Statement on Maldivian Religious Freedom Part One by Ufa Flees

In this statement by Ufa Flees, she explains how she became a target of Islamist hatred, and her experience of living on a small Maldivian island with a target on her back.

How did the religious bullying begin?

It all started with the clothes I wore, mostly for showing my arms, neck, knees and legs. Negative attention was first targeted at romantic pictures with my ex-husband. People told us its un-Islamic to post pictures of us hugging and kissing each other on the cheeks on Facebook. 

We both are from different islands and one of his childhood friends even asked him why he was sharing naked pictures of his wife on social media. I was only showing my bare arms in that picture. Turned out he belongs to a religious construction group.

In Maldives some religious groups run islamic educational camps on uninhabited islands for youth and construction workers building resorts.

How did bullying escalate to threats? 

It began when I started expressing irreligious opinions on social crimes on Facebook. Most social issues are linked to economic inequality and traditional values based on cultural religious beliefs. Some of my most hated posts were related to children’s rights, abortion rights, forced hijab, gender inequality and religious discrimination against non-Muslims and homosexuals. 

When did the situation get serious? 

In January 2019 “Siru Arts”, a Facebook page run by an extremist with a big religious following (40k+) labeled me irreligious. 

On the same day Vaguthu Online, the most read online news website in Maldives posted an inaccurate and exaggerated translation of a short piece I wrote a month before. They called the article “‘Majuboorun’ muslimakkah vegen ulhey dhivehi anhenaku, faalhugai dheenaa dhekolhu ethah vaahaka eh fathuranee” (Woman who is “forced” to be Muslim is openly making and promoting all kinds of anti-religious blasphemous statements) [Archived Link]. They also added my blurred picture accusing me of mocking islamic values. They wrote I didn’t believe in superstitions like black magic (fanditha) and evil eye (nazar) mentioned in the Quran. They insisted that a true Muslim wont characterise the Maldives as having enforced islamic beliefs by force, despite the fact that no one is allowed to leave islam in the Maldives.

Being labeled as irreligious or #laadheenee will qualify anyone for threats and warnings in the Maldives.

Being publicly threatened on social media and made infamous on the news wasn’t even the worst part. They did this to me while I was living on a small island where everyone knows my family, where I live, who I hung out with, etc.

I stopped talking to people except for a few trusted friends as I feared that I would be lynched. It took me months before I could risk being seen in public, and that too only after I started carrying a knife to protect myself with. 

The pressure to pretend to be religious is extreme in the Maldives. Long before I was labeled in the news I was constantly being asked by family and friends to not post my so called un-islamic opinions on social issues. 

My ex-husbands colleagues kept complaining to him about me. His family never liked me showing my arms, neck and legs even though I used to post pictures taken only with him or family, never alone. For almost a year he threatened to leave me unless I stopped expressing my opinions, and I almost completely did so. He eventually left me anyway.

By then islamists were obsessed with me and the religious people in my community were watching me closely, so they always found a way to label my online posts as irreligious.

I felt helpless, as if I was their Muslim puppet and didn’t see a reason to be on social media so there were a few times where I temporarily deactivated my accounts. My ex-husband wasn’t happy about this because he liked showing me off as his puppet wife.

It became difficult for me to stay quiet. Everything I said to defend my “un-Islamic” clothes or opinion was being labelled as blasphemy. 

My ex openly used to mock islamic values and made fun of my friends who wore hijab and called their clothes firefighter kits. He said this because hijabi girls have to layer when trying trendy clothes.

He spent his nights liking random bikini girls pictures on Instagram but I wasn’t allowed to even wear tops that would show my tummy only when I throw my arms up. He didn’t want me to wear hijab either. 

He called me crazy when I talked about gender issues and didn’t believe gender inequality is real.

I lost respect for my ex-husband when he said I wasn’t allowed to talk about rape on social media even if it happened to me or any future children we might have.

The first few years of our marriage I had to buy condoms because every time someone came inside the pharmacy when he was trying to buy some, he would get scared and leave. I should have left him back then before wasting 8 years with him. I did love him even though I cheated on him. Condoms, sex, abortion, etc are still taboo topics in the Maldives.

He wasn’t religious but religious culture was demanded from us.

Being trolled on Facebook pages for being irreligious changed my everyday relationship with others. Life would never be the same. Every time we had a meaningful conversation my ex started warning me I shouldn’t discuss intelligent controversial topics on social media. Him and my family kept repeatedly reminding me underprivileged people like us don’t have the luxury to speak up on risky issues but they didn’t want me to leave social media either.

My ex kept warning me that underprivileged people like us can’t afford to be discriminated against when we have links to religious communities. He feared his friends were already treating him differently because of my irreligious opinions.

I almost stopped posting because of the pressure I was getting but it wasn’t enough. I was still being attacked and most people victim blamed me for the hatred that was being directed towards me.

After being together for 9 years, my ex left me while I was still getting death threats. 

Online stalking, with people looking for reasons to bully me, continued. I deactivated my social media accounts but when my phone broke I didn’t have contacts of anyone so I reactivated it.

Maldives police were silent on islamic extremism when I was being attacked for saying things like firihen kulhi (slur for gay men) is a common word used for bullying boys. I had to say it when someone commented that if I had a gay kid they would kill them on a post I shared about letting children do what they want (no religious content). I was a pretend Muslim back then.

Maldivian human rights NGOs

Six months after I was labeled irreligious on the news, some extremists started attacking the police commissioner, his NGO and former president with the religion card. It was only when these elites got in trouble did this NGO ask me to email them the threats I had received. I told them everything is public and they can use it. 

