BEFORE ME was an Islamic religion studies graduate, an aleema who divorced her aleem (Islamic learned man) husband (for beating her up. She was lecturing on significant Muslim women in Islamic history. So far she had taken up the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadija and daughter Aisha. Today’s topic: Madina’s Umu Sulaim Rumaisa. All were women of virtue whose lives could give us insights on what a Muslim woman should aspire to.
Every Sunday, a few of us women and girls in the barrio would gather in a small shop of a lady leader to read the Qur’an and listen to aleemas, who would arrive garbed in traditional dress, with only their eyes peering out of their veils. But once they were in front of us, they would shed their facial covering and discuss themes ranging from women heroes to marriage and women’s obligations — basically all things domestic. Through an association of women “seeking faith,” the seminars provided us a place to rest, as well as to bond and learn with other women.
My village at Buadi Sacayo, one of the homes of the old sultanates, has held on to many traditions. It is a close-knit community where residents, especially the young, congregated in the street or during Friday prayers. People here are proud of their roots, a pride they made evident through their colorful homes decorated in the traditional style.
Across this village, at the other end of the highway, is Mindanao State University (MSU), where the more Western-educated reside and teach. While my barrio provides spiritual congregation, it is on the secular, modern campus that I meet a host of other highly educated and “modern” women. Our most recent topic was women’s rights and all the rah-rah of promoting it. The context: cleaning up the elections, especially the ARMM polls in August.
Despite living away from the metropolis for the past year, I find staying in the Islamic city of Marawi refreshing for I see the best of two worlds: those who gave up on the old ways and those who live it. At one end is the sandal-and-backpack crowd, people who live on just the basics and whose ultimate activity is prayer. At the other end are those who push for material success and crave recognition — the professionals, politicians, and yes, NGO workers. One fact ties each extreme to each other: both are made up of Muslims.
I myself feel I am between both worlds. Sometimes, I even feel like an interloper. Having a hijab (veil) on and having non-Muslim friends makes me feel half-Muslim and half-Christian (or mestiza). It is not the religion that makes me feel like I always have to be in the middle of a religious discourse. Instead the feeling arises from the curiosity/half-acceptance I encounter in both Muslim and Christian circles.
When I am with Muslims, I have to defend my “liberal” media profession. When I am with Christians, I have to explain Islam’s practices. But what is being Muslim anyway? Was it all about the . ve pillars, about the sayings of the Prophet and the Qur’an? What of the women, like me — had we rights, could we speak out? And how about pop music, my favorite, was it haram (forbidden)? Was living all about following rules?
These were among the questions I had while growing up, and I have been asking even more questions since. I had been brought up to be conscious of my heritage, to always protect our maratabat, our good name, maratabat to avoid overexposure to the outside world. This was my culture as a Maranao. My religion, at least as taught to me, said almost the same thing-to observe the rituals, to lead a structured life. But I have since realized that religion is actually dynamic and that it was only the elders who had interpreted it otherwise. As postmodernist author Akbar Ahmed says, Islam and balance are compatible, meaning Muslims are not prohibited from embracing principles such as tolerance, democracy, and justice. So could a Muslim have a Christian as a best friend? Can we sing and dance? Could Muslim women wear jeans? And how do we see the Pope and Madonna?
I THINK Muslim communities have yet to confront questions like those I have, and so have yet to bridge a generational gap that has formed. During the National Muslim Youth Summit held at the Asian Institute of Management in 2003, “confusion” was the catchword in the workshop discussions. The speakers were learned elders. The participants, meanwhile, were part of Generation M(uslim). Although they came from different cultural communities, they were all multilingual and educated in some of the top schools around the country and even abroad.
One of the speakers crowed that this was the “new generation of future Muslim leaders” — mobile, techie, and assertive. But some of the participants expressed disappointment at their elders’ lack of sympathy for their “confusion.”
“I don’t wear a veil but no one can question my faith,” said 24-year-old Maguindanaon Nora, a Manila-based nurse. “We are confused because we are curious.” She raised the issue of smuggling by a few Muslim entrepreneurs to which some elders had been willing to turn a blind eye, so long as the proceeds were given as zakat or charity. “Can (smuggling) be made permissible by giving (the proceeds) as zakat?” an incredulous Nora asked.
“Have you read the whole Qur’an?” posed Lucman, offering advice from the elders. “Pray five times and affirm yourself with the graces of Allah.”
