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Epilogue from THE MALDIVE ISLANDERS, A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom
by Xavier Romero-Frias


'I believe, in fact that there is no greater suffering for man than to feel his cultural foundations giving way beneath his feet.'
Alberto Moravia, Italian writer.


Maldives school uniform for girls
Illustration: Haveeru
Formerly a non-issue in the Maldives, female dress and self-righteousness suddenly made an impact on Divehi women throughout the country. An artificial form of prudishness was contrived when government-sponsored Arabic schools spearheaded the introduction of compulsory 'proper Islamic' uniforms for girls from mid-1980s onwards.

Is the fate of gradually becoming an Arab nation the Maldive Islanders' only option? This is the Maldivian dilemma since they made the decision to accept the Arabs as their undisputed cultural masters and began to sever their links with their own past. Nowadays Maldivians are culturally restless people who can never be at ease. The intense indoctrination of the 1980s and 90s, when Islamization was imposed on the islands at a much higher gear than at any time in the nation's history, has made Maldivians feel uncozy in their own country. The changes brought about have been of such magnitude and in such a short time, that there is now a whole young generation of Divehi people who, having not known how things were previously, take for granted that their home nation has always been so orthodox and impersonal.

Although in ethnically Arab countries it may not be so, in the Maldives Islam is an elitistic religion. Traditionally, only a very powerful sector of the elite, for various reasons, has cherished the strict Islamic rules. Furthermore, in the enforcement of orthodoxy downwards, it is this elite who, often hand-in-hand with visiting Arabs, has repressed or wiped out most Maldivian popular expressions leaving in its wake a bleak, unsmiling, hieratic ideology.

The relentless campaign to promote Islam spearheaded by the government since 1979 has been quite successful. In between, many Maldivians have adopted the Arab way of life and the Arab dress.1 The atmosphere in the capital Male', although the city looks now more modern and wealthy than before, is heavily charged with religion. Young people born during the last two decades only know the hard-line religious environment and most don't even know an independent Divehi cultural identity not attached to religious propaganda. Thus, they have grown accustomed to the prevailing cultural forgery and the ensuing loss of personal freedom. Since they didn't experience the mellower times preceding the year 1980, when for example, shops didn't have to close at prayer times and there were popular discotheques in Male', this is only natural.

Maldivian people opposing arabization are in a very vulnerable position, because they are easily, and conveniently, singled out as opponents of Islam. In a perverse paradox, the alien-based ideology of Islam in Maldivian government propaganda is equalled with patriotism.2 Within this perverted context, someone who is against Arab cultural intrusion is easily made to look like a person lacking patriotic fervor. As a consequence, the bitter irony is that Maldivians are misled into believing that the only way to become better citizens is by distancing themselves more and more from their own true national identity and become Arab look-alikes.

Maldives film advertisement on street
Maldivians have been traditionally a monogamous society. The Islamisation that began in the 1980s saw an upsurge in polygamous marriages that upset local values. Hagu An'bi (Second wife), the title of the Divehi movie announced on this Male' streetboard, reflects female concern towards what they perceive as hostile trends.

Most of the youth opposing arabization have despaired of protecting their own ethnicity, because the Maldivian or Divehi identity has been dishonestly usurped by an Arabicized elite who pretends that it is equal to Islam.3 The very governmental organization whose duty is, in theory, to protect and promote Maldivian culture has, symptomatically, a long and pompous name: Divehi Bahai Tarikha' Khidmaiykura Qaumi Markazu, which is made up of mostly Arabic words!4 A clear indication of this council's abysmal record in protecting the autochthonous culture is the fact that even its main publication (Faiytura) is used by the government as its mouthpiece for the further promotion of the cause of Arabization of the Maldives. Therefore, in the Maldive Islands one is confronted with the patent absurdity that the people who are most active in destroying the national cultural heritage are hailed as patriots.

Confronted with this farce, non-conformist young Maldivians have no choice left but becoming cynical and many have jumped into the bandwagon of contemporary consumerism.5 They choose foreign values that are more attractive to them because most are only vaguely aware that they have a culture of their own. These frustrated young men and women are very keen to display progressive, modern views, which they perceive to be neater and smarter, as a potent form of protest.

The modernity that inspires and gives hope to this section of the Maldivian youth comes to the Maldives nowadays from the influence of a multitude of sources. However, the greater role in fashions, tastes and new attitudes is played probably by the comparatively more democratic societies of urban East and South-East Asia, like Singapore, Japan and Thailand, towards which they display great affinity.

Is the only choice left for Maldivians now to further dismantle the cultural heritage they have been handed over from the previous generations?

1Recently some even have gone so far as to adopt the Arab language as their own.
2The government repeatedly (and somewhat unimaginatively) claims that the Maldives is a 100% Muslim country'. This means different things to different people, but it plainly comes down to the fact that there is no freedom of religion, no freedom of thought and no freedom of expression. 3Sadly, finding it impossible to express their frustrations, many keen idealistic youngsters became victims of drug addiction in the last decades.
4Meaning 'National Council at the Service of Maldivian Language and History.' Except for the first two which mean 'Divehi language' and were thus completely unavoidable, the other words are in Arabic. The official translation of the name is 'Council for Linguistic and Historical Research.'
5As I am purely concerned with the 'tradition-versus-change' issue, I have avoided the word 'westernization'. Things are not as black-and-white as Muslim ideologists want to believe. One should keep in mind that, even within what has come to be labeled as 'The West', the conflict between traditional and consumerist attitudes is still simmering within every nation.

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