Beyond stereotypes of Muslim women
Women are better off in settling political conflicts, believes Nuriam Asanji-Abdujarak, described as a “diligent student, successful businesswoman, devoted wife” in the booklet “Taking Peace into their Own Hands” published by the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue.
“The fact is men are hotheaded,” says Nuriam or Iyam, as friends and family know her. “(The men) tend to push for a fight. They generally do not know how to speak with flowery and praiseful words. Women are better able to psyche up people especially males. She can extend the warmth of her touch, and talk sweetly. I do that.”
Nuriam is one of the women mediators profiled in the slim volume serving as an “external evaluation” of the peace and mediation group “Tumikang Sama Sama” based in Sulu. The group’s name means “Together we move forward” in Sinug, the language spoken by Tausugs who make up the dominant ethnic group in Sulu. The group began life as the Peace Working Group which initially involved armed fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and government forces, with the group acting as a “neutral body mandated by the parties to jointly identify existing and potential security problems,” among others.
But as hostilities heightened, a backgrounder states, it was decided “to focus more on localized drivers of conflict … to work through credible and respected individuals from the conflict-affected communities, who had already been playing a role as local mediators.”
Iyam is one of these “local mediators.” The booklet authors mention her “wit and charm … (developing) powerful qualities to settle conflicts mainly through artistic ways.” Says Iyam: “Women can sing songs, can extend a warm touch, and have a good sense of humor. At times, we can also pretend that we do not know especially in dealing with politicians. Politicians and military officials want to think that they know better. So be humble. Sometimes, I speak as if I were an ignorant person.”
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Acting is just one of many abilities that peace mediators in Mindanao have to possess. After all, it is no small feat to keep members of a community—even of a family—from turning on each other over conflicts involving resources, loyalties, favors, ideology or perceived wrongs.
Even with “peace in Mindanao” in the offing after the signing of the framework agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), too many triggers to violence remain: clan conflicts; disputes over resources especially those within the “ancestral domains” of indigenous peoples; criminality; and political rivalries.
The role of women in intervening in and settling conflicts is little recognized. Beyond victimization, it seems the public is not very interested in how women are coping with the violence and postconflict realities in Mindanao. Nor with the role women can play in bridging differences among the many competing groups, and helping build the future of an island that, it is hoped, could finally fulfill the “promise” that had lured so many—Muslims, Christians and indigenous peoples—to build their lives there.
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The media play a key role not just in reflecting accurately and fully the realities on the ground in Mindanao, but also in bringing to the surface the hidden realities that the public too often ignore.
To discuss what these realities are, and what other aspects deserve a fuller airing, Isis International yesterday held “Huntahan, Balitaan at Kapayapaan (Dialogue, News-sharing and Peace),” billed as a “dialogue with media and Mindanao women on the peace process.”
“Stories of women rarely get into the media,” observed Memen Lauzon Gatmaytan of WeAct 1325, an advocacy group pushing for the full implementation of a UN Security Council Resolution calling for greater participation of women in the peace process. Coverage of women in conflict tends to center on victimhood, Gatmaytan said, even if “the story didn’t stop at the evacuation center, many months and years of struggle followed it.”
There is no recognition of the roles being played by women like Iyam, the peace mediator from Sulu, decried Gatmaytan. “We need to bring out the voices of women and the many roles they play during and after a situation of conflict.”
To Lina Sagaral Reyes of the Mindanao Women Writers, the lack of coverage may be traced to “economic factors.” “When the women and children leave the evacuation centers, we need to carry on with their stories. But to find them and follow them, requires resources.” Still, national media with their network of correspondents and regional offices “could go back and trace the whereabouts of former evacuees, to follow the reconstruction phase,” suggests Sagaral-Reyes.
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For Maimona Didatu Bayan, herself a former “bakwit” and now a public school teacher in Maguindanao, the key to ensuring an enduring peace in Mindanao is found in education. “We need to capacitate women and children to take up their rightful roles in the future of Mindanao,” she declared.
Amira Gotoc, who grew up largely in Manila and was educated abroad, says the negative image of Moro women in Philippine media is a real problem. To counter this, she and her group held a “hijab run” to coincide with the signing of the “framework agreement” that was meant not just to rework the image of “hijab” or veil that Muslim women wear, but also to dispel the perception that they are “security risks.”
“We wanted to show the Filipino people the other side of the story,” says Gotoc. “We wanted to show that we are also empowered, that we can contribute to building peace.”
And the starting point, especially for media, in the words of Isis’ Libay Cantor, is “to look beyond cultural stereotypes.”