I am in Zamboanga City for the 2nd National Conference of Muslim Women Peace Advocates with the theme "Noorus Salam: From Vision to Action, From Conflict to Peace" (February 7-10, Garden Orchid Hotel).
Organized by the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy and the Magbassa Kita Foundation Inc, we are supported by The Japan Foundation, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), the Asia Pacific Centre on the Responsibility to Protect (APCR2P), UN Women, Visayan Forum Foundation, and USAID through its Sustainable Health Improvements through Empowerment and Local Development (SHIELD) program.
It was serendipitous that the discussions between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front started on February 9 in Kuala Lumpur, as the Noorus Salam were hunkering down to figure out how to help bring peace to our communities. The participants signed a Wall of Peace, writing messages of hope for peace to come to Mindanao.
Noorus Salam or "Light of Peace" is a network of aleemat (Muslim women religious scholars) and women civil society leaders who gathered to share their accomplishments since last year’s conference. They shared time and ideas to respond to issues of conflict prevention, peacemaking and democracy, and sustainable development in Mindanao. This second conference seeks to provide a framework for empowering Noorus Salam members (particularly the aleemat) for greater participation and involvement by providing a venue where the women could interact and agree on steps to take in support of peace in Mindanao; human security and human rights; health, literacy and education; democratic reforms.
I have been taught by my mother that Islam liberated women by giving them rights previously denied to them: rights of ownership, decision-making in marriage and divorce, political participation, and leadership. Unfortunately, from the early years of Islam, patriarchal politics intervened, changing many of the original principles. Today, Muslim women in many communities have lost the rights given to them during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. And, as Irene Santiago said during the conference, many women have become so socialized that we claim our obligations, but we do not claim our rights!
Sura 49, Verse 13 of the Holy Qur’an states: "O mankind! We created you from a single pair of male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise each other." Thus, Muslim men and women are recognized as father and mother of all nations, as equal members of society. Woman was not fashioned out of Adam’s rib but created at the same time as Man. Partnership defines the Islamic ideal relationship between men and women.
If men were to be solely responsible for women, then the Holy Qur’an would not have instructed, "And whatever wrong any human being commits rests upon himself alone; and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden."
Women in Muslim Mindanao share the burden, with the men. They live and work to protect their families under tremendous pressures most Filipino women cannot even imagine. And yet they persevere because they are the glue that holds the family together. They hold the trust of their children to keep them safe. As Kofi Annan said, "There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they grow up in peace."
I have thought of how elusive peace has become in Mindanao in the past decade, especially in Muslim Mindanao. Since August 2008, over half a million -- some say 700,000 -- became refugees because the armed conflict. We all know that the women and children suffer most in times of conflict. Muslim women who suffer from deprivation, oppression, and human rights violations believe in a just peace as described by Frederick Douglass: "Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."
However, we women have little say on how peace is attained. And yet Filipino men and women believe we are the better peacemakers, according to an SWS survey.
The discussions Noorus Salam had on women, peace and security, human rights, development opened windows in their minds (specially our aleemat) on the importance of being involved. If we are the ones severely affected, should we not at least have a say on policy that will influence our lives? We should. Women’s ideas blossomed during four concurrent workshops conducted during the conference.
"Gender and Security -- UN Security Council Resolution 1325 & 1820" delved into the UN Security Council Resolutions concerning women’s protection in conflict areas and participation in discussions on peace and security.
"Responsibility to Protect" educated the women about an emerging international norm concerning the prime responsibilities of States as protectors of their citizens against mass atrocities, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. (Could we have foreseen and prevented the Ampatuan Massacre?)
The workshop on "Anti-Human Trafficking" provided a forum for the women to take action on the growing problem of human trafficking in Muslim Mindanao. (Serendipity struck again: On Feruary 8, Zamboanga City won its case on labor trafficking, the first case won in the entire Philippines. Mayor Celso Lobregat, who joined us for the workshop, was pleased to inform that all five cases against human traffickers prosecuted by City Prosecutor Darlene Pajarito have succeeded in putting traffickers behind bars).
"Aleemat and Preventive Health Care" continued the capacity-building session on maternal and child health care which we had initiated last year, supported by USAID.
We hope that women can be involved -- if not at the high table of formal peace processes, then certainly at the low table or the community level.