Stories of sexual harassment, assault and violence against women and girls is not unusual in Dhivehi society. In fact, it is the undeniable norm. Everyone knows about some girl or woman who has been subject to one or multiple instances of gender-based violence over their lifetime. Their stories are passed through our social circles in an ever expanding cascade, but not always because these stories or the victims are believed. Therein lies the crux of the story that I am about to tell you.
This story is about Navaanavai endorsed independent candidate Ahmed Mohamed. Commonly known as Forme, he is contesting for the Dh. Kudahuvadhoo seat in the upcoming parliamentary election on 6 April 2019 (this Saturday). Over the past few days Dhivehi social media has been abuzz with allegations of grooming, harassment and sexual assault involving Forme.
Here is a timeline documenting the emergence of these allegations.
28 March 2019 – Dhivehi twitter user @Burakashi says that he is no longer supporting Forme after being directly contacted by a victim who was sexually assaulted by Forme.
28 March 2019 – @NaaRishana, another independent candidate endorsed by Navaanavai, contesting for Maafannu Medhu constituency releases a statement saying that she believes the victims and trusts Navaanavai to do the right thing.
29 March 2019 – Navaanavai releases a statement expressing zero tolerance for sexual harassment. They then asked victims to come forward and send statements to the general Navaanavai email address. It is in no way made clear how anonymity will be maintained or who will be viewing the messages. Just exactly how these sensitive emails will be filtered through the Navaanavai email address and how parties with a conflict of interest in this case will be prevented from accessing them is unclear. It is also preposterous to expect victims to create themselves an anonymous email account just so they can give their statements. As will be made clear by the end of this article any victim who approaches Navaanavai is simply opening themselves up for more harassment from Navaanavai members who are hellbent on defending their organisation at all costs.
29 March 2019 – Forme releases a statement on Twitter addressing the allegations against him. Unsurprisingly he categorically denied all accusations using the universal lingo of sleazy men everywhere. At the end of his statement he says he is sorry IF his actions were interpreted as harassment. The fact that this statement was written in Dhivehi is a deliberate act by Forme to make it harder for non-Dhivehi speakers to find out about this. This is a tactic used by everyone from extremists to sleazy politicians, as well as people with aspirations to become sleazy politicians.
29 March 2019 – Twitter user @uzynaseem comes forward with her story about Forme harassing her through multiple channels, including over the phone and on various social media. This is despite her deliberately ignoring him.
30 March 2019 – Forme’s long-term partner and key Navaanavai member Maurifa reveals that she had been aware of allegations as early as 2018.
30 March 2019 – Later that day, Maurifa tweets that she is going door-to-door with Navaanavai candidate Rishana, who re-tweets it from her own account casting doubt on the credibility of her earlier statement about believing victims and Navaanavai’s commitment to an impartial investigation. At this point it is still not clear who will be reading the emails Navaanavai receives or what the investigation process will involve.
Since the allegations surfaced dumpster fires have been popping up on twitter touting all manner of conspiracy theories (anti-campaigning, revenge), sympathising with Forme and questioning the credibility of the accusations and the accusers. The alternative to indulging in this bonfire of the vanities seeking to extricate themselves from complicity and raising questions of credibility or minimising claims is to simply believe the young women.
One of the most widely held beliefs or myths about violence against women is that women and girls make false claims about sexual assault, harassment, domestic violence and other forms of violence committed against them. This is hardly the case. False claims of sexual assault (regardless of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation) are rare. Such myths and beliefs are reinforced by existing prejudices and attitudes within society in relation to gendered expectations and gender stereotypes.
Other myths that foster a culture of apathy, doubt and dismissal of disclosures of violence include:
- Gender stereotyping, such as the notion that men and women have different characteristics or that men should control the decision making in a relationship. Societies where gender stereotyping is more accepted have higher levels of violence against women.
- The stranger danger myth or the idea that women and men are most likely to be sexually assaulted in public by a stranger. This contributes to women and men being less likely to report sexual assault by someone known to them because they fear being disbelieved or feel that they have encouraged the perpetrator in some way.
- The belief that there is nothing wrong with sexist jokes, harassment, inappropriate or suggestive comments and gestures, and similar related behaviours. Agreement with and condoning of sexist attitudes and behaviours is the biggest predictor of a persons support of violence committed by men. Anything short of standing up to such behaviours and holding individuals and society accountable sends the message that this kind of behaviour is acceptable.