NGOs in Maldives can’t be trusted especially when it comes to religious freedom because they never talk about the lack of religious freedom in the Maldives.

Elites abuse religious values to get jobs from the UN using stories of underprivileged irreligious like us getting attacked but they never publicly discuss the lack of religious freedom in the Maldives. 

The Police commissioner was involved in that democracy promoting NGO that was being attacked with the irreligious label in August and September 2019. They needed me to sacrifice as a scapegoat to make the extremists happy. They knew I couldn’t afford lawyers and defaming me would help them look good and they could even exploit my activist reputation for their NGO work on UN reports and for their own job applications.

Human Rights NGO staff are independent businesses so they don’t owe supporting religious freedom to Maldivian apostates. However police and the government elites shouldn’t be spreading hate against the irreligious by telling Muslims they will not welcome apostasy in the Maldives. 

The UN should investigate Maldivian presidents, politicians, clerics and the police elites for supporting hate crimes against apostates and violating human rights. I don’t support this government mostly because they are stealing money from the poor and they have laws that discriminate against poor activists like me.

Democracy NGO elites and politicians tell foreigners they support human rights but with the locals they call enforced islam on all citizens a Maldivian birth right.

In October 2019 when the police started investigating me I was taking a break, focused on making YouTube videos on poor living conditions in the Maldives.

In 2019, the current government even supported child marriage allowing a minor to marry a politician in his forties because he’s involved in their politics. And I don’t know where to begin with stories of their endless corruption.

When Forum Asia affiliated elites couldn’t exploit me in August after I declined to email them the threats I had received or take help, they then decided to investigate me for blasphemy in October. This forced me to take help from them because they were getting hate attacks. At this point my old FB account had already been on private since February 2019.

In the beginning when I was hesitant the NGO told me they could get my electronics back, but a month later in November after they took me to Thailand they tried to coerce me to make blasphemous god mocking videos, by telling me that way they can get my electronics back. I lost trust.

Later I found out these NGO elites needed police documents of my confiscated electronics to show to foreign organisations that they were helping those accused of blasphemy. Despite calling themselves human rights defenders they have never supported religious freedom publicly but uses it to get UN jobs and money by making reports on accused like me, after putting my life in danger with the police investigation while I was living on a small island. Elites got what they wanted by defaming me. They needed extremists to focus on me so they would receive less hate.

Spreading hatred

In September 2019, I posted my first YouTube video talking about poor living conditions on my island and the Maldives. A few days later a Facebook page Filikoalhi shared part of it accusing me of mocking god even though I didn’t talk about religion at all in the video. 

When people pointed that out they then posted a screenshot of me tweeting (3 months before) that I like Juha’s page. Juha’s page was being mass reported for blasphemy at the time but when I tweeted it the page posted mixed memes of all kinds and had 8k+ followers.

These screenshots were widely shared on viber groups. This resulted in my moms friends and distant relatives living in different islands contacting her and me to check if it was true.

The thing with islamists is they don’t just attack the irreligious. They attack liberal muslims and moderate muslims too. It’s impossible to ignore islamists when you are poor and have to share public spaces with them. They would blame you for watching cartoons  because they believe angels won’t come to their house when neighbours live a harami life.

Islamists would bully kids for getting fashionable haircuts or wearing trendy western clothes as they believe that it is against islamic belief to enjoy worldly fun and entertainment. 

Praying for rain

The Maldives is a country with not much land surface, about 99 percent of our country is ocean. Except for the capital Male’ City in the North Central Province where many people from all over the country are spread over three islands, other inhabited islands are peopled by residents that belong to just that island. Very few outsiders live in the community so it is tightly knit and everyone knows each other. This exposes people labeled as irreligious to serious threats from islamists. 

I am from the capital island of my atoll. It is one of the more developed islands. The Maldives has twenty-six atolls and in each atoll there are about six inhabited islands out of which only two islands will usually have a bank and a hospital. Some islands won’t even have a single nurse, it is that underfunded. 

The government tries their best to keep Maldivians from understanding the outside world. Most people in the islands still don’t know its the government’s responsibility to provide basic necessities like decent housing, affordable food and water. 

The government uses islam to send the ignorant to pray for rain when they fail to provide water and other basic needs. Even last year my island community held a special prayer for rain when it was the dry season and we ran out of stored rain water. 

This presidency isn’t religious but needs religion to take advantage of poor believers. It’s an easy way to escape after robbing the poor so the religious won’t demand politicians to do what they are paid to do. The religious are told to be thankful for their miserable lives as part of belief in god.

All these years governments didn’t care about religious intolerance when it was the poor getting threats for religious reasons. Governments manipulate islamic sentiments to get away with corruption. 

In recent years jihad trips were trending and parents were fighting to bring back their loved ones from war zones. The government decided to ban islamists from going to jihadi wars without educating them on coexisting. So when they returned, they focused on hunting irreligious within Maldives to sacrifice for islam as a shortcut to heaven. 

Whenever authorities and elites get extra hate poor like me are put in danger, exposing me to hate to get the negative attention away from them.

Authorities only take actions against crimes like child rape or terrorism, even when there is public outrage, when elite lives are at risk.

Underprivileged people like me are treated as expendable. Only existing so human rights activists can exploit us to get jobs from the UN with reports of our murder, but never talk about the threats we receive while we are alive. Maldivian human rights activists have never defended the right to religious freedom in Maldives.

Follow Ufa on instagram at @humanistnomad and @ufaflees, and on twitter @ufaflees

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