Dressing like Muslims
In a world full of misunderstanding and stereotype, one effective way to achieve understanding is to put oneself in the shoes of other people—those who are judged for how they look, how they eat, and how they behave. I had always thought that as time passes and major developments occur, people would also be given the chance to overcome discrimination based on religion, culture, or language. But sadly, it seems that developments and innovations have no direct effect on how people perceive other people. It seems like many people still view the black-and-white painting that our judgmental forebears made long ago in black and white, instead of in the colors that education should have managed to instill in each one of us.
But then, just when I thought that minds would never be opened and that unity was on the brink of collapse, I witnessed an amazing turn of events in which people did not just try to understand others by studying them but, instead, lived like them by dressing in what has been perceived as the outfit of terrorism.
It was during my first few months of teaching when I learned about the practice of La Salle University in Ozamiz City that is observed every last Friday of August. It involved wearing any Philippine cultural attire. So I wore a sultan’s attire because I wanted to showcase my Meranaw roots.
It was not easy to be among the few Meranaw Muslims in a school that is dominated by non-Muslims. I can literally count the Muslims on campus on my two hands. I experienced discrimination a few times for wearing a totob (cap-like head gear), but I just charged it to experience. I have also been bombarded with so many questions about Muslims, which I try to answer to the best of my abilities, explaining to non-Muslim students and teachers alike how different the misconceptions are from the true.
On that last Friday of August, I expected myself to be one of the very few who would turn up dressed like a sultan. I also prepared myself for tons of questions, but to my surprise, I saw a lot of gentlemen not only in Meranaw attire but also in the clothes worn by most Muslims when they perform the Salat (prayers)—composed of a totob and a kimon (loose, long-sleeved top and pajamas-like pants). They were proudly walking around and calling my attention, saying, “Sir, look at us. We are dressed like you.”
On Thursday night, students sent me personal messages on social media asking if it was forbidden for them to wear such garments. My immediate reply: Nothing is forbidden as long as you wear it with respect. The next day I noticed a group of boys all dressed like Muslims, and I asked them if they were Muslims. To my surprise, none of them were. It really made my day and brought a smile to my face.
And the ladies did not allow themselves to get left behind. They were so proud and happy walking around wearing an abaya (a long, black, long-sleeved dress) with matching hijab (veil). Some of them really looked like Muslims. Although I know only a few Muslim girls in school, because some don’t wear their veils in fear of being discriminated against, their non-Muslim friends looked more like their sisters. It was such a pleasing sight.
They seemed to have also found a sense of fulfillment, and they would call out to me: “Sir, we are Muslims now!” I found it adorable, and I thought they walked with more pride compared to when they were dressed in their regular clothes. Some of them said they felt protected. I remember that more than 20 students and teachers asked me to fix their hijab in a stylish manner, which I am capable of doing.
I had a fun-filled day just watching the students and teachers passing me by or calling my attention. It felt as if they were telling me that I should not fear being in a non-Muslim campus because they were with me in my cause of spreading peace, love and understanding. It was like they were wearing those garments because they wanted to tell their other schoolmates that it is cool to be a Muslim, that there is nothing wrong with covering up, that one is not being suppressed when one covers up, and that Islam is very welcoming to people who try to understand it.
Others may think this experience is too small to be considered memorable, but in the shoes of a one-among-a-handful of Muslims in a university, it is a big thing, a big leap, and a big achievement. It shows me that it is not too late. It may be true that we cannot make a judgement based on looks, but least they got to feel the confidence, the bitter-sweet feeling, and the pride we feel when we wear those garments, compared to what the stereotypes force upon Filipinos.
Maybe the world isn’t cruel, after all. Maybe there still is a chance for understanding diversity and living together in peace and harmony.
As a Muslim professional, I think it is important to love our diverse students and respond well to their inquiries about the fallacies that close-minded forebears have taught them. One day, no Christian, Muslim, Jew, or anyone else will be labeled a terrorist and be feared solely on the basis of religion. No one will be feared because of stereotype and prejudice. And life will not be complicated by our differences.
Let us keep dreaming, hoping and praying that one day, there will just be two kinds of people regardless of background—the good and the bad. No more, no less. In Shaa Allah (God willing)!
Elijah Marvin Santos Guangco, 22 and half-Meranaw, holds a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from the Mindanao State University in Marawi City, and is an instructor at the Lycée St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, the senior high school of La Salle University-Ozamiz City.
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