- The myth that any form of victimisation can be prevented by the victim simply saying no or leaving a violent situation. Leaving a situation of victimisation is never easy and it is false to assume that women and girls choose to stay in such situations voluntarily. In fact, by focusing on the responsibility of the victim in dealing with the violence they experience, we are shifting the blame away from the perpetrator responsible for the violence committed. Violence is never the victim’s fault.
Find out more myths about violence here.
These are all reasons why we should believe women, or anyone else who discloses experiences of violence for that matter. This is why I chose to believe the young women and their allies who have come out with what they know. However, the manner in which the allegations against Forme were received, questioned, dismissed or altogether unacknowledged by Forme’s friends and associates in civil society organisations, Navaanavai, and by self-proclaimed “Human Rights Defenders” and others indicate otherwise.
Note: The following excerpts were obtained and published with the full consent of victims. I have no obligation to disclose any of my sources to a third party and I refuse to respond to any such requests. My priority is believing in, and supporting my sources who have placed their trust in me. These are a fraction of the original statement received. Many withdrew their statements after seeing the hostile reaction of Forme’s friends and allies. They did not want to become their targets. They did not want to have to explain themselves to people who clearly do not have their best interest at heart.
“I have known Forme since I was 18. He was my senior at Transparency Maldives when I interned there, and I respected and looked up to him as a leading human rights defender.”
“It happened at the office. He was standing in front of me talking to me when I noticed he was playing with his genitals. It looked like he was adjusting his penis around in his pants all the while making eye contact and talking to me. At the time I thought it was a weird thing for a colleague to do that in front of another colleague.”
“My friend also worked as an intern for Transparency Maldives as a minor. Forme was her supervisor, and he knew I was friends with her and would ask me about how she was doing. After she stopped working for him, he told me how attractive he found the minor and talk about plans to see her after she turned 18. He also expressed disappointment she was dating someone else.”
“He crossed a boundary when he published paintings of nudes of a former girlfriend on his instagram months after they broke up, without her permission, while she was in a relationship with someone else. When she asked him to take it down, he got defensive saying it was art, but he took it down immediately.”
“During a work function Forme kept making lewd faces at me. He kept winking at me and licking his lips and also making smooching faces at me. His girlfriend was sitting next to him when it happened. I felt uncomfortable and bothered throughout the whole thing. I avoided looking at his general direction and deliberately avoided making eye contact with him. Whenever I looked in his general direction he would make those faces at me. The people who saw him doing it just shrugged at me and laughed nervously. I was quite young then and because of the environment in which it happened I didn’t know what to think of it back then. I know better now.”
“Once, during a trip for a workshop, in a room full of people, I was having a conversation with Forme when he reached over and put his hand down my cleavage. This was done without prompting or permission – he did it while we were surrounded by people, which confused me. I did not know what to call what he was doing – assault. He was inebriated at the time. Later when he found out I had disclosed the incident to others he went around calling his colleagues telling them he only touched my cheek. ”
“Forme handed me a soda mixed with alcohol. He did not tell me that there was alcohol in the drink. I only knew after I took a few sips and felt a burning sensation in my body.”
“Wherever Forme worked, there were jokes about Forme’s girls and Forme’s favourite interns. It was a culture that was enabled by all those around him. He did what he did openly – no one called him out on it and everyone seemed to be in on the game.”
Statement from (redacted)
No I DON’T feel supported. In fact, I feel like I’ve been let down again. After I came out on Twitter about how people engaged with Forme on Twitter, I feel worse. I haven’t been able to focus on my studies the past couple of days cos of this. I didn’t want to do this. I did it cos when Burakashi first talked about Forme’s story, I saw certain people jump on the bandwagon with “#BelieveHer” and that made me infuriated cos they knew about his behavior way before this, after I had told them previously and was reassured that it was INDEED harassment.
When I was telling other people there was a moment where I doubted myself and said: “Maybe it’s not harassment, am I over analyzing this?” And I was told: “No, it’s very difficult for me to hear you say that”. I GAVE Forme the benefit of the doubt, but it was constant messaging over a good couple of months. He creeped me out to the point where I told my friends here about how “there was a middle-aged dude who’s messaging me even though I haven’t opened his messages”. He also made comments about how my friends looked on Snapchat to the point where I freaked out and blocked him from viewing my stories. (her friends were 19-22)
The reactions have disappointed me more than anything. People are undermining me on social media and I haven’t responded to their tweets cos I don’t want to engage at the moment — it’s a lot of he said, she said.
