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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President Waheed meets with New Zealand High Commissioner accredited to the Maldives

Bernadette Cavanagh, the recently appointed High Commissioner of New Zealand accredited to the Maldives, presented her credentials to President Dr Mohamed Waheed in Male’ yesterday.

During their meeting, Dr Waheed discussed a number of issues with the commissioner, including recent political developments in the Maldives and the upcoming election scheduled for September, according to the President’s Office website.

The president also thanked the New Zealand government for assistance in strengthening the Maldives’ education sector.

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New Zealand consul denies involvement in resort employment dispute

New Zealand’s Honorary Consul in the Maldives Ahmed Saleem has denied involvement in a labour dispute involving a resort his company owns, New Zealand media has reported.

A letter obtained by Minivan News on January 8 from the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU) warned the New Zealand government that it risks being held in “international disrepute” over the alleged involvement of Saleem in an ongoing employment dispute with the Conrad Rangali Island Resort.

In June 2011, 29 staff members working at the Conrad Rangali Island Resort in the Maldives alleged they had been dismissed from their posts following a strike held by workers in March that year.

According to the letter sent this month by the SFWU’s National Secretary John Ryall, 22 of the workers made redundant later challenged their dismissal at a local employment tribunal and won.

The tribunal ordered the workers be reinstated and receive backpay, however the ruling is being appealed.

Ahmed Saleem, who is a director of Crown Company which owns Conrad Hilton resort on Rangali Island, told stuff.co.nz that neither he nor his company were part of the decision-making process at the Resort.

He said management of the Rangali Island Resort, as it was then known, was given to Hilton International in 1997.

“All management decisions of Conrad Maldives [are] made by the management of Conrad Maldives, independent of Crown Company,” he told New Zealand media.

A spokesperson for Conrad Rangali Island Resort told Minivan News earlier this month that the case is currently under appeal at the High Court.

“Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is aware that there are petitions for the reinstatement of employees made redundant in 2011. We would like to remind the media that the resort is not required to reinstate the previous employees while the High Court considers the appeal,” the spokesperson added.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said he had received a letter about the matter from the New Zealand Service and Food Workers Union, earlier this week and had asked the Foreign Affairs Ministry for further information, stuff.co.nz reported.

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Union links New Zealand consul to Maldives resort worker dispute

The New Zealand Government risks being held in “international disrepute” over the alleged involvement of one of its honorary consuls in an ongoing employment dispute with a Maldives resort, a letter from the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU) has warned.

The letter addressed to New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully has alleged that the country’s Honorary Consul in the Maldives, Ahmed Saleem, was “involved” in an employment dispute with 29 former resort workers from Conrad Rangali Island resort in the Maldives.

In June 2011, 29 staff members working at the Conrad resort alleged they had been dismissed from their posts following a strike held by workers in March that year. However, the resort operator denied the allegations, maintaining that the staff had been made redundant and at the time due to renovations and lower occupancies as a result of the low season.

Conrad Rangali Island resort has previously stated that affected staff had all been provided with “generous” financial support packages as part of their redundancies.

According to the letter sent this month by the SFWU’s National Secretary John Ryall, 22 of the workers made redundant at the resort later challenged their dismissal at a local employment tribunal. The trade union said the tribunal had ruled the employees’ termination had been “unfair” and ordered the resort to reinstate the staff.

The letter alleged that the Conrad Rangali Island resort, supported by resort owners Crown Company, refused to comply with the tribunal order. However, the resort group has maintained that the case was presently being heard at the Maldives High Court.

The letter also alleges that Saleem, through his dual position as New Zealand’s Honorary Consul in the Maldives and as one of the directors of Crown Company, “advertised” his business as being located as the same address as the consulate.

“We urge you to inform Mr Saleem that having the New Zealand government connected in any way with defying a court reinstatement order for workers who were merely standing up for their basic rights is unacceptable and will bring our country into disrepute internationally,” the statement read.

“We urge you to inform Mr Saleem If he wants to continue as a New Zealand Government representative that he needs to ensure that the court ruling is immediately adhered to, that the Crown Company – appointed management recognise the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) union and that good faith negotiations commence to resolve the outstanding issue,” the letter reads.

Minivan News was waiting for a response from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Saleem at time of press.

Seaborne protest

On Friday (January 4), Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) held a seaborne protest near the beaches of Conrad Rangali Island Resort over the resort’s alleged refusal to comply with the tribunal order.

TEAM Secretary General Mauroof Zakir told Minivan News that the aim of the protest was to make guests aware of the allegations raised by former staff members, as well as the employment tribunal verdict calling for their reappointment.

“We went by boat to show our banners to the tourists on the beach [at the resort]. There were a lot of guests there who saw what we had written, however after two hours the police came,” he said.

