al Ra’ee (School of Opinion) and the Ahl Al Hadeeth (School of Hadeeth). In areas where there were few companions or people who met them, people would reflect upon issues and come up with their own fatwas, or legal opinions, based on the guidelines of the Shari’ah. They used to be in Iraq. In places like Medina many companions and people lived, who met the Prophet and remembered his life. They relied more on Hadeeth. This shows the diversity in Islam and those from the two schools of thought did not speak badly about one another and differences of opinions were respected.

Nowadays the issue of music is contentious; there are those who say all music is forbidden, those in the middle and others, who are all the way to the left. Keep in mind that during the Prophet’s time, people were taken with the love of the Prophet and no one would think of music and other things because their hearts were filled with something much higher. Music used to be associated with dance, mixing of men and women, drinking and all kinds of vices. It depends on which kind of music you are talking about. Is it music that leads you to haram, or unlawful practices, or is it music that you hear in the news today? Is it a kind of music, which will lead you to forget your Quranic duties and fill your heart more than the love of Allah?

The dress of women is another issue, in certain Middle Eastern countries women cover their entire bodies, while in Africa where it’s really hot, the dress is not as conservative.

Likewise, we see in one school of thought, that of al-Imam Malik is more lenient in certain issues than the School of al-Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, who is stricter. Muslims, who live in the dessert, have characteristics and a culture that are different than those who live in Syria where there are far more trees and water and natural beauty. Even the opinions of scholars living in tough environments are stricter. Environment, culture, and beauty impact people and we see this in the way Muslims live and behave.

MN: It was traditional in the Maldives until very recently to celebrate Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) birthday with huge communal feasts. However there has been a drive to stop this practice on the grounds that celebrating birthdays are unIslamic. What is your opinion on this?

MBA: This is another issue; the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday was something that was not practiced by the Prophet (PBUH) or his companions. It was something that started in Egypt during the time of the Fatimid dynasty.

They were the ones who started celebrating the Prophet’s birthday. Yes it’s a bidaah (innovation), but it’s a good bidaah. You are inviting the entire community to make salaah upon the Prophet, to chant, sing and praise the Prophet’s life and character (PBUH). It’s also important to see what people do in terms of celebration; if it’s not contradictory to Islam, then it is fine.

As a boy, I remember that I used to wait for this celebration. For me, it meant having candy and lots of food, but it also brought me to the adults that were sitting and chanting songs about the prophet. When people get together for the celebrations, it’s a reminder to the younger generation about the life of the Prophet (PBUH).

Allah tells us in the Quran to constantly remember the Prophet (PBUH), his devotion and his struggle.
Celebrating the “birthdays” of other people are cultural practices. It was not the culture in Middle East, and so the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions did not practice it. If you want to celebrate it, it is up to you. It is not forbidden like alcohol. It’s a cultural practice, not a religious one.

I celebrate the birthday of my children sometimes. They live in America and see other children having birthday parties. We have parties to celebrate, but we also read the Quran and memorise a chapter for that day. In Lebanon, it’s a tradition to celebrate birthdays with fireworks. Today we have to understand what is religious and what is cultural. If you want to do something that is OK Islamically, just make sure there is nothing wrong done while you are doing it.

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France helping Maldives realise development and multicultural ambitions: President

President Mohamed Nasheed has welcomed a series of events in the Maldives designed to try and forge closer cultural and development partnerships with France, claiming they are indicative of a country that is looking to become “more democratic, more liberal” and ultimately, freer.

Speaking last night during a reception at the National Art Gallery in Male’, Nasheed joined Christine Robichon, French ambassador to the Maldives, in playing up the latest developments in what he claimed was a long relationship that dated back to the 1700’s and was continuing to benefit the nation in a variety of different ways.

This week in particular has seen a number of developments relating to French culture and expertise in the Maldives, including the naval ship FS Mistral docked in the country’s waters as part of a long-term training deployment and the more scaled back establishment of the Alliance Francaise in the recently opened National Library in Male’.

