The Mal­dives has long set the bar as the ul­ti­mate hon­ey­moon des­ti­na­tion, but lit­tle is known about the peo­ple who be­long to this salt water par­adise. We take a look be­hind the glit­ter­ing veil of this Is­lamic na­tion, and dive deep into the lives of two wom

Marie Claire (Malaysia) - - Contents - Text & Pho­tos by Aishath Adam

Mal­dives: Be­hind the fa­cade of this fan­tasy play­ground, par­adise is never far from hell

There is never a mo­ment of si­lence in Male’, the cap­i­tal is­land of the Mal­dives. The con­stant ham­mer­ing and buzzing from con­struc­tion sites can be heard round the clock. Res­i­dents skil­fully ma­noeu­vre through and around the waves of mo­tor­bikes zoom­ing in and out the nar­row roads. Small chil­dren are trans­ported to school strapped front and cen­tre on to vig­i­lant par­ents on roar­ing scoot­ers, faces shielded by glit­ter­ing mir­rored sun­glasses, fin­gers danc­ing on the new­est iPhone with­out a minute to spare. Un­like the smaller lo­cal is­lands, Male’ is a melt­ing pot of mis­matched ide­olo­gies. Women in crim­son lip­stick and power stilet­tos, teenagers in skintight jeans and colour­ful hi­jabs walk along the same thin pave­ments as women in silky waves of black abayas and niqab. The di­ver­sity in style ranges from New York to Saudi Ara­bia. Ev­ery face is etched with the deeply per­sonal pol­i­tics of this small na­tion. Everyone knows some­thing about everyone—from ex­tended fam­ily gos­sip and love af­fairs to health prob­lems, everyone in Male’ is a fa­mil­iar stranger. More than 150,000 peo­ple live cramped to­gether in small apart­ments on less than six square kilo­me­tres of land on this float­ing mi­cro­cosm in the mid­dle of the In­dian Ocean.

From the air, the is­lands glis­ten like jew­els spilled onto blue silk, but for the peo­ple who be­long to this salt­wa­ter par­adise— there is a grow­ing anx­i­ety for what the fu­ture holds

A stark con­trast from what the es­ti­mated 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple who visit the is­land na­tion each year ex­pe­ri­ence. Tourists are rushed from the air­port is­land to their re­spec­tive ho­tels, each on a self-con­tained is­land. But­lers standby to cater to their whims while they en­joy the per­fectly man­i­cured pow­der white beaches and pris­tine blue wa­ters in the proud Mal­di­vian tra­di­tion of cre­at­ing be­spoke lux­ury es­capes. Sit­ting on the back pa­tio of a sa­fari boat, I talk to Sarah, a 25-year-old dive in­struc­tor. She left her is­land in the north­ern tip of the archipelago at the age of 18 to work as a host­ess in a re­sort. “You meet all kinds of peo­ple; the world is so much big­ger than what we see here.” She smiles, as she ties her curly long hair back re­veal­ing her face to the salty breeze, her deep bronze skin glis­tens in the hard sun­light. It’s not hard to see how her play­ful na­ture made it im­pos­si­ble for her to re­main in­doors be­hind a desk. She tells me how when she started div­ing she was seen as a nov­elty and of­ten chal­lenged to prove her abil­ity in the heav­ily male dom­i­nated en­vi­ron­ment. My heart skips a beat as the words roll out of her with the force of a mon­soon wave. In many ways she is shat­ter­ing the glass ceil­ing in Mal­di­vian cul­ture. Not only is she thriv­ing in a typ­i­cally mas­cu­line pro­fes­sion, but she is also the pri­mary bread­win­ner in her fam­ily. Sarah’s mother passed away from breast can­cer two years ago. “We took her to In­dia for treat­ment, but it was al­ready too late. I wish we could have known sooner; maybe she would still be here today or at least suf­fered less than she did. We are from the in­ner is­lands and we have to work twice as hard just for ba­sics like health care. We had to bring her to Male’ and rent an apart­ment where my sis­ter Mariyam stayed with her for sev­eral months be­fore we even knew what was wrong with her. We took her to In­dia even­tu­ally and she was di­ag­nosed there. My fa­ther is old and can’t work any­more. He stays on the is­land with Mariyam, who works as a pri­mary school teacher. I have to take care of them be­cause they de­pend on me.”

