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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Human rights and wrongs – The Weekly Review

June 7th – 13th

A series of attacks and abductions in the capital Malé this week brought concern and condemnation from politicians and human rights stakeholders.

The incidents, understood to have been part of a vigilante campaign against supporters of atheism and homosexuality, have yet to provoke a response from the government.

Reports emerged of groups having previously expressed their concern regarding the publication of content offensive to Islam.

While the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) voiced concerns at the reports of the physical assault and threatening of multiple individuals last weekend, the vice president of the Human Rights Commission urged the state to reassure the public of their safety.

Minivan News spoke with previous victims of online threats turned into physical violence, asking how fearful Maldivians should be of online attackers.

Meanwhile, the Maldives representative on the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva pressed the case for greater consideration of religious intolerance, as well as the plight of Palestinians and Syrians.

Maldivian involvement in UN peacekeeping operations was again criticised by local NGO Jamiyatul Salaf, which expressed concern that troops would become embroiled in action against fellow Muslims.

Other foreign entanglements this week were less controversial and potentially more lucrative, with the vice president continuing the search for foreign investors in China while customs officials signed a cooperation deal with UAE authorities.

Home Minister Umar Naseer travelled to the Netherlands this week in order to procure sniffer dogs as part of his anti-drugs campaign – missing a second successive court hearing in the process.

Details of government attempts to provide a welcoming environment for prospective investors were revealed as details of the recently introduced special economic zones bill emerged – featuring nine largely tax-exempt areas across the country.

One group not be welcoming foreign investment, however, was MATATO which argued that moves to award an exclusive deal to a foreign group would harm both its member businesses and tourists – whose numbers continued to grow last month.

Plans to develop a new airport on Farukolhu Island in Shaviyani atoll were blocked by the Environmental Protection Agency, while environmental NGOs expressed skepticism that the government had the capacity to enforce newly protected ray species.

In the far north, Udha waves – a uniquely Maldivian phenomena – flooded large parts of Haa Alif Dhidhoo while Bluepeace called for the empowerment of local councils across the nation to deal with waste management issues.

Another uniquely Maldivian story was explored by Hulhevi Media, who launched a documentary researching the realities behind the traditional romantic epic ‘Buruni Ballad’.

The power of Malé City Council continued to decline meanwhile as both City and Fini parks were reclaimed for the use of Housing Ministry, while President Abdulla Yameen defended his party’s use of the official residence for political events.

Yameen’s government proposed amendments to a number of laws to align them with the constitution, while Adhaalath Party MP Anara Naeem proposed raise the monthly disability allowance from MVR2,000 to MVR5,000.

The opposition MDP this week restarted political activities after a post-election hiatus, with the opening of a new party haruge in Malé.

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Man sentenced to 14 years in jail for molesting a 16 year old boy

The Criminal Court has sentenced a man to 14 years in jail for molesting a 16-year-old boy.

Ahmed Ibrahim, 38, of Lhaviyani Atoll Naifaru Island, was caught in a Malé City guesthouse with the boy in September 2012.

The Maldives Police Services say Ibrahim has a previous record of homosexuality and child abuse.

In 2002, Ibrahim was sentenced to nine months banishment and 15 lashes in public for homosexuality, the police said. While serving his sentence on Alif Alif Atoll Thoddoo Island, Ibrahim was caught sexually abusing another 16-year-old boy.

In 2009, Ibrahim was again accused of molesting two male minors in Malé, police said.

Reports of child abuse, especially that of young boys, have dramatically increased over the past few years.

According to police statistics, 220 sexual offenses cases, a majority of which involves child abuse, have been reported this year. In 2013, 573 cases were reported.

Although the rise in reported cases may represent a greater willingness to report child abuse, the Human Rights Commission Commission has suggested child abuse incidents are on the rise this year and has urged parents to be more alert.

“I believe it is not merely an increase in reporting, I think it is becoming more common. During our trips to twenty two islands around the country for our ongoing National Inquiry on Access to Education for Children with Disabilities, almost in all islands there were cases of physical, mental and sexual abuse of children,” HRCM Vice President Ahmed Tholal told Minivan News in April.

State Minister for Health Dr Aishath Ramila told local media in April that the ministry has failed to compile a legally mandated Sex Offenders Registry due to lack of access to criminal records.

“Even if we look at other countries, an Offenders Registry is always with the Police of the country. This is because all the criminal records of the offenders are within the police database. Gender ministry will not have their criminal records,” Ramila said.

“Will the register be maintained by us or the police? I think this is the first decision that we need to make”, she added.

