Philippines: Moro ethnic women speak-out on sexual violence in customary practices and traditions

Asian Muslim Action Network in the Philippines
Stories from four women who are ethnically, educationally (culturally) and socio-economically apart and varied yet one common thread runs through their tales: these are women metamorphosing from victims to survivors to advocates of peace.
You said you were kidnapped by this armed group, eventually got married to one of your abductors - a man that you were not in-love with - then converted to Islam and have a special child borne out of a troubled pregnancy while living with fear in hiding. That was indeed a tough ordeal for a woman. Which part was the most painful and traumatic for you?
Jamela’s generous smile that reached to her eyes showed off a neat row of small white teeth, ala-Julia Roberts, from cheek-to-cheek. She took a deep breath and rubbed her sweating palms on the sides of her faded denims. Tapered fingers crept to her scarf, adjusted the hood lower and then casually strolled to tuck an imaginary stray hair under one ear then finally settled at her bosom to play with the knot of her turong. She cleared her throat and candidly declared: “Being married to a man I was not in-love with“, she giggled, more amused than embarrassed of her revelation. “No, actually, that was what I used to think to be the hardest then. But now that he’s gone, I’ve totally forgiven and have kept only good memories of our brief life together. Only, now, my heart cries when I hold my special child in my arms and I start recalling the past…”.

Farida had casually heard of her husband’s infidelity but she had dismissed it as some ‘old-wives’ tale’ but when Harun finally confessed and declared that he was getting married, to not just any woman, but to the nanny of their children, old wounds snapped open and memories bled like gushing river. She had wanted to strike at him; hurt him the way he had her suffering all these years. Was he trying to inflict more pain by, first, forcing her into an early marriage and, now, forcing her to share her husband with a woman who was almost like a mother to her? She vividly recalled of a scene one fine morning, she was only 14 then, on top of her class in highschool with so many ambitions yet to fulfill, when rough male hands ripped all her dreams apart, crashing with it her life, too. They had snatched her from her Biology II class and mercilessly dragged her and dumped her inside a parked rusty vehicle that sped past the busy marketplace, uptown heading into the deepest core of the guimba (jungle). She had screamed all throughout the rough ride, dug her claws at the men like mad cat, blindly clutched at anybody they would pass by along the dirt road; pleading for help, like a drowning woman, but all to no avail. Later that night she realized that she had been kidnapped to be his wife. “In our (Tausug) tradition, if your (the woman’s) family will not dispatch a rescue party right after you are declared missing -- ‘cause, s urely, words would be out that a man had kidnapped you, right? --and they would not catch up with you and your abductor within the remaining daylight, it was as good a sign for the man’s party to conclude that your family has given up and accepted. It would be assumed that you are kiyakumpitan (touched woman) and nakawa na sin usug (sexually-molested) even if it did not happen that way at all. It would have been a dishonor if you returned home with out a husband and a great disappointment when there were no plans of getting married underway. Because they (the woman’s family) would have resigned to the idea that he was your suratan or fated romantic mate; that it was kiya’dal sin Tuhan (God’s will). The only one thing to settle then would be the tampan-marubituwanan or biyugit (widowed or divorced). Like a broken mirror, she would not regain back her luster and honor though the family might have avenged and cleansed its name. Such was the custom for

“So that night, I had stayed as far away from my abductor as I waited desperately until the white rays of the following morning’s sun, but not one among my relatives came for me.”

Looking calm and totally confident in her profession’s uniform, Farida, in her firm but cool voice concluded the sharing session. She smiled and gave a slight shrug and leisurely sipped from her glass of water, her intelligent eyes giving away not a hint of pain, neither remorse nor bitterness. She cheerfully complained only of tiredness of having to relate this story over and over again so that young women might learn their lessons from her ‘love-story’.