The Alliance Francaise is an organisation that works to promote French cultural language programmes across the world, and is running a Film Festival of productions from French speaking nations. The group was first officially recognised in the Maldives in 2009 and estimates that the number of students now learning French at public schools has increased to 400 people from just four during the last two years.

Historically the Maldives has seen significant interest from French tourists in visiting its waters and resorts. While conceding that the strength of this interest had fallen behind other markets like China, Ambassador Robichon told guests at the gallery that the option for a growing number of students in the country to learn French may not make as much business sense locally, but still offered the “variety” of speaking a major international language for Maldivian students.

President Nasheed said that he hoped a growing number of Maldivian children and the wider population were looking to embrace different history, culture and languages through education.

“We want to welcome everyone to the country, we want to become multicultural and we are moving along these lines and with our new found friendship I am sure we will be able to achieve that,” he said.

Along with the potential cultural pursuits being offered to Maldivians, President Nasheed also announced that work was beginning on French-sponsored development assistance projects to provide sewerage and water systems to islands in the country.

Whilst thanking the French ambassador for her country’s assistance with these developments, Nasheed claimed that with its recent ascension from being designated as a UN ‘least developed country’ (LDC) to a middle income nation, the Maldives was having to learn to try and stand on its own two feet.

“Recently we have been promoted from a least developed country and we want to stand up to that. We want to be able to fend for ourselves and live within our means,” he said. “We do not want aid, we want understanding and friendship and I am sure we will find that in France.”

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Comment: Manners and animals

“They are like animals…”

These were the words I overheard a few feet away from me, as I stood outside the Hulhumale’ ferry terminal. The voice sounded of an elderly foreign woman. I turned my head to see who that was, judging by my initial glance it was an elderly European woman, possibly in her 40’s, and judging by her accent, Dutch. There was an elderly European man and a younger female, possibly their daughter.

As I listened to a few more words from her, I realised they were talking about the encounter they just experienced while boarding the ferry from Male’ to get to Hulhumale’. I was also on the same ferry.

I must admit, somehow, I wasn’t surprised by those remarks. I could relate to exactly what she was talking about. For a moment, as I stood there I had a flashback of having a similar experience, and making similar remarks (of course not out loud).

I had my first experience boarding the ferry to get to Hulhumale’ about two years back. Having been abroad in Europe for quite a few years, I became accustomed to some of their generally accepted social etiquettes and good manners. For example in the UK, they are well known for their orderly queuing, staying in line among other similar social etiquettes to abide by in public situations, which are considered to be in the best interest of all citizens. Breaking a line in queue, raising your voice to be heard while you are being spoken to, pushing another, taking someone’s seat, rushing your way to the counter when there is some else in front etc would be considered a cardinal sin of good social etiquettes and norms.

I tried to recall what actually may have happened about half an hour ago that led her to make this remark. As I entered the Hulhumale’ terminal in Male’, I noticed these three foreign visitors sitting in the back of the seating area inside the terminal. I glanced around and saw an empty seat in the front row. I made my way over to the seat, put the bag of passionfruits and papaya I was carrying with me on the floor and sat down. As I sat and watched the news from the TV in the seating area, I could also see in the reflection from the glass window in front of me, the growing crowd in the seating area. A minutes before 7:30 there were a lot people standing up in the aisle, even when there were enough seats for all the people to sit down.

Just before the terminal attendant could open the door, suddenly, in no particular order, almost everyone rushed towards the door. Since I was in the front seats, I waited until the door was opened. As I walked to board the ferry in the crowd, I was not very gently pushed by a couple of people, perhaps not purposefully. And yet I was mildly irritated by it, but I didn’t allow myself to ponder any feelings of anger, perhaps I was accustomed to such norms after being a regular ferry commuter for nearly two years.