All the speakers had advised us to “learn Islam.” Former MSU regent Ansary Alonto also said, “Islam is a system, a way of life.”
But the older yuppies among the participants advised the youngsters to maintain an open mind. Said Aldean Alonto, who had gone to Oxford University on an interfaith event: “Islam is a process, and (acknowledges) an effort to find yourself.”
For me, that process is still ongoing. When I was a child, I thought I would end up as a singer. I had been starstruck as a kid and was a big movie fan; I loved performing as well. Yet being Maranao — and a girl — meant there were many things I could not do. Interest in the arts was discouraged because of its perceived anti-Islamicism. Even today many of us are still unable to deviate from professions chosen for us, like nursing, medicine, engineering, and law. I took up law at the behest of my parents, although my heart wasn’t in it. It was only when I failed major prelaw courses that I allowed myself to follow my desire, which by then was no longer singing, but journalism.
As the eldest of five, I had learned early on to be conscious of the larger group, to sacrifice and put the group’s interests first. Following tradition, we girls had to be very careful in choosing our friends. While my brothers had girlfriends, my sisters and I were chaperoned to avoid “developing” our crushes. We weren’t allowed to date or sleep over at other people’s houses. Contrary to what many outsiders assume, however, we girls — at least those in my family — were made to excel in academics. Mother wanted to be sure that if we were to marry and then were left by our husbands, we could use our education to survive on our own. (Mother’s own father had left their family for another woman.) Father, too, put a premium on education for his children. He was from a clan that placed professionals on pedestals and was himself an inspiration to many of his relatives to acquire an education and land a good job.
Yet for all the restrictions and expectations put upon us, I still managed to have fun in high school. I was lucky because Father was a career diplomat and I was exposed to Western education. Traveling was an eye-opener. I learned to be sensitive and be open to other cultures aside from my own. Practicing my faith had its ups and downs, but I was soon to learn that to know my religion, I had to experience the lack of it.
THAT CAME when I reached college. I suddenly had the freedom to party and socialize. That freedom, however, also brought me one dilemma after another. While my upbringing taught me precaution, the ethos on campus was to live life. While I was boxed in by rules before, I was now being urged to make my own rules.
My response in part was to widen my search for myself. I met atheists who questioned God and all the fundamentals of existence. I attended masses, learned of the Christian faith. I read alternative literature aside from the religious text. Yet as I searched, I had one tangible evidence of my Muslim identity: my hijab, which I began wearing at age 17. I had made the decision to wear one on my own, without any parental prodding, without a mullah lecture, without pressure from my peers. I had read through the Qu’ran and saw in there the rationale for the veil. Rather than being segregationist or purist, the hijab is an acknowledgement that women can work alongside any individual, male or non-Muslim. I do not have to be judged based on my physical appearance, even as my hijab makes me aware that I have to be “good” to earn my keep for the afterlife.
I have since noticed that others wear the veil as a matter of convenience or culture, with the hijab taking on different nuances, depending on the wearer’s community or tribe. Women of the Tausug tribe wear their caps with sequins, those in Maguindanao prefer colored nets, and the Maranao go for the full triangular cover. Others match their veils with eyes heavy with eyeliner. Western Muslim ladies I have met seem more conservative alongside our own; they have no colored veils and there is no strand of hair peeping out of their hijab.
Wearing the veil, of course, is just one symbol, just one of the many experiences, of being a Muslim woman. Yet public discussions regarding Muslim women rarely go beyond our head covering. And in public discussions, we are usually rendered voiceless.
It’s a given that there seems to be a segregation of the sexes, where women are defined and respected for their role in the domestic sphere. Even those who are educated and well-traveled among us find that when they speak outside of that sphere, their voices are not always heard. Sometimes that may be because they are put in “their place.” In Maranao public events, for instance, young women are usually found in the kitchen, in another side of the room separate from the men, and are rarely part of political discussions.
In a way, someone also tried to put me in my place, or at least what he thought that should be, on a business trip I took to Baguio. One bearded religious leader there asked me why I travel without the traditional mahram (a chaperone, because women are discouraged from traveling alone). I told him that if men were doing my media work, I need not do this. I was trying hard not to retort rudely.
