The Country of Contradictions
“It must be cool to walk around freely in a bikini,” a friend from home sent me this after I told her I moved to Maldives recently. This was before I reactivated my account so they didn’t really have a visual of my life.
“No, I’m pretty much covered here.”
At first, it was exciting to explain the disparity between the city and the island resorts. But as I explained it to more and more people, I started to absorb the absurdity of this all, especially that the gap mostly affects expat females like me.
You see, Maldives is a great contradiction in itself as it offers two extremely opposing worlds to women who seek shelter here – one where we are free to be who we are, and one where we are taken back to decades of objectification and gender inequality.
Maldives is positioning itself to be an island sanctuary in the Indian Ocean where all your exotic desires are possible. Breakfast floats in front of you while you’re submerged on an exclusive pool overlooking the ocean. A villa with retractable roof so you can stargaze on the comforts of your own bed, a private plane that lands on blue waters, heck you can even hire your personal butlers, chefs, and spa therapists – name it, you’ll get it.
Here, whatever race, gender, or age you’re in, you are away from the stresses of the ordinary world. Ladies can drink as much, be with someone or by themselves, make friends, and walk around freely in a bikini without anyone batting an eye.
This is why it’s so easy to be lured by the lavish promise of this country. Just drop everything, live the island life with no news and no shoes. Maldives is the dream. It’s even too good to be true.
But you know what they say. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
When I arrived, the airport was bustling with tourists getting leis and being directed to nearby speedboats. They were off to the world I mentioned above, while I was off to the opposite.
Malé City has slightly taken me aback by its congestion, and basically, the city being one enormous parking lot. This chaos did not make it to any article or material I’ve read about Maldives, and for a good reason. But what surprised me most, as a woman, was how my business seemed to be everyone’s business.
I always get unsolicited advice on what to wear, what time should I be home, the choice of friends, and even what to do on my free time. Don’t get me wrong; I pride myself for being an adaptable person. Being mindful of my surroundings and flexible to the culture is not new to me. When my former employer told me, in a serious manner, not to befriend fellow expats because “these people only know how to waste money on parties,” I took note of it but still cautiously made friends.
One night, few of these friends walked alongside me after dinner and behold, I was subject of office gossip the next day! The stories ranged from “Erica already has a boyfriend within just a month in Maldives” to “Erica took a man inside her room.” It was crazy! I was then given a lecture that my reputation affects the company so I “should not be seen with other men” despite the explanation that those people were just friends. Suffice to say, I didn’t stay long in that company.
Among the many exciting things that an expat looks forward when migrating is the anonymity that a new city offers. Unfortunately, I could not enjoy that in Malé. There’s always someone watching and judging. Honestly, I did not care until the moment my professional reputation was put at unnecessary risk.
However, this does not only affect expat women. Even local females go through the same struggle of weighing up what others might think. This kind of mindset shrinks a woman’s confidence and makes us second guess our individual identities.
What’s interesting is that men, expats and locals alike, do not find themselves in this predicament. They are free to roam, make friends, and be home late without any repercussions.
While the rest of the world are offering their women with liberty and empowerment, instilling the mindset that we are not subjected to anyone but to ourselves – a privilege mostly available to men – a part of Maldives needs to catch up. Otherwise, it can just take example from within: the numerous resorts inside the country offering women a chance to be free and indulge.
Unless when they said Maldives is “paradise”, either they only meant the private islands or only for a certain type of gender.