She also said the Health Ministry does not have the resources to compile and maintain the registry.

A 51-year-old Indian national was arrested for sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy in Faafu Atoll Feeali Island in April.

In January, the Ungoofaaru Magistrate Court in Raa Atoll sentenced a 51-year-old man to 10 years for sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy multiple times.

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Maldivian asylum seekers assured of prosecution upon return, says President’s Office

Maldivians seeking asylum abroad on grounds of religion or sexuality can be assured of prosecution should they return, says the President’s Office.

“The threat from the state they speak of is in actuality our law and regulations. That will not change,” President’s Office Spokesman Ibrahim Muaz explained.

Muaz’s comments come in response to a story in the New Zealand media that a homosexual Maldivian asylum seeker has become an prize-winning drag queen in Wellington.

Abraham Naim told the Dominion Post that he had been granted asylum in 2013 after facing persecution in the Maldives.

The article quotes New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment as stating that Naim was “at risk of serious harm from state agents” and that “there is a real chance of persecution if he returned to the Maldives”.

Naim also told the news website that he has been prey to numerous online threats and hate mail. “My entire existence is controversial,” he said.

Asked to comment on the matter today, Mushrif Musaid (Supervisor) at Ministry of Islamic Affairs Jannath Saeed stated that acts of homosexuality are clearly anti-Islamic and against the country’s laws, and thereby subject to legal action.

“Such acts of homosexuality are haraam in Islam. However, this ministry has not so far received any complaints from anyone claiming to be a persecuted homosexual,” said Jannath.

“We will need to check if the ministry has issued any threats or statements against a homosexual. The fact remains that such an act is without doubt against Islam,” he commented.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Media Official Zaaid Ahmed stated that he would comment on the matter on a future date after consulting with the relevant officials in the ministry.

Speaking on the issue of Maldivian asylum seekers last month, President Abdulla Yameen referred to the act of leaving the Maldives as “treason”, though he suggested those who returned would be welcomed.

“If they want to leave the shelter of Maldives, we say, you are welcome, go somewhere else. But if they want to come back to the Maldives, we will again say, welcome back to the Maldives,” said the president.

“Too much to lose”

Spokesman Muaz told Minivan News today that instances of Maldivian youth committing criminal acts under the protection of foreign states had been seen before.

“No one can get away with committing such acts for as long as they are using a Maldivian identity card or passport,” he added.

In his interview with the Dominion Post, Naim – who performs under the name Medulla Oblongata – explained that he had been disowned by his father.

“I’m definitely in a better place now,” he told the paper.

Speaking with other Maldivians currently living abroad for reasons related to their sexuality, Minivan News was told that most preferred to refrain from publicly revealing their sexuality as there was “too much to lose”.

Some said it would be difficult to get employment, while others spoke of being ostracised from society, fearing the repercussion their families might face.

“I prefer to stay quiet about it in my country of origin and instead live elsewhere where I can live comfortably with my sexuality. I’d lose everything from my family connections to friends if I come out,” said 23-year-old Ahmed Matheen*.

Moosa Farih* suggested that the situation for gay Maldivians had deteriorated in recent times.

“Until now, Maldivian LGBT have been largely left alone, but I feel that the focus has gradually been shifting onto us lately, and this is because there is increasing number of people who are trying hard to create the platform for our voices to be heard.”

“I am glad that Naim is out there spearheading this change. In Islam, there is no compulsion in religion, but that is never practiced. If the government and the people of Maldives wanted LGBT to be out of their system, asylum seekers shouldn’t be threatened with extradition and prosecution,” said Farih.

One 28-year-old Maldivian man, still living in n the capital Malé said that only a few “trusted persons” were aware of his sexuality.

“I could easily seek asylum elsewhere, but the point is, my life does not revolve around my sexuality,” he said.

“Yes, I am homosexual. But that is just an unavoidable fact like the colour of my eyes or my skin tone.

I’d rather keep it secret and live here and achieve my dreams of working to make this country a better, more progressive place,” he said, on account of anonymity.

*Names changed on request

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Police charge two men for homosexuality on Fokaidhoo

Police have sent the names of two Maldivian men charged for homosexuality to the Prosecutor General’s office for prosecution in the Criminal Court.

Police identified the two men from Fokaidhoo in Shaviyani Atoll, aged 19 and 44 years-old.

Police arrested the pair on May 24, 2013 while they were allegedly performing homosexual acts in the kitchen of a hotel on Fokaidhoo island.

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Maldivian fishing crew arrested on sodomy charges

A Maldivian fishing crew including five men and a minor have been arrested on charges of sodomy.

