Shame is a disciplinary policy employed by South Asian matriarchs the world over. My grandmothers certainly went to town with it. Whenever they felt they had to admonish their children/grandchildren for wearing a piece of clothing, or behaving in a way which they thought would bring negative public attention to the family, the phrase, ‘ladheh ves nuganeytha’/‘Have you no shame’ would be snapped at the individual in question. We laughed off the reprimands at our fashionably ripped jeans, but responded angrily when our participation in anti government protests were met with questions laced in this discourse of shame. ‘Keekeyhey meehun hithah araanee’/’What will people think? In the case of the protests, the point was precisely to make people think.
In small island communities such as ours where everyone knows everyone’s business, discipline used to be communal trade. You knew you couldn’t sneak out of the house without the dhatha next door ratting you out. Public naming and shaming was potent enough to carry reprisals way beyond the individual. Politically, members of the public who had fallen out of the ruler’s favour, or those who had to be made an example of, became targets of state orchestrated ridicule. Aside from psychologically traumatising many a child, this treatment also served to suppress dissent, at least for another year or two.
The idea of shame characterising public behaviour in the age of the selfie may be considered out dated or even restrictive, but I confess, there are many moments in Maldives when the only response I can think of is have they no shame? Judges exposed in flagrante , civil servants publicly accused of sexual harassment who then go on to be appointed as diplomats, blatant corruption by public officials, typo ridden Government press statements, everyday racism, and abysmal records of disservice to the populace. How do public officials not care what the public think?
What has changed in our society that allows for public officials to flaunt their ill-gotten wealth, post it on Instagram and filter it in the words of public service? Why is it cool to become a knife-wielding teenager whose first recourse is to threat, bribe and assault someone? How is it not shameful to have a man who has done nothing in his life other than buy his way into power as our current Vice President? At what point in our culture is it acceptable to punch a migrant worker for a minor mishap on the road? Do these individuals not have anyone in their lives willing to bring them down a peg or two? The established institutions certainly won’t.
Maybe the real answer is that not enough has changed. Maybe the idea of shamelessness is far more concentrated on outward appearances rather than individual action. It has often been the case that a large majority of Maldivians are more enamoured by the appearance of professionalism than professionalism itself. It’s what drives the comments of people who decry the behaviour of MPs who disrupt Majlis or protesters who disrupt traffic, but turn a blind eye to large-scale corruption. Or, perhaps, in an authoritarian state, naming and shaming is only effective in the hands of an oppressor. Public examples are still only made of individuals who are considered a threat to the dominance of the state.
It could also be that the public just don’t take it far enough. I confess, ingrained societal niceties do play a role in this. My friend asked me the other day why I’d greeted a man who’d recently taken up a job defending the Yaameen Government’s legal infractions. He questioned me on why I acknowledged this individual who I used to know, but who was now embroiled in the muck of this Government. I blamed my grandmother. It would have been rude not to say hello. I later wondered if shunning him would have made a difference? Maybe that’s the failure in our attempts to name and shame. We don’t call out hypocrisy enough. We don’t call out corruption enough. We don’t call out harassment enough. Or we don’t do it in an arena that has greater consequences than twitter. We don’t go far enough.
Last Saturday, one of the phrases I heard in response to the Police’s disruption of the #SuvaaluMarch- marking 1 year since the disappearance of Minivan News journalist, Ahmed Rilwan, was have they no shame? For many who were present that day, the Police’s offensive disruption was shocking. Looking back, I berate my self for being shocked at the actions of an institution which in the last three years has been nothing but distasteful, especially in relation to the #FindMoyameehaa case. On a day that was already fraught with heightened emotion, for a handful of Policemen to brazenly bully a grieving family in the middle of Male’ was a new low. For a state institution to claim that a small group of people walking in silence in memory of a missing son was disrupting traffic, while the Government had turned the entire city upside down on a new whimsical policy of roadwork was mind boggling.
Many were outraged by the Police’s pepper spraying of the #SuvaaluMarch. In fact, the police’s response was symptomatic of their treatment of the entire investigation. Apart from calling out the Police for their barbarism, – which was of course deemed shameless by pro government media outlets – it took great courage and strength of character for the #SuvaaluMarch to keep going. The very fact that it went on in spite of the Police’s multiple attempts to disrupt it was I believe the strongest example of naming and shaming the public have given the state in many months. It showed that not every injustice will be tolerated, and that not every slight will be overlooked. More than anything, it demonstrated the continuing shameful role of the Police in exacerbating a family’s inexplicable grief. Perhaps some of this filtered down to the Police, as they did not dare defend themselves as they usually do in a pompous post incident press statement. Perhaps it filtered down to the wider public, of which many chose to act as bystanders, but will hopefully join in next time.
As a collective we should be racked with shame with many of the things that are currently taking place in our society. Disappeared journalists, the return of political prisoners, murdered MPs, systematic injustice, and gross misuse of public funds – ladheh nuganeytha? Have you no shame? I do.