FROM Day 1, I was the reluctant congresswoman. I have always been a community worker. I can spend hours in conversation with women under a tree, and just listen to how they are, their concerns, how they think they can be addressed. From 1997 when I started as community organizer then human rights worker in Basilan, to 2006 when we founded Pinay Kilos, a women’s movement that worked in the areas of Zamboanga City and Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, I was always with the people in the communities. I had my first-hand experience of government bureaucracy when I was appointed Executive Director of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos in 2010. When Anak Mindanao asked me to be their first nominee, my first question was, are you asking me because I am Mujiv Hataman’s wife? But even when they said no, I was still inclined to refuse. Although I am a founding member of Amin, politics was a field I knew I did not belong to.
But I said yes because I feared when I turn my back from this responsibility offered to me, I will lose my right to complain. And despite the continuing resistance within, I thrived. I found most fulfillment in putting forward the stories I collected in all my community work, which sometimes bridge high-level discourses with realities on the ground, especially on the issues of women and cultural communities.
Much of our legislative agenda were taken from our own experiences, the Bill Against Discrimination on Account of Ethnicity and Religious Belief; the Bill for the Mandatory Establishment of Women and Child Safe Spaces in Evacuation Centers, which came out from an actual scene we witnessed in an evacuation center after the Zamboanga siege; the Bill Strengthening Islamic Banking in the Philippines, an advocacy I started when I was still in the NCMF, realizing that the Armm is the most unbanked region and therefore the Muslim Filipinos the most unbanked population. Our call for this Bill and advocacy is financial inclusion, access to an alternative banking system that is responsive to a marginalized, but highly-potential economic drivers.
We did not content ourselves with legislative work. Our call for peace found a new expression, in the form of a documentary, The Crescent Rising. It captured what conflict and peace meant for the ordinary people. Most of the time, peace is heard through the voices of the leaders, the revolutionaries, the government. But through this documentary, we see it through the real lives of ordinary people – an MILF combatant, a widow, and a mother and daughter displaced by the Zamboanga siege. The Crescent Rising has so far won the 2015 QC International Film Festival; Netpac Awards Best Documentary; 2016 Gawad Urian Best Documentary; 2016 Inquirer Guyito Award Best Documentary and the 2016 Busan International Film Festival Best Documentary Award. We have so far at least 50 screenings all over the country and we hope to be able to do more.
May I also share my new-found passion in the rediscovery of our traditional arts, inspiring us to file a Bill for the establishment of the Institute of Mindanao and Sulu Traditional Arts, and embark on a very ambitious project, a travelling exhibition Muslims of the Philippines: History and Culture. This is in partnership with the Armm, and TAO, Inc. of renowned curator Ms. Marian Pastor Roces. This was launched last April 2017 at SM North Edsa, and has so far been to SM Aura, House of Representatives, DLSU – College of St. Benilde, DLSU – Santiago Zobel, the Bimp-Eaga Budayaw Festival at SM General Santos City and the Armm Regional Complex. After a Mindanao tour, we hope to bring it back here by middle of this year.
The exhibitions themselves proved the openness of people from all walks of life to know more. Guests came up to us, asking questions from terrorism to how to wear the hijab, from affirmations of indeed Sabah belonged to the Sulu Sultanate to heart-warming hugs of realizations that we are just one people. But another beautiful story that unexpectedly came out of this are the partnerships that resulted to more – forums, exposures, the development of a curriculum, scholarship opportunities, outreach, friendships.
As expected, I found meaning in working outside, than inside the House. As we remain hopeful for the Anti-Discrimination Bill, we embarked on a Focus:Bajau project aimed at breaking the derogative image society has of the Bajau. As we pushed for the Islamic Banking bill, we became more engaged in developing a Sharia-Compliant microfinance and building a constituency for Islamic finance. As we await the fate of the Bill for Women and Child Safe Spaces, we worked with a group of Muslim psychologists in the development of a Module on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support to Muslim Filipinos. But I remained in Congress.
Until Marawi happened. It was not just a wake-up call, it was a deafening alarm. I am not from Marawi, but I know its implication to the rest of us. The questions Marawi brought out were scary, the answers even scarier. How did it happen right under our nose? Or were we looking the other way, distracted by so many diversions? What happened to the community worker I took so much pride in, why were the people silent, or were they silently warning us? Or have we lost their trust? Could we have done something to prevent it?
What we saw in Marawi is not us. We have been Muslims here for the last 637 years, yes we know war, but we have not seen anything like this. Our own kind, defying their own elders, their own gurus, destroying their own homes. Listening to foreign ideologies and denying the very people and institutions that made them Muslims and preserved Islam for centuries, since the first day it arrived. When I learned of children among them, aged as my own, I knew there was no other way.
More than being physically with the people, it was about being one of them, in the truest sense of the word. Not an agent of an institution they lost faith in, not one claiming to represent them but is disconnected from their everyday lives. There is so much confusion, unrealistic and therefore unmet expectations, resulting to so much frustrations, frustrations that these elements build on to win our people to their side. And it is incumbent upon us to win them back. And the best way I know how, under the circumstances, is to divest myself of any identity or affiliation that will cast even the slightest doubt on my intentions.
We all are called to different, equally important roles. Some are meant to look at and take care of the bigger picture. I feel at this particular time, mine is to be back home, if only to convince my own people, one person at a time, one child at a time, that the path of peace will always be possible.
And I know I am not going back alone. The years I spent here are not totally lost. I met kindred spirits who convinced me that all we have to do is tell our story, and they willingly share the burden of our pains. All we have to do is share our dreams, and there will be people who will journey with us to realize their fulfillment. And one of life’s mysteries that I learned to stop questioning is, I always find myself being led to them.
(Excerpts from a speech delivered by Sitti Djalia Turabin at the 47th Membership Meeting of the Philippine Business for Social Progress on Jan. 23, 2018.) The author represented Anak Mindanao party-list group in Congress from June 30, 2013 until she resigned in early October 2017 to focus on community work, especially among the youth in conflict areas in Mindanao. Permission to publish granted. -Mindanews)