I ask her what she is work­ing to­wards now. “I want to travel and see the world, I want to get a de­gree in hos­pi­tal­ity, so many things!” Her smile fades as she re­com­poses her face to a more se­ri­ous ex­pres­sion. “For all these things, I need more money than I have right now. My fam­ily means ev­ery­thing to me and I want to be able to take care of them first.” Most is­lands in the Mal­dives still do not have ad­e­quate med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties, and al­though most atolls have a cen­tral hos­pi­tal which peo­ple on nearby is­lands com­mute to, 99 per­cent of the na­tion is sea and the cost of trans­porta­tion is high and crit­i­cally de­pen­dent on the weather. These health cen­tres typ­i­cally lack ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties and are staffed with gen­eral doc­tors from In­dia. Med­i­cal tourism is the norm for hol­i­day sea­sons and those who can af­ford it go to neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. In peak sea­son Sarah leads the dive cen­tre at a seven-star re­sort, trav­el­ling through ev­ery shade of blue with mil­lion­aires and celebrities. In low sea­son she re­turns to her is­land tak­ing oc­ca­sional stints with lo­cal guest­houses cater­ing to bud­get hol­i­day mak­ers. “I can do many things.” She con­fi­dently sits up and looks me in the eye. “Some days I’m a wait­ress, some days I run the whole place but I’m will­ing to do what­ever it takes to make a bet­ter life for my­self.” The con­trast of her two worlds seems sur­real but she is cool and col­lected. She em­bod­ies all the qual­i­ties of a free woman stand­ing strong in her own con­vic­tion. Her charisma and ease in con­ver­sa­tion give no in­di­ca­tion of her trou­bles. With the no­tion of danger and raw­ness still bleed­ing through her words, she flashes a big smile and of­fers to show me around the mas­sive ves­sel. Look­ing at Male’ on the hori­zon my heart sinks in the re­al­i­sa­tion that be­hind the fa­cade of this fan­tasy play­ground; par­adise is never far from hell.

The high de­mand for prop­erty has cre­ated a sharp crease in the so­cial fab­ric of the coun­try. Years of cen­tralised development fo­cused on Male’ has led to the in­flux of peo­ple mi­grat­ing from in­ner is­lands in search of higher ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren and bet­ter-than-noth­ing health­care. For the youth there is lit­tle to do in Male’ and cof­fee cul­ture reigns supreme with trendy cafes at­tract­ing hip­ster teens and the work­ing class alike. Drug deal­ers and Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ists lurk in the nar­row roads and es­pe­cially around schools ever ready to open the gates to their spe­cific utopias for any­one in enough de­spair to try. Two ar­ti­fi­cially con­structed beaches for lo­cal use with a strict dress code leave lit­tle out­side a ca­sual dip in the water with in­suf­fi­cient cir­cu­la­tion and waste pipes on the rim of the recre­ation ar­eas.

Look­ing at Male’ on the hori­zon my heart sinks in the re­al­iza­tion that be­hind the fa­cade of this fan­tasy play­ground; par­adise is never far from hell.

Raal­hugandu, a pop­u­lar surf spot has been wiped clean to make way for a Chi­nese funded bridge be­tween Male’ and Hul­hule Air­port Is­land that con­nects to the sub­urb of Hul­hu­male’; an ar­ti­fi­cial is­land mod­elled on Sin­ga­pore. A place that is slowly be­com­ing a well-groomed favela in dis­guise, for those seek­ing re­lief from the weight of Male’.

The psy­cho­log­i­cal toll is hard and heavy and so­cial tol­er­ances have had to ex­pand to ac­com­mo­date the fury of peo­ple’s frus­tra­tion and de­pres­sion. Un­like the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of is­landers who grew up play­ing in the ocean and col­lect­ing shells by the beaches, chil­dren today have no space to play out­side; their par­ents are busy work­ing and are usu­ally left in the care of maids from Nepal or the Philip­pines. Ipads and Nin­tendo switches keep them oc­cu­pied be­tween their busy sched­ule of school and tu­ition classes.

Those who in­her­ited land on Male’ be­fore the in­flux have leased their homes long-term, and mi­grated for a bet­ter life to neigh­bour­ing coun­tries in Asia and else­where in the world. The gen­er­a­tion of in­tel­lec­tu­als who set sail for a west­ern ed­u­ca­tion in the ‘90s de­clined to re­turn, and in sim­i­lar fash­ion the younger gen­er­a­tion who get any op­por­tu­nity to es­cape choose not to re­turn to a na­tion rocked by po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, cli­mate change, re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism and eco­nomic hardships. Un­em­ploy­ment is high and doors only open with the right con­nec­tions and pedi­gree. Sur­vival in Male’ comes down to pure grit and sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion to do what­ever it takes to milk the hus­tle.

Of the many ironies that po­larise peo­ple’s pri­vate and pub­lic lives, the most painful one is how much they in­vest in their pub­lic im­age. With an ‘ev­ery­thing’s al­right’ at­ti­tude be­ing seen as do­ing well and able to af­ford small lux­u­ries like new gad­gets, beau­ti­ful cloth­ing and In­sta­grammable hol­i­days take prece­dence over the com­plex­i­ties of hous­ing. Suf­fer­ing is a very pri­vate af­fair.