“I could kill the man!” Salma laughed heartily. “After having lived with him, fed him, clothed him and slept with him?”, her shrill voice abruptly dropped low and, in an almost conspiratorial tone, added, “…well, of course, I have turned too fat now. We could not have any children”. She paused to puff up a cigarette before perking up and switching on the light mood again, “But I was so furious, how could he cheat me and take another wife and a Christian at that? Huh? What does he think of me? Of course, I would not want to be divorced even if the imam and other matto-a sounded their wise advises, ‘Ondeh, if you are not agreeable to his remarrying, you can always ask him to divorce you.’ He was willing to say it thr ee times (divorce) if only I’d ask him to, but I am not a fool, I have not lost my mind either to allow him to do that to me.”, she turned sober again, “But all is ‘forgive-and-forget’ (between us) now. His eldest daughter is now under my care. He stays with me but he could visit his other woman…Ay, that Bisaya woman, you saw? For every other week he can go see her, that has been our agreement. But he stays with me. I keep his clothes in lock and key. You know how miserable he has become, don’t you?. Poor thing, why, she could not afford even (to bring) regular meals to the table. And is it not my duty as a Muslim to help them especially as they are his kids, too?”. Ay, child, magkalu-a (polygamous marriage) is hell on earth but would ensure to you heaven in eternity, especially if you practice patience and compassion.

My aunty told me that a man from Basilan had come for Magsarahakan and asked for my hands from my father. The man gave 11,000.00 pesos with a hand gun to my father. The 10,000 was for my ungsud (dowry) and 1,000 was for the tampan maru.(to cleanse shame and buy peace) The gun was to kill the man if my father refused…I was crying all night when my father had asked me if I wanted to get married to this man, I repeatedly said ‘no’ as I wished to continue my studies and dreamed to be a school teacher. I also had a boyfriend. How could I marry someone whom I haven’t even seen? What if he was old to be my grandfather? What if he was disabled and could not earn a living? Poor me. Mmah explained to me that if I rejected the man we will have to double their mon ey…but where would my father get 22,000.00 pesos? He would have to sell his bangka (small dug-out boat for fishing) and lose our only means to survive. Even if somebody would be merciful enough to buy it, still that wouldn’t be enough, for they wanted the cash right then, we would have to produce it by any means. If we had refused, then the only option would have been to use the gun to kill this man. For sure he would asked to be killed than go home shamed and embarrassed. But that would make our situation even worse, Yakan

These are stories from four individuals who are ethnically, educationally (culturally) and socio-economically apart and varied yet one common thread runs through their tales: these are women metamorphosing from victims to survivors to advocates of peace after having been through the most harrowing and agonizing chapters of their lives. What would perhaps interest most is the commonality in their narratives; in their going through the same process of discernment, acceptance, forgiveness, healing and closure, and concluding in the same bright notes and honest testimony declaring that they do not feel violated anymore. Yet what is perhaps even more stri king in all its perplexity is the chorus of silence in unspoken disappointments and disillusionments that remain to be said. For a general feeling of betrayal by supposed divinely-inspired institutions and social systems, purporting to establish gender-fairness and equitability in society yet failed to protect them from inflicted violence. These institutions the women are now beginning to appreciate up-close and understand how they must play important roles in their lives as Muslims and in being women. In dealing with the religious intellectuals and spiritual and moral authorities and with what they represent, the women are wary and cautious not to offend any religious and moral sensitivities, avoiding most of the questions that would need them to pass judgement. Lest their frank speak-ups back-fire at women with more condemnation and stigmatization, the lesser said about the Sha’ria and of their being Muslims and women victims of violence, the better.

They are women from Sulu, belonging to various ethnic tribes of Tausug, Yakan, Sama, Sama Dilaut and of Bisayan Muslim-converts. Collectively, they are considered a religious minority in Southern Philippines. They have spoken-out about their experiences of sexual violence in the context of traditional practices, invoking virtues of sabar (patience) and rahmat (forgiveness with compassion) as ideal attributes of being women and Muslims. After going through the "hand-holding sessions" and trauma therapy the women are now willing and ready to be back on track and continue on their journeys, but think it wise to proceed with a caveat -- a backglance, in defense of Islam, or perhaps more precisely, to appease the mainstream voices that speak for Islam -- of safely putting the blame solely on undesirable indigenous values and a set of customary practices that perpetuate a tradition of violence.