I felt harassed by him. I told people about this. When I saw people engaging with him on Twitter afterwards, I vented out my frustrations to people about how ridiculous it was — how I was made a fool out of. After I came to Male’ also Forme messaged me. “Kobaa are you in Male” once around 1 AM.
I rang my mom that night and told her “ingey hey Forme, beyruga ulhunu iruves message kuri ey”. I FELT harassed.
That same day earlier on (if I’m not mistaken), Forme directly commented on one of my tweets AFTER I WAS IGNORING HIM FOR AGES, saying “Are you back in Male?” This was on public domain, so I felt like I HAD to respond so I did by just saying “Yeah”.
Last summer, someone wrote a tweet along the lines about how many predators were involved in these feminist movements/human rights movements. I subtweeted it and anonymously called him out and said he was manipulative enough to do it subtly. And that I was afraid to call him out cos he had a large following.
After tweeting that, I unfollowed him. He didn’t immediately unfollow me back. He unfollowed me a week afterwards. This isn’t just about “generic” messages. He DID make me feel harassed. I told SO many people. Especially my friends here cos I live here. They told me to confront him and to tell him that he was making me feel harassed and uncomfortable. I didn’t cos I was afraid that he’d twist it to the point where he’d make me seem like I was overreacting. Right now that’s precisely what’s happening on social media — I’m being undermined and his actions are being labeled as “generic conversation starters”.
This isn’t okay. I’m angry and I’m frustrated. I also received several messages from people and some of them made me feel intimidated. I felt guilty for coming out after all the messages. I don’t want to engage on this Twitter war — people are bound to have opinions but fact of the matter remains that I told them my story and they convinced me that I was in the right. I decided to go public with it instead.
What exactly is grooming, sexual assault and harassment?
Keeping the above excerpts and statement in mind, here are some basic definitions for what Forme has been accused of, namely grooming, sexual assault and harassment (including both cyber harassment & sexual harassment).
Grooming/ Child Grooming
Grooming within the context of victimisation means the use of specific non-violent techniques by a person to gain sexual access to and control over potential and actual victims.
Victims of grooming include children, young people and even adults – like parents of young children who are the subject of the adult interest. For example, adults who insinuate themselves into a child or family’s life or offer to assume a significant role, such as a caretaking or mentoring role, can be characterised as grooming the parents.
Sometimes the term grooming specifically refers to physical behaviours such as touching children in increasingly intimate areas of the body as a precursor to sexual touching or sexual assault. Grooming activities such as hugging, massaging, being affectionate and touching can also provide sexual gratification for offenders and may constitute sex offenses by themselves. Offenders may even be content with or prefer sexual gratification from less obvious behaviours. Moreover, grooming activity does not always prelude sex but can be sex itself.
Likewise, behaviours that appear to have the intention of fostering an inappropriate personal/ intimate relationship with a child, teenager, or young person like being a trusted confidante, sharing personal information, is also considered grooming. It can even be applied to behaviours such as providing access to drugs, alcohol and freedom from parental/ adult supervision in the service of reducing the barriers to compliance with sex with an adult.
The grooming process typically involves:
- the identification of preferred targets,
- gathering information about the targets (such as their hobbies, interests and vulnerabilities),
- gaining access (for example through youth-serving organisations, social media, family, colleagues and friends),
- fulfilling emotional and physical needs,
- lowering inhibitions and,
- gaining and maintaining control.
The use of these techniques require ongoing access, time, interpersonal skill and the offender being perceived as a nice guy. Often, to assist in their access and control over children, related grooming methods are used by offenders with parents, caretakers, guardians and youth-serving organisations.
Victims of grooming can feel complicit in their own abuse and victimisation resulting in self-blame and feelings of shame. Victims may blame themselves and worry or anticipate that others will do the same. And they often are blamed.
The reason victims look back on their behaviour with shame is because of a sense of complicity on their part, such as feeling like they did not protest enough or say no when it was happening to them while the behaviour of the offender became increasingly inappropriate and intimate. Victims often describe feeling an increasing sense of discomfort and not knowing how to put a stop to the behaviour or relationship without creating problems. Victims worry about being mistaken or being perceived as overreacting. They often do not trust their own instincts and are unsure of how to avoid the offender and put a stop to the relationship without it raising questions or being dismissed altogether.