As I found myself a seat on the ferry and sat down, I noticed the three foreigners were almost the last to board the ferry. And as we neared to Hulhumale’ terminal, even before the ferry closed to the harbour, again all of a sudden in no particular order everyone rushed to get off the ferry.

I imagined, perhaps this was their first time boarding the ferry, and as I related to my first experience two years back, I knew exactly what she meant when she made that remark and possibly how she felt. I assume these visitors are not going to stay here for long, but because of that incident, she was quick to make generalisation about Maldivians. Possibly an experience that will stay with her for a while and possibly an experience she will share with her friends.

At this point, I would like to ask you this question: is this sort of image we want portray to the foreign visitors who visit the Maldives? Particularly away from the polished resort life to the everyday unpolished Maldivian city life?

I wonder if there are others like me, who share a similar view; that we have a lot to learn and work on to improve our social etiquettes and good manners. Possibly we could try to emulate and practice some of the good manners and social etiquettes from developed countries.

We can start off with simple social etiquettes. Let me suggest seven simple things to practice for now:

  1. Always make queues and stand in line, if anyone cuts you off, kindly tell them “Sir/madam, there is a queue here” (moral persuasion is better than pointing fingers)
  2. For heaven’s sake, SMILE, even just a little bit when someone makes eye contact with you, the last thing you want to do is stare back at them with an evil eye. Guys, smile to others guys as well, it’s completely OK (there is nothing gay about it!).
  3. Say ‘thank you’ to whoever serves you, where ever that maybe.
  4. Sit in orderly fashion when there are chairs, if you arrive first to the ferry terminal or board the ferry, sit in front and away from the aisle making it easy for others to find their seats. And when getting off, let the ferry come to a stop at the harbour and let the people in the front seats get off first.
  5. When the ferry terminal door opens, allow the people in the front seats to board first.
  6. Raising your voice and breaking the conversation just to be heard, not only makes you sound dumb, it makes you look immature and proves you lack the communication skills to persuade the other person(s) with good reason.
  7. Even if your relative or close friends say ‘drop in anytime’, don’t take it literally. Let them know in advance you will be coming over and check whether it’s convenient for them. And guys/girls always keep to the time you agree, if you are going to be late or running let give a ring or sms and let them know.

As the overused saying goes: “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. Sometimes this might be true. I like to think I am a realist. Some people will just brush it off when they hear about things like what I talked about and just go about their life the usual way.

Since you are still reading this, I know a part of you is saying “Ok, Mr Perfect! This is all very nice, but most of the people are not going to bother practice this anyway, why waste my energy on doing it differently, I’d rather go with the flow.”

I hear you buddy, so let me tell you the rest of the story, how it ended, hopefully you will rethink and take some action. Read on.

After I overhead these remarks and as I turned my head to see them, I made eye contact with her and smiled. There was no reaction from her; perhaps she didn’t see me clearly as it was a bit dark outside the terminal. I took a few steps forward, made eye contact with her again and smiled. There was a partial smile and I said “Hi! You guys waiting for a taxi?” (I took the cue as they were waiting near the taxi stop).

She said “Ya, is this the correct stop?”, I replied “Yes, this is the stop, but there aren’t too many taxis on this island, so it may take a while for one to arrive, but let me help you, I’ve got a taxi number I can try.”

She said “that’s very nice of you, thank you”. I said “sure thing, you are very welcome”. I took my phone dialled and asked if the taxi was available to come over the terminal. In about a minute, the taxi arrived; they thanked me again and left.

My only hope is they would share this story with their friends and loved ones instead of their ferry experience. But, I don’t know if that will happen, maybe they will tell both stories, but even then, it is better than having just a single bad experience. So, it is up to us, you and your friends, to practice good social etiquettes and set an example. If not all, hopefully even a few will recognise and try to emulate you.

Ahmed Lilal is involved in the LAL Consulting Group, established to improve the wellbeing of the Maldivian society through informal education.