Academics and social scientists corroborate their accounts, citing various historical and cultural roots of sexual violence in customary practices among Moro society. Some point to remnants from the glorious days of slave-raiding (Warren, 1984) and the warrior society of the Sulus (Keifer1972)[1], while others to an ext ant cultural values system that put much price on Mar’tabbat or personal pride and Kasipugan or Kaiyya-an or family honor (Bruno 1973)[2]. Voices from religious authorities, on the other extreme, unanimously brand the practices as pre-Islamic therefore un-Islamic (Jundam, 1983) [3]. Others prefer to hover in uncertainty, going by the dictum of a culture of silence and by sheer apathy, off-handedly dismiss these observations as no longer relevant social discourse as these are now becoming ‘isolated and rare’ (Abubakar in Kamlian, 2004)[4]. Legalists diagnose the incidence of kidnapping, forced marriage and sexual molestation as tantamount to ‘acts of indecency’ but hardly prescribe concrete corrective measures (Rasul 1994, Adat 2002)[5], while traditional leaders and moral authorities who myopically look at the issue as mere procedural slip and breaches in social protocol, maintain the opinion that these are non-conventional ways of ‘courting women before marriage’ and since any pre-marital encounters between the sexes is punishable as commission of ‘zinah’, the offenders must immediately seek legitimacy by marriage (key informants)[6]. These kinds of stories are not the general rule, according to still others who choose to downplay it and instead argue by blaming the victims, ‘these happen only in the rural areas’ or among less civilized communities in less modern settings (key informants). Pitching in an incongruous tone but nonetheless refreshing is the rejoinder from the minority voices of ulama and Muslim theologians who are quite arbitrarily labeled 'moderates' or 'progressives'; most of whom are rights’ advocates and, notably among them, Muslim feminists, keeping high the optimism that the answer is in Islam itself to inspire a revolutionizing potential for reforms and for liberative actions in setting back the just-balance in society (Key informants, Asghar Ali, Wadud, SIS etc.).

The Presidential Decree 1083 of 1977 otherwise known as the Code of Muslim Personal Law (CMPL) embodies the spirit of Sha’ria among Philippine Muslims. Its cursory survey, however, betrays a contradiction in what is upheld as religious and moral dogma with what actually prevails in practice and rules the day-to-day realities among Muslims in the Philippines. Among its salient flaws, is the CMPL’s silence with respect to offensive customary practices. Its inability to rule out categorically violent practices, bluntly belies the general understanding of most Muslims that the Philippines sha’ria is able to satisfactorily protect the rights of every Muslim, most of all, of women. There is no preventive provision in the CMPL, for instance, that outrightly declare unlawful and therefore&nb sp;ban the practices of forcing women into contracting marriage through coercion or violent means even as there are no safeguards for women victims of sexual violence by enforcing a pre-marriage condition for it to be halal[7] . For one, there should be explicit and personal expression (verbal or written) of consent by the woman to want to marry the man or to initiate a divorce procedure in cases of abduction, arranged marriage and marriage through coercion and sexual intimidation. Secondly, the CMPL should unconditionally forbid as ungodly and haram[8] the use of sexual intimidation as well as physical and psychological violence perpetrated whether by the man or the woman’s parents or any interested party that might cloud her judgment and force a woman into acquiescence.

Customary offenses in the A’dat that put tag-prices on woman’s sexuality and which token of penalties[9] virtually buy-out and subvert justice are condoned and indirectly endorsed, because CMPL continues to be ambiguous in its stipulations on marriage thereby opening it to narrow interpretations. The value of Marriage is reduced into mere commercial transaction between parties that do not necessarily require for subject woman’s direct participation, being the ‘merchandise’ in such as negotiation. In many cases marriage has been used as a license for man’s access to woman’s sexual body. These are possible because the CMPL allows room for its own subversion by emphasizing on the monetary considerations in the contract rather than in the intent of forging relationships. When treated in view of its commercial values, it reinforces the wrong notion that woman’s body is a commodity that community and the family can own and appropriate. Her chastity represents and symbolizes an untainted family name therefore when defiled and offended is to be defended and fought for by the clan and family as a matter of pride or honor, but not in the name of her individual right and dignity as a person.

Clearly, this is a transgression from the original intent of the Sha’ria as a wahi or divine ordinance proclaiming humankind as vice-gerent of Allah (swt) with raised status from inanimate objects and all other forms of creation and enjoining us to vie only for social justice and righteousness (Qur’an 4:1, 2:30, 17:70, 15:29, 49:13 etc.). Yet the limitations in the CMPL does not allow woman to exercise such dignified status borne at birth with the gift of integrity and endowed with rights whole and inviolable. In fact, she has not the legal powers to protect her bodily integrity and control over her sexuality as free and sovereign creation of Allah. So where there is absence of appropriate Islamic guidance or ruling to make the spirit of Sha’ria genuinely operative, the customary marriage practices and traditional valuation of women become the norms in such society.