Young people who do not experience the initial advances and subsequent victimisation as unwanted attention or a violation may view the grooming behaviours as normal seduction behaviour that occur in consensual relationships. Situations such as those involving crushes on youth leaders, teachers or co-workers may outwardly present all the qualities expected of a consensual relationship except that one party involved is a child or young person.
Grooming is a term that can only be accurately applied in hindsight after the victimisation has occurred.
Sexual assault is assault of a sexual nature directed towards another person without their consent. It constitutes behaviour of a sexual nature that makes a person feel threatened, intimidated and frightened. It is behaviour that is uninvited where another person uses physical, emotional or psychological forms of coercion.
Acts of sexual assault range from unwanted touching to sexual penetration without free and voluntary consent. Consent is when someone agrees, gives permission, or says “yes” to sexual activity with other persons. Consent is always freely given and all people in a sexual situation must feel that they are able to say “yes” or “no” or stop the sexual activity at any point.
Cyber Harassment/ Sexual Harassment
Cyber harassment is repeated online behaviour that is directed towards a person with the intention to humiliate, scare or control the person being targeted. Cyber harassment range from spreading rumours about a person, sharing photos or videos of you without your consent, impersonating you, posting intimate photos of you and constantly messaging, texting or emailing you in a way that makes you feel scared.
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature is sexual harassment. It is the unwanted imposition of sexual requirements in the context of a relationship of unequal power.
Behaviours that are considered sexual harassment include touching, unnecessary close proximity, comments and questions about appearance, life-style, sexual orientation, whistling, sexually suggestive gestures, display of sexual materials.
Forme’s pattern to approaching girls is through work in civil society, within the artist community, and with young girls on social media. In some cases, he offers opportunities to help them to continue with what they’re interested in (writing, art, activism) and builds the relationship by sharing about his work and his art. He adds them on multiple social media platforms and begins to normalise sexualising them and their friends by making comments about their bodies. He makes it a point to describe his past sexual experiences around young interns in situations where they are alone.
One person talked about how creeped out they were because Forme seems to know when girls turned eighteen and would immediately start asking them to meet with him. His social media also makes it clear the many young people he interacts with, as he goes around “liking” every one of their photos.
The victims are always in the same age group – teenagers to early twenties. No matter how old he is, he targets the same age group. Very few are aware that Forme has a partner. Finding out that he does also intimidates the victims from speaking.
Responses to the Allegations
One of the defences raised against these allegations is that it is an ‘anti-campaigning’ tactic.
The same argument was raised when Rizna went public with her experience of domestic violence, especially physical violence, at the hands of her former husband and MDP candidate for Thinadhoo Uthuru, Mughni.
In both instances, there were those who raised the issue that this might be the start of a ‘new trend’ of accusing politicians of abuse as a smear campaign tactic. They argue that if such accusations are to be validated, it creates a slippery slope wherein one need only level accusations of sexual harassment or other such violence against a politician to effectively end their career.
Questioning the victims’ motives for coming forward is to be left to the authorities; such questioning by other politicians and the accused’s associates only serves to undermine victims who come forward.
Sexual harassment accusations do not instantly end a career. If they were to do so, our nation would not have the Vice President and Speaker of Majlis that we do now. To imply that they do ignores the reality that we have seen time and time again. There are no mechanisms in place to address and investigate such allegations against politicians and political hopefuls.
It is imperative to stop alleging that accusations of sexual harassment are a tactic of anti-campaigning when it is clear that no Dhivehi government has ever considered such allegations material to any election – a fact painfully obvious to any victim.
Before the allegations against Forme came out, civil society and HRDs (a common shorthand in civil society circles for “Human Rights Defender”) rallied behind Rizna to #VoteNoAgainstMughni and are continuing to do so. However when it comes to their nice friend Forme, they have showed that they are painfully conflicted and unprepared to believe victims or take such allegations seriously.
Victim statements were attacked and downplayed. The power dynamic here is an obvious one – Forme, the nice guy with the right connections embedded deep in the social circles of human rights defenders and civil society was to be given the benefit of the doubt while the victims were dragged through the mud. There was no such rush to create a hashtag when the accused was from amongst their own ranks.