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]

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Comment: Islam is for tolerance of the Other

It is disturbing and saddening to see that we dare to curtail basic human interests and entitlements of others that some of us take for granted.

What Islam stands for: According to Article 16 of the Madinah Charter (al-mithaq al-madinah) of 622 CE, social, legal and economic equality was promised to all loyal citizens of the state, including non-Muslims.

Similarly, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s Covenant following the Arab conquest of Jerusalem reads:

“[‘Umar ibn al-Khattab] has given [people of Jerusalem] assurance of safety for their lives and property, for their churches and their crosses, for their sick and their healthy, and for all the rituals of their religion.

Their churches shall not be used as dwellings, nor shall they be demolished and nothing shall be diminished…”

Now all this has basis in the Qur’anic injunction that “there is no compulsion in religion”. Have we then lost our humanity and humaneness?

It is hypocritical of us to ban and curtail such basic freedoms by saying that the Maldives is a ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’.

How we became ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’

It is true that we have a strong Islamo-nationalist identity. But we must know that identities are artificial and they are constructed through symbols and discourses.

Our national identity is a construction of a discourse largely engineered by President Gayoom.

President Amin may have been behind the initial promotion of nationalism. But his nationalism was not based on an exclusionist Islam. None of his national day statements that I have read promoted such an oppressive conception of of Islamo-nationalism.

The discourse of an exclusionist Islamo-nationalism is found in Gayoom’s speeches, writings and policies. In fact, according to Gayoom’s official biography, A Man for All Islands, Gayoom, from the beginning, ensured that an Islamo-nationalism was a priority of his regime.

Gayoom-controlled radio, TV, and the education system promoted and socialised us into this discourse of exclusionist Islamo-nationalism.

We may not readily realize that we are influenced by and socialized into this mythical discourse of Islamo-nationalism based on ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’. The power of this discourse is so perverse that even the most natural word association for ‘sattain satta’ probably is ‘muslim/Islami qaum’.

And all major oppressive measures in the country have been justified based on the discourse of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’.

Thanks to the 30-year efforts of Gayoom, today our ‘imagined community’ is thoroughly based on an exclusionist and oppressive conception of Islam.

Islamo-nationalism’s oppressions

According to Daniel Brumberg, total autocracies such as Saudi Arabia spread the idea that the state’s mission is to defend the supposedly unified nature of the nation or the Islamic community.

Gayoom’s regime may not have been a total autocracy. But his stated political justification of the state was his mission of defending a unified community.

We must know that, just like his Arab counterparts, this was just a ploy for political control. Hence, any differences of views to that of his vision are taken as ‘anomalies’ or ‘deviations’ or ‘falsities’ threatening national unity.

Such people must be ‘rectified’, exiled, imprisoned, deported, tortured, or if need be exterminated. Exclusion or extermination can also find more poignant forms such as civil death or suicide.

Gayoom’s discourse of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’ often oppressed two kinds of opponents: Islamiyyun such as Sheikh Hussain Rasheed Ahmed and non-religious challengers like current president Nasheed.

Islamiyyun were brandished as ‘Islam din rangalah nudanna meehun’. And non-religious political opponents were brandished as either ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘Christian missionaries’.

The outcomes of this oppressive Islamo-nationalist discourse are naturally not limited to Maldivians.

Hence the migrant workers in the Maldives also cannot practice their religions as respectable and equal human beings.

Undoing Islamo-nationalism

Identities cannot easily been undone. But it is not impossible to undo them. As an immediate step, the government must stop spreading Gayoom’s discourse of ‘sattain satta muslim qaum’.

Even the current government spreads the discourse that ‘Maldives is the only 100% Muslim liberal democracy’. While this discourse is presented often to the donors, this is just the same Gayoomist myth. We are neither 100% Muslim nor a liberal democracy.