“Even though we close to the island, we did not cross the line that dictates what the resorts property is. Even though we said this, the Police said they would arrest us if we stayed any longer.”

A spokesperson for Conrad Rangali Island Resort told Minivan News yesterday (January 8 ) that the case is currently under appeal at the High Court.

“Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is aware that there are petitions for the reinstatement of employees made redundant in 2011. The case is under appeal at the High Court of the Maldives and the final verdict is still pending.

“We would like to remind the media that the resort is not required to reinstate the previous employees while the High Court considers the appeal,” the spokesperson added.

Industrial action

TEAM has claimed that its seaborne protest was the beginning of a wider movement that would focus on workers from other resorts alleged to have been mistreated by management.

Mauroof stated that members of TEAM intend to picket at the airport and that letters have already been sent to President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik and other senior government officials to inform them of an industrial strike.

“I have already been receiving mail form many resort workers as they all want to go on strike right now. But we have to go by regulations, especially in accordance to the new bill outlining the rules for protest,” Maroouf said.

Under the new ‘Freedom of Assembly Bill’ recently passed by parliament, demonstrations outside a number of public places, including resorts and airports will be outlawed.

The regulation also states that although demonstrators do not need to seek authorization ahead of a gathering, police must be then notified of any pre-planned demonstrations before they commence.

Palm Beach Island Resort protests

On Saturday (January 6), local media reported that room boys from Palm Beach Island Resort had gone on strike over alleged delays to salary increments.

A resort employee told local newspaper Haveeru that the striking room boys had also demanded for the head of the Human Resources Department to be sacked over mistreatment of staff.

“There are room boys who have worked here for seven years. However, even they are yet to receive a salary increment. It has been months since a pay raise had been promised,” a resort employee was quoted as saying.

According to Haveeru, the Italian management of the resort pays their room boys MVR2,500 as a basic salary while an estimated US$80 to US$90 as service charge.

Palm Beach resort was not available for comment when contacted by Minivan News at time of press.

Speaking at a photo exhibition celebrating 40 years of tourism on Sunday (January 6) Tourism Minister Ahmed Ahdeeb said that the ministry had been informed about the recent protests.

“We have engaged with both the resort and the striking staff to take a middle position where we can calm the situation. In the future, other disputes will be addressed and we intend to look into them,” he added.

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Police bust cash card fraud network in joint operation with Sri Lanka

Police have busted a cash card fraud network reported to have stolen more than Rf700,000 (US$45,000) in expensive luxury items through the use of forged cards.

Police have arrested and identified five Maldivians in the network as Abdul Gany Abdul Majeed, 30, Thoriq Jameel, 30, Abdulla Akram, 22, Nadheem Masoodh 32, Ali Ahmed 28.

Speaking to the press today at police headquarters, Inspector Mohamed Riyaz said that Abdul Gany and Thoriq were arrested inside a casino in Sri Lanka in a joint operation conducted with the Lankan Police.

The two arrested in Sri Lanka had VIP cards for the casino they were arrested inside, noted Riyaz, adding that Gany was arrested in possession of Rf 4845, Sri Lankan Rupees 250,090 and US$5128, while Thoriq was arrested with 31,580 Srilankan Rupees and US$500 in his pockets.

Riyaz said Ali Ahmed was arrested at Male’ International Airport when he arrived in the Maldives from India on September 20.

He added that some of the credit and debit cards they had forged were made to resemble membership cards for certain venues and were hard to identify with a cursory glance.

Thorig, a shareholder of a famous movie shop ‘Club Infinity’, had membership cards of the shop which was actually a debit and credit card, Riyaz told the press.

Riyaz said some of the cards were made in the name of customers of banks in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, China and France – cards that appeared in the form of Maldivian cash cards but had the data of foreign banks’ customers encoded to them.

Police confiscated the electronic machines used to conduct the fraud, which the police said had the ability to obtain all information of any magnetic card and edit the information.

Police believe they might have used the cards and bought products from other countries as well, and said that they may have connection to a foreign network.

Police have been investigating the fraud network for six months, Riyaz noted.

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Brand of butter commonly used in Maldives declared non-halal by Malaysia

The Islamic Development Department of Malaysia has declared the ‘Pure Creamery Butter-Golden Churn’ as non-halal (forbidden under Islamic sharia). The brand, widely used in the Maldives, was found to contain pig DNA.

According to media reports, the department’s director general explained that the product was the same brand that had been previously banned but had been brought into the country by different importers.

Meanwhile, local daily Haveeru reports Ibrahim Arif from the Olympia Shop as insisting that the New Zealand company that manufactures the butter had guaranteed it was pig-free.

“The company has denied the reports as baseless. As the company has guaranteed [that the product is free from pig DNA], we have recently placed an order worth US$100,000,” he said.

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