BUT THINGS may be starting to change. Just last March, a young women’s forum was held for the first time at MSU to celebrate international women’s month. Many young women and even men came to listen to women speakers and students in veil talk freely about sex-and the lack of knowledge about it. Gender and sex were differentiated. Social stereotyping and assigning of roles was exposed. We even shook our body and exercised to let loose. For once, we were having something besides the traditional seminar/lecture that has become the most acceptable form of public discourse among Muslims.
So there we were, even talking about early and arranged marriages. I felt thankful for my open-minded parents, who consulted us if they were choosing partners for us. In Maranao tradition, the parents do the search for prospective spouses for their children, and arrange the unions among themselves, often without asking the ones who are to be married. Oftentimes the couples are not prepared emotionally and intellectually for the kind of responsibility marriages entail, but that does not seem to matter to the elders.
Someone I know married at 18; she is now 31. She managed to finish college, but has been unable to use her education to have a career of her own. She thought she would be happy taking care of her family, but she lapsed into depression. I think because of an overdose of cultural obedience, she simply forgot all about herself.
Muslim youths today — male and female — aspire to be educated and useful to their communities and beyond. Medical student Naheeda Dimacisil of Laguna expresses her distaste over some Muslim men who still do not see the “equality with women in responsibilities,” which includes seeking knowledge.
A study done by Xavier University found that religion, family, education, and work, were the top priorities of Muslim youths. It further found that young people thought that education is important because it is seen as a vehicle for social mobility, a way to escape poverty, and a means to help others.
Many also want to become among the best in their fields to “dispel the negative image of Islam.” Ateneo de Davao freshman law student Sahara Aliongan says she hopes to become the first Muslim woman to top the bar exams. Then she plans to “write a book and change the negative views of people about Muslims.”
Many Muslims criticize the media for the negative and simplistic portrayal of their communities. For many Filipinos, it would seem “Muslim” has become synonymous with terrorists, criminals, bandits, and the Abu Sayyaf. Many among our countrymen ignore the complexities of tribal differences, the difference between a religion and its followers, and other such nuances.
For us Muslim women, the struggle is twofold: we struggle against the discrimination foisted upon us within our own communities, and we struggle against the Muslim stereotype when we step out of the confines of our family and tribe.
MARAWI CITY Council Jehanne Mutin-Mapupuno says part of the problem is the lack of a Muslim role model. “There are no successful Muslim personalities featured on radio or TV,” she says. “Young Muslims don’t have positive (role) models to identify with or an association of peers they can relate to.”
She’s not really off the mark. After all, the top broadcast news organizations have just begun adding knowledge of Muslim concerns among their criteria for new recruits. And there is still that pressure from elders for youths to pursue non-arts courses.
But while the media have yet to offer a model for Muslims, there are already the likes of women’s rights activist and cancer survivor Yasmin Busran-Lao of Lanao del Sur to show us the way. Busran-Lao is a recognized advocate for reforms in the Shariah legal system, where men have interpreted the laws. She has received the Ninoy Aquino Public Service award, and was featured not only on the Sunday Inquirer but also on CNN. There is also Sulu’s Warina Jukuy, an outspoken spitfire, who filed for candidacy for the gubernatorial post of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao although she thinks her chances of winning are .00001 percent. So why even try? Her response: just to show the corruption within the system.
Peace advocate Minang Sharief Dirampatan, meanwhile, is a professor and theater artist who has become a fixture at the MSU, which she has called home for the last 25 years. She has also served as mentor and guide to many outstanding MSU youths.
Dirampatan and Busran-Lao were of a generation that segregated Muslim men and women in communities and prioritized men over women when it came to schooling. They broke tradition. They have also nurtured a new generation of thinkers and idealists among Mindanao’s youth. Though Dirampaten at 58 may not be as mobile as before, she mentors others so that the ideas of peace and human rights trickle down to younger, more energetic advocates.
Women like Dirampatan are in my thoughts as I continue my journey. I also think, since most of the world’s conflicts today involve Muslims, it is imperative that Muslim women become promoters of peace even at the village level. They should direct their energies to peacebuilding, which includes conflict resolution, advocacy, and governance. Working for peace can also include teaching the values of peace, promoting interfaith dialogue, and peace journalism and research.
It is work worth devoting one’s life to.
Samira Gutoc, a freelance journalist, is a Sagittarian and one of the founders of Young Moro Professionals. She obtained a fellowship at Oxford University and has represented the Philippines in international conferences on women, youth, and minorities. She is secretary general of the Philippine Muslim Women Council and chairs the National Youth Parliament Alumni Association.