After the allegations of grooming and assault surfaced, Forme responded by ‘categorically denying’ all forms of abuse, including domestic violence – it planted the seed of doubt to make it look like a political conspiracy against him.
Forme’s defenders played on existing public misconceptions regarding grooming (that it happens to very young children and always leads to sexual assault) to discredit and downplay victim statements. This added fuel to the rebuttal that the allegations were part of a larger conspiracy against Forme, Maurifa, Rishana and their movement Navaanavai.
People who condemned twitter user @AHamyd when he harassed a young girl over a long period of time now questioned whether Forme’s harassment was bad enough after Reuters Maldives correspondent @MJunayd stated it was simply ‘online harassment’ and did not involve criminal activity. He even goes so far as to describe Forme’s harassment as ‘generic conversation starters’. He also, despite not writing a full report on this issue, makes it appear as if he has conducted a journalistic investigation by using journalism lingo like ‘primary and secondary sources’. Even if he did conduct such an investigation, who is he to determine whether Forme’s words and actions should be considered harassment.
All of this serves to downplay the trauma that Uzy went through when a man over twenty years her senior kept messaging her over a period of months, despite her ignoring him. As Maurifa later revealed, Forme even publicly asked her for her location when he learnt she was in Male’, a move that forced Uzy to respond to Forme though she had been ignoring him.
Soon, Maurifa used this portrayal of Forme’s actions to question if it amounted to harassment at all. Five days after Burakashi first tweeted about the allegations, Maurifa had released selective screenshots of Forme’s conversation with Uzy, and asked Uzy to be courageous enough to share her story despite laying the blame on Uzy for both engaging and not disengaging with this middle-aged man twice her age.
There were multiple requests from people to @Burakashi and Uzy to disclose the allegations against Forme, and people started asking victims to come forward.
Human rights defenders, socialists, feminists, journalists, all played a role in silencing victims and destroying their credibility instead of attempting to open an impartial investigation into the allegations against Forme.
Forme’s victims are young girls in their late teens to mid-twenties – it is a vulnerable group that would find it extremely difficult to come forward, especially after seeing the vilification suffered by victims who chose to speak against Forme. People like Naeem acted to defend and serve their personal interests, due to their bias towards their friend.
They then made a mockery out of those that had chosen to speak up for themselves or on others behalf.
What is dangerous here – and what has been the reason men like Forme can continue to prey on vulnerable girls – is because they have the right contacts and clout. The over-intellectualisation of the issue by Forme’s associates and friends in civil society and Navaanavai, to the point of coming to conclusions in favour of Forme before a week had passed since the allegations came out, is a continuation of the system that erases the trauma and pain experienced by survivors. It is a continuation of the well establish Dhivehi tradition of protecting your own at the expense of victims. Did any of these people over-intellectualise Rizna’s story in order to accept Mughni’s pathetic excuses? Is there behaviour not reminiscent of the MDP stooges who still insist that Rizna is part of an elaborate political conspiracy against their nice guy and friend Mughni.
What makes Forme’s bid for Parliament doubly dangerous is that it will put him in a position of power as a trusted public official, on a platform he can then use to approach and bait more young girls. When young girls are made deeply uncomfortable by his inappropriate advances, they are now made to question if it amounts to harassment at all, despite the obvious power dynamics there and the multiple accounts of people who have said this has happened to people they know. He, like Mughni, will be the one making the decisions and voting on laws that affect women, girls and minorities in our society. Can you trust either of these men to have the welfare of women and girls at heart when their actions to this point prove otherwise?
Many of us are not surprised by Forme’s or Mughni’s actions. For many of us women this is our lived reality. The experiences that we live through day in and day out. We all have known a Forme or Mughni in our lives.
What we are not surprised by is the responses and reactions from civil society, political parties and so called defenders of our rights. When push came to shove, you all turned around and asked these women why they are not coming out with their stories so that you can clear the name of your nice friend.
You all have considered yourselves so righteous and knowledgeable that the possibility of a predator emerging from within your own ranks is something you have not even considered.
Forme is not special. We all know a Forme. We all know a Mughni. These are not the people we want representing us.
This is entire situation is ugly. Take a good long hard look at yourself in a mirror. You have failed all Dhivehi women. I hope your friendship with your nice friend is worth it.