In a small apart­ment in cen­tral Male’ I speak to Khad­heeja, 27 and a di­vorced mother of three small chil­dren. We sit un­der a tur­bu­lent ceil­ing fan in the thick hu­mid air laced with dust from the neigh­bour’s con­struc­tion site. Wip­ing away sweat from her face with her hi­jab she tells me she can­not af­ford to make rent on her own where she is or go back to live with her fam­ily as there is sim­ply no room in their rented apart­ment. She mar­ried her child­hood sweet­heart from the small is­land of Uli­gan in the north and moved to Male’ where he promised a bet­ter life for their young fam­ily. He left soon af­ter the birth of their third child when she did not agree to him tak­ing on a sec­ond wife. Khad­heeja’s mother sup­ports her by tak­ing care of the chil­dren for now while she goes to work but it is not enough, and she will need to find a way to get a sec­ond in­come to sup­port her house­hold. With the av­er­age na­tional salary at a mere US$350, liv­ing in­de­pen­dently is a dream for most. The av­er­age one-bed­room apart­ment costs over US$900 per month ex­clud­ing util­i­ties and is usu­ally shared by up to four to five peo­ple, some­times as many as 10 peo­ple within the ex­tended fam­ily may live in the mi­cro-apart­ments sleep­ing in shifts and split­ting the costs. Few are lucky to af­ford the means to live in­de­pen­dently af­ter mar­riage.

Al­most all food is im­ported, as there is no such agri­cul­tural in­dus­try, and with new fran­chises like Burger King and Pizza Hut creep­ing up on the shores, peo­ple choose west­ern junk food as a sign of af­flu­ence de­spite the heavy tax it has on the health of the younger gen­er­a­tion. Close liv­ing quar­ters has led to a com­plex so­cial dy­namic within fam­i­lies and among neigh­bours. Sex­ual abuse of chil­dren is preva­lent though still taboo and rarely talked about in pub­lic; zero pri­vacy, do­mes­tic dis­putes and di­vorce are a way of life here. Peo­ple grow up with a heavy em­pha­sis on land as a path to a bet­ter life, some­times go­ing as far as strate­gi­cally pick­ing a part­ner with land in­her­i­tance in Male’. Land own­er­ship or ed­u­ca­tion are the only paths to a se­cure fu­ture with lit­tle op­tion to new gate­ways for the youth. A cul­ture of get­ting mar­ried be­fore learn­ing to man­age fi­nances, emo­tions and so­cial pres­sures add to the many rea­sons that con­trib­ute to the high di­vorce rate. Al­though the Mal­dives has one of the

high­est di­vorce rates in the world, if you are a woman it is not easy to get a di­vorce un­der the Shariah law. It is a long, costly and painful process that leaves many women emo­tion­ally and fi­nan­cially vul­ner­a­ble and stig­ma­tized by in­cred­i­bly close-knit com­mu­ni­ties with lit­tle or no choice but to re-marry as soon as they can. It has also be­come com­mon for men to take up to three wives at once, a fairly new cus­tom that mi­grated to the his­tor­i­cally lib­eral isles with the golden hand of Mid­dle Eastern in­vest­ment and in­flu­ence in the past decade.

From the air, the is­lands glis­ten like jew­els spilled onto blue silk, but for the peo­ple who be­long to this salt­wa­ter par­adise— there is a grow­ing anx­i­ety for what the fu­ture holds. What was once a charis­matic Lego land of build­ings is now a minia­ture slum with sun-bleached paint and fa­tigued build­ings. As money gets tighter cos­metic re­pairs are the least of peo­ple’s wor­ries. It will take a long time if ever to fix the hous­ing cri­sis in the Mal­dives within the com­plex web of ed­u­ca­tion, health­care and a de­cent qual­ity of life. On the hori­zon, cranes move about as scaf­fold­ing is put up and taken down like a real-life hy­per-lapse. Taller, big­ger build­ings emerge ev­ery few months, the ground shakes as old homes are pul­verised to make way for new de­vel­op­ments. Land recla­ma­tion con­tin­ues so far out on to the edge of the reef that Male’ looks like it could sink into the deep blue that creeps up closer to it with ev­ery wave. Women like Khad­heeja and Sarah bear the brute force of end­less po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated poli­cies that linger in the shad­ows of one of the world’s most op­u­lent lux­ury hon­ey­moon des­ti­na­tions.

A early morn­ing women’s water aer­o­bics class by the ar­ti­fi­cially con­structed beach of Rans­fanu in Male’.

Saleema, mother of twelve stands out­side her closet-kitchen door in her bed­room. She lives with all her grown chil­dren who have sec­tioned out the prop­erty and made self-con­tained apart­ments within the main house. Each mi­cro stu­dio apart­ment houses a cou­ple and three to four chil­dren. Some­times, rel­a­tives from their is­lands who come to see the doc­tors in Male’ will stay here for a few weeks.

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