The motion by the local government of Sulu to pass and endorse the adoption of the Code of Tausug A’dat in a Provincial Resolution number 43-S in March, 2002 crowned the triumph of patriarchy even in the aspects of secular politics and governance. In the face of the many in-roads of women-friendly legislations (i.e.such as Republic Act 9262 on Anti-violence Against Women and their Children) at the national level, this only underscores the lack of will and interest among the critical sectors of Moro society – the tau-maas or matto-a and among religious and moral authorities to give women their equal dues. Their continuing indifference and complacency unfortunately widens the gap between what is religious dogma and what is faith as a lived experience.

Finally, the monotony of male-voice that currently dominate the discourses on gender, sexuality and sexual rights among Moro academic and religious learned (i.e. ulama and professionals alike) bespeaks the poverty in the tools of social analysis from a gendered-perspective or from a liberative tack that can bestow power to women. This propensity towards elite-exclusivism and monopoly in the generation and appropriation of Islamic and worldly knowledge by privileged sectors in society has created a deep lacuna in pag-guru ilmuh or wisdom-searching among the marginalized segments and has deprived many, especially women and the youth, of an environment for healthy, open and critical understanding of Islam and its Sha’ria, its contextual applications in dynamic so cieties and its practical adaptability to evolving processes of culture and history.

* A community participatory action research (COPAR) documenting Sexual Violence in Customary Practices among Muslim ethnic women was conducted from November-December, 2003 and April-November, 2004 in Zamboanga, Pagadian, Jolo and Lamitan in Region IX, Southern Philippines, in a two-pronged and integrated research and social advocacy design. Data were gathered through In-depth interviews (IDI) of 75 ethnic women in four cities; 3 validation Focus Groups (FGD); Key Informant interviews and feminist counseling interviews, “hand-holding” sessions and participant-observations during the three speak-outs and post-trauma healing sessions attended by a total of 150 women victim-survivors, counse lors, legal and paralegal practitioners, psychosocial and social development workers and OB-gynecologist and psychiatric medical doctors. The research outputs consist of 200-page research report and documentary summaries of 75 cases of sexual violence in customary practices and violence against women in conflict situation using the HURIDOCS system. The COPAR and advocacy campaign were successfully completed through the generous support and sisterly collaboration of various partners, among them: Coalition against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP); Minority Rights Group International-London; OXFAM-Great Britain Philippine Office; PILIPINA Legal Resource Center and various Moro and Lumad women NGOs and POs under the umbrella of Peace, Solidarity and Social Action Network of Lumad-Moro Women in Mindanao (PESOSAN-Mindanao). The academic research part was done under the auspices and guidance of the SEA Consortium on Gender, Sexuality and Sexual Health, UPDept. of Anthropology, CSSP, with research fellowship granted to Ms. Mucha Arquiza by Ford Foundation.

[1] Keiffer, Thomas.

[2] Bruno, Juanito. The Social World of the Tausugs. Manila, Philippines:Centro Escolar University, 1973.

[3] Jundam, Mashur Bin-Ghalib Adat Law: A Socializing Force in a Philippine Muslim Community MA Thesis, Asian Studies. University of the Philippines, 1983.

[4] Abubakar, Asiri J. To Win A Tausug Maiden < /SPAN>IN Filipino Heritage: The Making of the Nation, Vol. III Philippines: Lahing Filipino Publication, Inc. 1977.

[5] Rasul, Jainal. Comaparative Laws: The Family Code of the Philippines and the Muslim Code. Manila, Philippines: Rex Bookstore. 1994Sangguniang Panlalawigan Resolution No. 43-S Resolution Providing and Adopting the Tausug Customary Laws Drafted by the 1998 Codal Committee, Jolo, Sulu, March 2002.

[6] In the interest of confidentiality, all key informants names are suppressed in this version of write-up. They are however listed in the research report.

[7] Permissible acts.

[8] Non-permissible to consume or partake by Muslims.

[9] For example, by “buying peace” through cash payment ranging from 500-1,500.00 pesos for sexual molestation; by paying the tampan maru to cleanse ‘shame’ with a fixed amount from 1,500.00-2,500 pesos for a sexual offense of pagsaggaw (abduction); and 25,000 pesos for physical rape. All payments are to be counted as part of the ungsud or dowry if a marriage settlement is reached and refundable in full to the man if the family refused to any marriage settlement (Code of Tausug Adat, 2002).