I’m happy that Education Undersecretary Alain del Pascua has asked a committee to study the possibility of replacing the traditional toga with the “sablay,” for commencement exercises.
Pascua says the toga “is not Filipino” and is not appropriate for our hot weather. The toga can be costly, while a sablay could help to create livelihood opportunities for our own traditional weavers.
University of the Philippines Diliman started the use of this sablay in 2000 and it gradually spread to the other UP constituent universities. The sash’s inspiration comes from the “malong” of Mindanao, usually worn around the waist but which can be reconfigured to become a sash for the chest.
Even before the Department of Education memo, a few schools already shifted to the sablay. In 2018, I spoke at the commencement exercises of a remote lumad (indigenous people of Mindanao) school in Compostela Valley. When I got to the school I was delighted to find the graduates—grade school and high school—using the sablay.
Let me share some advice, based on UP’s experiences around the sablay, including a brewing debate on the term itself.
First, keep it simple. I’ve mentioned that the sablay is more economical, but because UP’s is handwoven, it runs up to P800 each. The sablay in the lumad school I mentioned had two strips of cloth of different colors sewn together by the students themselves!
Using a woven sash has also been a problem because it has become difficult to find people who still know how to weave. We actually face a shortage for new sablay; fortunately, old ones are still around, passed on by graduates to relatives and friends. The older ones are also valued as special, almost like heirlooms.
But, as Pascua hopes, maybe we can help revive the local weaving industry through graduation sablay. Even at P800, it’s still cheaper than a toga. Let’s also consider teaching traditional weaving to students, especially in IP (indigenous peoples) communities so they can handle some of the sablay production.
Second, make the sablay meaningful. Our sablay is embroidered with meaning, using our university colors (maroon and forest green) and “UP” in baybayin, the precolonial script used by several ethnolinguistic groups in the Philippines. We also incorporate the traditional Mindanao ukkil design to show a sprouting plant, a new life. There are so many embellishments that can be adopted from traditional clothing to represent our love for our own cultures.
At UP, a committee was created in 2013 to study how the sablay could incorporate other symbols to differentiate graduates from high school (we have our own), bachelor, master’s and doctoral programs. The committee’s recommendations have not been adopted, and I hope the report will be revived for discussion.
Related to the symbols are protocols around the use of the sash, including its proper length, and of shifting the sash during commencement exercises from the right shoulder to the left upon the official conferment of degrees.
Third, the existing UP sablay can be improved, maybe with the help of physicists working with our clothing tech people. The sablay is like a little “malikot” (hyper-active) reptile, tending to wander off the shoulder, sometimes even slithering to the floor. A safety pin is a simple solution, except when you’re wearing a barong made from expensive piña fiber.
Finally, the term “sablay” has been challenged. Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa, who received a Ramon Magsaysay Award for reviving the pangalay dances of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, pointed out to me last year that sablay refers to the blouse and the sash is properly called “sigay.”
I then asked Felipe Jocano Jr. of the anthropology department to check with other people from Mindanao. His Tausug friend from Tawi-Tawi says their term for a sash is “kandit.” The same term is used in Maguindanao. Another Tausug said it was “kindang,” and still another said it was a “malung,” the original inspiration for the UP sablay.
“Sablay” in Tagalog has many meanings, including the very positive “triumph” but, paradoxically, it can also mean an embarrassing failure, as sung in “Hari ng Sablay.”
In Cebuano it means to take up, on our shoulders, a burden or responsibility.
I invite readers, especially our lumad and Muslim friends from Mindanao, to email me information and opinions about the terminology: sablay, sigay, kandit, kindang and more.
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