We are still a borderline democracy according to comparative democratization research. The Freedom House still designates the Maldives as an ‘electoral democracy’, and our donors know this. Instead of promoting Gayoom’s discourse, we must acknowledge our oppressive laws, practices and attitudes, and try to change them.

Secondly, we need to create a Divehi equivalent for ‘tolerance’. Divehi word ‘tahammal’ or ‘kekkurun’ does not fully convey the meaning of the concept of tolerance. Tolerance means accepting people and permitting their differences and practices even when we personally strongly disapprove of them.

We may not want to become Buddhists or Hindus, nor may we approve of Buddhism or Hinduism. But we must accept the Buddhist and Hindu Sri Lankans or Indians in the Maldives and we must permit their religious practices.

Third, our education system must promote tolerance, mutual respect, and a critical-history of the country and Islam in general.

Textbooks must problematize the mythical narrations like Rannamari, which as Maloney said, served to render other historical events peripheral. Instead, the real age and images of Divehis must be re-taught.

The age of the Divehi is not 900 years, but more than 1500 years. The real Divehi is indeed indicative of a far richer adventurism, innovation, cultural practices, linguistic uniqueness, adaptability, and the sheer incredible strength of spirit and survivability in these lands against numerous odds, not least foreign interventions.

The real Divehi is indicative of an incredible story of inclusiveness, of co-existence of political exiles and immigrants from India or Sri Lanka. This Divehi story must be our discourse for re-doing our historical identity.

Gayoom’s mythical unity as found in the oppressive Religious Unity Act is not even our historical reality in the Muslim period. Maliki madhab was dominant until 1573, when Muhammad Jamal Din advocated Shafi’I madhab.

Thus, whether we approve of it or not, we have both intra-religious and inter-religious differences. There is no way to stop this diversity except through despotic oppression.

We cannot remain ignoring this reality and deluding ourselves into a utopian umma. We must embrace the ‘fact of pluralism’ and tolerance as basis of our new national identity.

That, after all, is also what Islam stands for.

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]

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Comment: Doublethink culture

On the night of December 21, 1954, a cult of worshipers gathered together in a room in Chicago.

Having carefully removed all metallic objects from their person, including bra straps and metal zippers, they sat together in a silent huddle. Many of them had quit their jobs and colleges, left their spouses and sold their houses in preparation for that night.

They wouldn’t need any of those where they were going – for indeed, they were awaiting the arrival of a flying saucer that would take their small group of true believers away before the prophesied end of the world the next morning.

As it turned out, the flying saucer never arrived – and the world continues to spin majestically over half a century later.

Having their superstition proven so utterly false, one would reasonably expect that the cult would have disbanded and died out immediately afterward.

But, as chronicled in the famous book ‘When Prophecy Fails’, written by a group of authors who had infiltrated the cult to observe them first hand, the cult actually grew in strength after the failure of their central prophecy.

One of those authors, Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, famously described this phenomenon as ‘cognitive dissonance’.

According to this theory, when faced with incontrovertible proof against a held belief, people tend to eliminate the dissonance by resorting to either denial or justification.

The cult members, upon realising that their alien saviors failed to show up, promptly decided that the Earth had been given a second chance as a reward for their night-long perseverance. Armed with this new theory, the formerly media-shy cult went on a recruiting drive and the cult expanded more than ever.

Cognitive dissonance would also explain the resurgent practice of ‘Baccha baazi’ in Afghanistan, where powerful warlords and other self-described Muslim men engage in pederasty with ‘bacchas’ or pre-pubescent dancing boys, attired in women’s clothing.

The men candidly admit to the practice on camera, denying that it was sodomy because they were not ‘in love’ with the boys, and providing the justification that they were able to judge the young boys’ looks beforehand, unlike the niqab covered women where it was more of a hit-and-miss.

In the dark alleys of Bangalore and Mysore in India, the hashish and heroin trade is known to be run by old Muslim men with prominent prayer marks on their forehead where it touches stone five times a day,

They too, justify their actions with an assortment of explanations about profits and business.