According to a police media official, the men were arrested on Saturday following reports that they were committing acts of sexual misconduct on the boat.

“We summoned the boat to dock at Villingilli in Gaaf Alif Atoll on Saturday while they were out fishing. They were all arrested upon their return and are now kept under Villigilli police station custody,” the official said.

As the investigation is ongoing, the official declined to reveal the identity of the crew and where the boat is from. “All we can confirm is that they are all Maldivian and one is a minor,” the official added.

According to a report on Raajje TV, the captain of the yellow fin tuna fishing dhoni filmed the five crew members in the act and reported it to police.

Under the 1968 penal code, homosexuality is punishable by either a fine, up to ten years in jail, banishment for 9-12 months or 10-30 lashes.

In 2009 a group of seven men, including an imam, were arrested on Maalhos in Alif Alif Atoll Maalhos after photos and videos emerged of the seven engaged in homosexual activity.

Besides the imam, the pornographic videos featured a mosque caretaker, a carpenter and another man the islanders claimed was mentally unstable. Three of the suspects were married with children, while another was a second, retired imam.

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Clemency Board invites prisoners to apply

The Clemency Board has begun its work today and the President’s Office has started sending out forms for prisoners to apply for clemency under the new Clemency Law.

The law was passed by Parliament on their last session of 2009. It gives President Mohamed Nasheed the power to grant pardons and commute sentences for prisoners.

It also allows the president to reduce sentences, as well as grant life sentences where death sentences had been previously issued.

The Bill specifies crimes that will not be eligible for pardon, such as murder, terrorism, sexual abuse of children, rape, drug trafficking, offences against Islam, and homosexuality.

According to the government, the Bill is meant to help those prisoners who did not get a fair trial, were wrongfully convicted or were convicted solely on the basis of extracted confessions.

Prisoners must pass two requirements to apply for clemency. They must show they have exhausted all other avenues of appeal, and must have completed at least one third of their original sentence.

It had been previously reported that criminal records of those convicted under the old Constitution would be wiped clean if they were pardoned, but Press Secretary for the President’s Office Mohamed Zuhair said that was not the case.

“There are many provisions for such matters as criminal offences and criminal records, but their records would not be wiped clean.”

“We began issuing forms today to multiple centres around Malé and they are also being sent to Island Offices,” Zuhair said.

He believes implementing the Clemency Board is a good move for the government, as “there are many pending appeals” from prisoners. “There are nearly 2,000 prisoners in the country right now,” Zuhair said.

He added that although “outrage and accusations” about the reasons for the implementation of the board will probably come, “the president is very clear on this issue and has been working on it for a long time.”

On 9 March 2010 President Nasheed appointed the members of the Clemency Board, who are to advise the president regarding the release of prisoners or commuting of sentences.

The Board is chaired by Attorney General Husnu Suood. The other members are Mariyam Suzee Adam (social sector), Nazil Afeef (legal sector), Shifa Mohamed (education sector), Dr Ahmed Razee (health sector), Sh. Mohamed Farooq (religious scholar), Maizaan Ali Maniku (civil society), Ahmed Adil (Parole Board), Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mohamed Sodiq, Ahmed Mahloof (legislature) and Deputy Prosecutor General Hussain Shameem.

President of the Board Husnu Suood said this law has been passed in accordance with the Constitution and believed the government “has moved a step forward.”

“Under the Constitution there is clemency, and there must be a provision for the president to implement this.”

Suood said under the previous Constitution this power was not implemented often, and when it was, it was usually abused.

“This will not be exercised as a political tool,” Suood assured.

He also hoped people would not see it as the government ‘releasing’ criminals, as there were established criteria under which the law can be applied.

Suood explained the president cannot give pardons for the seven specified categories but he can commute death sentences to life imprisonment.

Deputy PG Hussain Shameem said he thinks the board is a good start, but will “only work with other support systems, such as psychological and social services and a proper prison system.”

Shameem said the Clemency Law is “very tricky, the way it’s drafted,” as it “gives a lot of loopholes.”

For instance, Shameem said, the president can make the ultimate decision on pardons regarding the seven categories which are technically not eligible for pardon.

“There are some contradictions,” he said, but he believes people have to “take it positively.”

Before the Clemency Law, he said “many prisoners did not see the end of the tunnel.”

Under the new law, he believes “if prisoners have faith in the system, and they know they could get out early on good behaviour, they will behave.”

He said the law was open to anyone who had successfully completed one third of their sentence, excluding those convicted for the seven specified crimes.

Shameem added he did not believe “there are people who were wrongfully convicted” in the prison system.

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