Aminath Dhahau Naseem: Maldiviana

What inspired you?

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My highschool had a program called Catalyst, where we basically focus on a project for a whole semester and then present it to an audience at the end. One thing we were encouraged to do is find problems in our community, nation, or world and think of solutions for them. I was the only Maldivian in my high school and living away from home made me feel disconnected with my culture. I reflected back on my childhood in the Maldives and noticed that I had a dislike for studying the history of the country. It was taught in such a mundane way in class, and I know for a fact many Maldivians alike myself were disconnecting more and more with the culture. I decided to combine this with a current issue in the country- female empowerment. I like to consider the Maldives a progressive country as we have a number of female leaders, especially in prominent positions such as members of the Parliament and Cabinet. However, with the sudden wave of Islamic radicalisation clashing with globalization in the country, there’s a battle between our culture, religion and progressive growth. Women are considered equal by law but there are still aspects in our society that hold certain expectations for them. I knew I wanted a project that would not only focus on the diminishing history of women in the country, but also one that would inspire current Maldivian women to reflect back on our ancestors and realize how far we’ve come, and how much more we’re capable of.

Explain how your project came about/your work

My book starts off with an introduction of the Maldives with travel reports by foreign travellers, followed by 12 of the most prominent historical figures, 1o folklore stories orally passed down for centuries recorded by Xavier Romero-Frias, and finally a photo gallery of 8 Maldivian women in different traditional dresses by C. W. Rosset in the 1800s and Moosa Ismail in modern-times. My mentor during the project was Naseema Mohamed, a renowned female historian in the country. She’s extremely experienced in the field and her work about Maldivian history was a big inspiration for my work. She told me stories about how powerful Maldivian women were portrayed negatively in history because male historians wanted to discourage women from looking up to them. Many stories, including the infamous Bureki Ranin who supposedly killed a number of men to become queen in the 1500s, were based off empty assumptions. This motivated me to research extensively and fact-check all my sources. At any point during the research period, I’d be analyzing at least 3 history books and a number of foreign travel documents. She also helped me translate loamaafaanu, copper plates from the 12th century and learn eveylaa, the oldest form of Maldivian scripture.  The book is truly a combination of Maldivian female talent. The graphic layout was done by Zara Fayaz, an upcoming illustrator and graphic artist in the country and the artworks were done by the extremely talented Fathimath Mahy, Mariyam Shany Ahmed, Ruby Fazal, Zami Yazeed and Zura Wafir. It was important for me to work with only women for this project (except the established folklore stories and photo gallery) because I truly wanted this to be an embodiment of how much women are capable of. It was such an incredible opportunity to work with all of them; their artworks are individualistic and ultimately contributed to such a unique combination I’m proud to be part of.

How long have you been doing this project/work? What made you decide to do it?

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I started the project in the beginning of my senior year. I finished the research and layout of the book in time for my presentation, but I held back publishing it until I graduated. It was a lot of work, especially because I wasn’t in the Maldives for majority of the time period. I struggled with getting in contact with publishers because of both the distance and time difference. There were a lot of misunderstandings, so it was just better for me to wait until I was back home for summer. Once I did publish it, I got tons of positive responses. A lot of Maldivian girls messaged me about how much they enjoyed learning from the book and how empowered they felt. I also received feedback from non-Maldivians, which I didn’t expect because my target audience was more nation-based. Many of them were from developing countries like the Maldives, were passionate about their own culture and was inspired by my book to contribute greatly. My purpose for the project was to inspire people, and I’m ecstatic to know I achieved it. 

Explain more about yourself and your interests

This is the hardest question, haha. I guess I’ve always been passionate about feminism and culture. I volunteered a lot for women’s groups in both the Maldives and Singapore, and I’m continuing my volunteer work here in New York City. I travelled a lot when I was younger, and getting to experience that from such a young age + living abroad made me realize how important it is for me to embrace my culture. My family emphasizes a lot on charity, especially as Muslims I’d say Islam encourages us to help and guide those who are less fortunate than us. Recognizing privilege is one thing but acting on it is a whole other level. I guess I’m more drawn to gender-based and cultural work because I am a woman of color and I’ve experienced the discrimination first-hand. While this isn’t what I intend to make a career out of, I will continue to research and publish more about Maldivian culture/history as a hobby.

How does your heritage affect your work?

One of my aunts was actually the first woman in the country to ride a motorbike, and my other aunt wore ripped jeans and blasted rock music in her youth in the Maldives at a time when it was heavily frowned upon. Having grown up around both my conservative grandparents who forbad me to even wear nail polish and my aunt who swore relentlessly (I still remember the obscenity ringing in my ears from 10 years ago!), it gave me a unique intake on Maldivian traditions and upbringing. As much as I found it interesting listening to and abiding with my grandma about how religious obligations are intertwined with Maldivian culture, I also love the idea of a different and more evolved society. A lot of Maldivians from the elder generation criticize the current generation about how “westernized” we are now, but they fail to remember how their generation faced the same thing at our age. Every generation is different and we’re always moving slightly towards a more progressive nation as a whole, but I truly believe preserving and embracing our culture would take us further. The Maldives has a population of only 400,000 people (⅓ of this being temporary foreign workers), and a unique culture mixed with East African, Arabic, Indian and Sri Lankan traditions. It’s incredible to me how the country stayed as a pacifist symbol in times of war and continue to do so today. I’m extremely proud to be Maldivian, and to me there’s nothing more patriotic than continuing to advocate for the preservation of our culture.

Zehra Naqvi