In these cases, one appears to have an inner moral conflict, as is clearly visible in the confused expression of the pious old Dhivehi woman with a fondness for traditional raaivaru and folk songs, when suddenly confronted with a religious ruling on TV from the leading sheikh of the day that music is forbidden.

The dissonance is then placated by subconsciously finding a convenient explanation that flies in the face of available statistics, just as a smoker finds a justification to smoke, or a motorist finds a justification to not wear helmets or seat belts.

The theory of cognitive dissonance is often used to explain the unintentional hypocrisy of individuals and social groups.

In the Maldives, however, it appears that hypocrisy has given way to something far more unpleasant – namely, self-deception.

The Ministry of Truth

As described in the dystopian society portrayed in George Orwell’s novel 1984, Maldivians seem to have embraced the practice of ‘doublethink’.

The novel describes doublethink as :

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it… to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again.”

Perhaps due to remarkable upheavals in their recent history, Maldivians appear to have mastered the art of effortlessly holding two utterly incompatible, conflicting ideas in their head.

The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

A casual stroll down the Artificial Beach in Male or the neighboring islands during the night reveals dozens of young girls – proudly wearing the Islamic head scarf – in various stages of embrace, undress or coitus with their partners under the veil of darkness.

There’s the story of the outwardly devout graphics designer who declined an assignment to draw a female figurine, citing religious principles. Notably, the man was later found to be downloading explicit pornography on his office workstation.

During one energetic debate on Facebook, one of the most vocal defenders of the faith was a young man with a colorful vocabulary. In case his demeanor and menacing threats didn’t make his tough gangster credentials clear, he also spelled out, in bright red letters, on his profile image, ‘Blood, Sex and Booze’.

To be precise, the young Maldivian man, who swore by ‘blood, sex and booze’ on a public social network, was the first to step in to defend morality and religion against perceived threats.

These are hardly isolated cases.

There are plenty of Maldivians who proudly embrace the creed that Islam is a ‘religion of peace’ and that those that create conflict are not ‘true Muslims’, but in the same breath, applaud Bin Laden, the Taliban, and other random militants who place bombs in schools, markets and mosques in Pakistan as righteous ‘mujahideen’ whose actions are sanctioned by the religion.

Young girls and boys, often wasted on drugs and given to casual sexual relations, often vocally argue for the imposition of an un-codified ‘Shariah’ law system that, if implemented, could very well see them stoned to death or worse.

The national doublethink is no doubt helped by the country’s dramatic swing from a heady, westernised disco-era to a rigidly conservative religious society almost overnight.

The 2008 Maldivian constitution forbids any law or regulation that contradicts loosely defined ‘tenets of Islam’.

In May 2010, the Maldivian government invited salafi preacher Zakir Naik who, during a heavily promoted lecture televised on prime-time national television, proclaimed to a gathered audience of ten-thousand, that income made from tourism was ‘haraam’.

But as recently as last week, the President of the Republic, Mohamed Nasheed, reiterated that the tourism industry – fueled by alcohol and, as the Mullah prefers to put it, ‘fornication’ – is the mainstay of the country’s economy that must be safeguarded at all costs.

The easily inflammable pseudo-religious groups that assemble on the streets at a moment’s notice to protest against everything from news editors to co-education, gathered in in late 2009 to protest against the restricted sale of alcohol in ‘inhabited’ islands.

Nevertheless, their screeching rhetoric against the sale of alcohol in the capital was in stark contrast to their meek acceptance of the availability of alcohol on the adjacent airport just five minutes away.

It could also be contrasted with their monk-like silence on the widespread child abuse and pedophilia, reports of which have hit local media with alarming frequency throughout the past year.

The same government alternatively claims that tourism is haraam and absolutely vital. The same television channel that plays music throughout the day also airs religious programs that proclaim music is forbidden. The same school that teaches that bank interest is forbidden in Islam also teaches students modern banking, and how to calculate interest.

