Banished to Paradise
A trip home reunites a student with her brother—and the country that sent him away.
The end of the dry season always brought scorching heat to the Maldives. In the capital city Malé’s southwest harbor, sleek fiberglass boats shimmered in the hazy heat, their outboard engines hanging from their sterns into the dirty waters. A small skiff passed between the rows of boats, carrying two full dustbins and a man wielding a hoop net. He was scooping up yet more plastic from the water. I stood in the meager shade of a stunted hirundhu tree, waiting to board the ferry that would take my brother Aiman and me to Goidhoo, an island located roughly 60 miles northwest of Malé.
As Aiman drove up on his enormous Pulsar motorbike, I heard passengers on the pavement muttering, “Is that Aiman?” Aiman was thin, fair-skinned, and had a mop of curls arranged strategically to hide his bald spot. His bike was more suited for a long highway than Malé’s packed streets and looked out of place among the smaller, tamer Wave scooters that most people in the city owned.
Three years had passed since Aiman returned from his banishment to Goidhoo. In 2007, when he was 20, he had been sentenced to a year on the island for having a child out of wedlock. Aiman’s girlfriend, June, who later became his wife, was confined to house arrest in Malé. It was a difficult time; my parents refused to even talk to him because of the shame he had brought on the family. I was eager to go to Goidhoo and meet the family that had taken my brother in and cared for him when his own blood shunned him.
He shook more than a dozen hands and called out hellos to many others as he walked over to me.
“Where’s Inni?” I asked, enquiring after his four-year-old daughter.
“She’s very angry with me for not bringing her along,” he said.
“Well, why didn’t you?”
“June was afraid of stigma . . . what people might say about Inni,” he said, the faint lines around his eyes deepening for a few seconds. I followed Aiman onto the ferry. Nearly 40 people crowded onto the small speedboat. Aiman sat across the aisle from me and plugged in his earphones.
A salty breeze blew through the large windows as the boat picked its way through the lagoon, careful not to get its propellers caught in the mooring lines strewn across the harbor. As we passed through the harbor’s mouth, the engines sped up, the powerful propellers churning a white frothy path through the deep, blue ocean. The wind whipped my hair into my face and droplets of spray landed on my arm. Malé’s concrete skyline diminished steadily on the horizon. The ferry sped past Malé atoll’s luxurious tourist resorts. The small islands were dwarfed by their colonies of thatch-roofed water bungalows, fanned out in the turquoise lagoons. In the interior of the atoll ring, protected from the deep sea, the water was smooth and glassy, its blue surface disturbed only by flying fish.
Three days earlier, I had met Adam Saeed, a former criminal court judge. I was interested in the history of banishment in the Maldives. Saeed had served as a judge for 22 years. He told me that the legal system, based on a combination of common law and Islamic Shari’a, gave judges wide discretion in conferring punishment. Regardless of the crime, a judge could sentence offenders to jail, banishment, house arrest, or impose a fine. Judges often preferred banishment to imprisonment, especially in cases of child sexual-abuse and fornication. Even over the past decade, banishment consistently made up over 20 percent of sentence types.
“To be banished means to live in a community that is not yours, without the freedom to leave,” he said. “The government designated certain communities for banishment. They were small, isolated communities that are far from internal trade routes.” Exiles were expected to fend for themselves in the communities they were sent to.
“Now Goidhoo—that was the island people were banished to. It is large, out of the way, but still quite close to Malé,” Saeed said.
Until the advent of modern telecommunications and travel, Maldives’s geographical fragmentation had made banishment an effective punishment. The country lay on an underwater mountain range called the Laccadive-Chagos Ridge, off the west coast of India. Its 1,190 islands, grouped inside 26 ring-shaped reefs called atolls, are strewn from north to south over 500 miles in the Indian Ocean. The atolls are separated from each other by deep narrow channels. Traveling from island to island even within one atoll can be perilous, due to treacherous reefs, numerous sandbanks, rock outcroppings, and strong currents.
The popularity of banishment started declining only in 2006. Until then, the number of people banished was far greater than the number of people jailed. That year, for the first time, the number of people banished started to decline in relation to jailed prisoners. “Communities just wouldn’t accept criminals,” Saeed said. “They lived in fear. Could not sleep for fear of theft, boats were no longer safe in the harbors.” When communities refused to care for exiles, some exiles spent weeks on the beach, starving, unable to find work or a family to take them in.
Saeed also said a huge public outcry had ensued in 2007 over the growing numbers of reported child-abuse cases. The public started demanding a harsher punishment than banishment for sex offenders. Goidhoo was among one of the first islands that brought the issue of child-abuse to national attention. “In the majority of cases, sex offenders repeat their actions in the communities they are banished to. Now they are jailed instead of being banished,” he said.
Nevertheless, Saeed believes banishment was a good practice, especially in minor crimes. “Also in some cases, when educated people are banished, they have brought positive changes to the communities. These types of people are not criminals. They are people who make mistakes.”