The effect of this national doublethink on the young Maldivian democracy is a cause for concern.

Citizens who have given up the intellectual tools of reasoning have also inadvertently given up their ability to choose, leaving the country vulnerable to either sliding back into a dictatorship, or morphing into a theocracy.

Confirmation bias

The first comment on a recent Minivan News article about alleged bestiality involving the rape of a goat on a rural island, incredibly enough, appeared to blame the incident on ‘LIBERAL DEMOCRACY’.

This is further evidence that the Maldives is steeped in a strong confirmation bias, where the population disregards evidences that are in plain contradiction to their viewpoints, but jumps at even unverified hearsay supporting their prejudices.

Fifth grade science teachers have reportedly taught their students that the Apollo moon landings were ‘fake’, thereby insulting the achievements of thousands of scientists and engineers, while simultaneously robbing young students of the wonders and amazement of science, leaving them vulnerable to a lifetime of conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, tiny moon rocks have been on display for years at the National Museum in the Maldives.

Openly biased reporting on the Middle East abound in the local media, as are outlandish conspiracies such as the easily discredited allegations that a team of Israeli doctors were ‘organ stealing Zionists’.

If this keeps up, Maldivians as a nation will be no better than the alien cult worshipers, who bend reality to suit their convenience and bask in an atmosphere of mutual-misinformation.

The vital essence of a successful democracy is the ability of its citizens to make critical judgments.

Once that ability is clouded by confirmation bias, dissonance and doublethink, the end-result closely resembles the confusion and noise that characterises Maldivian society today.

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]

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Addu-based arts camp targets overturning Maldives’ cultural limitations

This week will see the continuation of a ten-day International Artist’s Camp that organisers claim will for the first time bring together figures from both Indian and Maldivian society to try and overcome concerns about cultural limitations across the country’s atolls.

The camp, which has been organised by local association the United Artists of Maldives (UAM) and the High Commission of India, Male’, will see 14 artists – five from India and nine from the Maldives – gathering in Gan, Addu Atoll between 10 March to 21 March.

The project has been devised in order to produce a body of work expected to be put on show in Male’ as well as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the UAM has said.

Indian artists like Saurabh Narang and Gurdheep Singh Dhiman will join together with young artists from across the Maldives to collaborate and attempt to raise the profile of both their own artistic work and the cultural output of the nation as a whole. Other similar events are expected to be held around the region at later dates, the UAM said.

Speaking at the launch of the camp on Thursday 10 March in Male’, Mohamed Solih, honorary counsul of thailand in the Maldives and a UAM patron, said that although it may not always be apparent, “art is everywhere” and served to demonstrate how ideas can come in many forms, whether detailing happenings in the past, present or the future.

“However, it is sad to note that art and cultural activities are lacking in many areas. Budget cuts in the schools have impacted [these activities,” said Solih. “It is therefore important for all art lovers to unite and promote [culture] around the country.”

Solih said that in order to try and promote cultural pursuits in the Maldives, it was important to speak to people who did not understand the value of art and try to point out that music and reading material that were part of many people’s lives were all products of an artists’ vision.

“All of us know that arts are of equal value in our economy. In our schools and in our daily lives this is not a popular stance,“ he claimed. “Yet with some studies showing that music helps with learning and visual arts helps students with abstract thinking, this argument needs to be voiced over again. I am only one voice; but when one voice though is joined with many more, the effect is significantly increased.”

Using some artistic flourishes of his own, Indian artist Saurabh Narang said that he believed that like a seed, a nation’s art needed to be “nurtured and supported”.

Taking the Maldives’ natural assets as an example, Narang added that in flying into the country, the aerial views of blue depths and deep waters afforded by the experience were a powerful way to spark imagination.

In looking at the impacts of the art camp, Indian High Commissioner Dnyaneshwar Mulay claimed that the event was a historic development in the Maldives, particularly in how the nation perceived itself politically and socially.

“Political histories are always documented, but the social histories and, more important than that, the cultural histories are not always documented,” he said. “Culture is the true soul of humanity and unless the soul is solid, healthy, no revolution of any kind can be sustained.”

In trying to strengthen this notion of “soul”, Mulay said he believed that artists, musicians, painters, and performers of various instruments and arts were a key part of national identity.

“I’m very happy that the movement of democracy that started in the Maldives is now taking its true shape by spreading cultural values,” he said.

However, Mulay said that he had wished to see a stronger presence from the Maldives Government at the event, whose support was praised as being very important in raising the profile of cultural identity among the people of the Maldives.

“Personally I wish there was a more formal and stronger presence from the government, particularly the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, which has been a very important part of a partnership and cooperation to move forward,” he said. “I hope the message will get through that we do value their support.”

With the current Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Dr Mariyam Zulfa away on business in Berlin at the International Tourism Bourse (ITB) trade show, a unnamed source within her office had said it had therefore been impossible to attend.

However, beyond the ministry pursuing its own cultural and artistic programmes, the same source said that with a number of civil servants such as Ahmed Naeem being important members of the UAM, it was difficult for any involvement without raising suspicions of a “conflict of interests”.

Nonetheless, President Mohamed Nasheed last week addressed the significance of art and culture, as well as how the government hoped to nurture it, as part of his 2011 opening parliamentary address.

The president claimed that on the back of events like the Hay Maldives literary festival being held in the country for the first time last year, the government was looking to try and develop local skills and talent with the aid of an Arts Council and Heritage Council during 2011.

Beyond the possible challenges facing the government in pursuing the promotion and developments of arts and culture in the Maldives, other sectors of society such as religion are also an important part of understanding national identity.

Ibrahim Nazim, a co-founder of religious NGO, the Islamic Foundation of Maldives (IFM) told Minivan News that when it came to the role of art in a strongly Islamic nation like the Maldives, the organisation personally had a very specific view of culture in the country.

“What I would say is that our [the IFM’s] stand is that we see more western types of music, such as those involving guitars and other instruments as being discouraged under Islam,” he said. “Some forms [of music] may be permitted. Such as using instruments like hand drums. But generally we believe music is discouraged”

Nazim said that in areas such as visual arts, the IFM also held some reservations, such as in films where false names or false identities were being assumed by actors.

“These are things we see as being discouraged in Islam,” he said.

Nazim added though that there were forms of arts that were welcomed as important parts of Islamic faith, not least in the guise of architecture and scripts carved into walls and wood that he believed were very beautiful.

“There have been Muslim artists in fields such as architecture and these are most welcome,” he said. “We welcome forms of art provided that it does not resemble any Christian forms [of culture]”.

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Indian artists to join Maldivian cultural camp

A host of Indian artists are expected to take part in an international arts camp being held in Addu Atoll from 9 March till 22 March – the first event of its kind said to be held in the country, according to the United Artists of Maldives (UAM).

Speaking to Haveeru, the UAM confirmed that Chaman Sharma, Sadhana Sangar, Gurdheep Singh Dhiman, Saurabh Narang and Hemali Bhutta will be taking part in next month’s art event that is hoped can become an annual fixture for the country and help boost the overall profile of a national cultural identity.

UAM has claimed that it hopes to try and promote Maldivian art at both a local and international level by planning to host the camp at various islands around the Maldives in the future, as well as sending its own members to cultural events in other countries.

“This will be a kind of exchange. After we do the camp here, some of the participants from Maldives will go to India and then do a camp there,” Ahmed Naeem, UAM member and Exhibition and Project Officer at the National Art Gallery told Haveeru. “We [UAM] have mainly three things which we are concentrating on; to promote artists and their work, to create awareness among the public about visual art and to foster a good understanding between neighbouring countries and their culture.”

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