The situation of Vice President Leni Robredo resonates throughout the lives of many women. Some women who have found their voice and attained some kind of power are in predicaments of being given opportunities to express them or exercise their abilities. Other women may not reach the highest tiers of politics like the vice president, but their daily work-life settings are enough to make them female power models.
Female power is usually heralded only when some women make inroads in traditionally male-dominated fields. But daily realities showing women side by side with men, being community leaders or members, family members, daughters, wives and partners, friends, professionals and workers also reveal a form of female power.
Secretary Yasmin Busran-Lao of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) recognizes this. “Power is already inherent in women. It is just that they know how to use that power quietly and responsibly,” she said, believing that a woman need not be in a “position that is traditionally considered powerful” to be able to engage with the affairs of her family, community and country.
Busran-Lao said the reality of women and power is magnified in Muslim communities. Religion has stifled Moro women’s political participation while disputes in the name of religion have stopped them from even seeking opportunities in public offices.
“They are politically aware and have the will but there is no readiness on the ground for Moro women to rise,” she said, adding that Moro women face some constraints, firstly because women are poorer than men in Moro communities. Secondly, the instability caused by conflict, mostly armed and violent, have made it difficult for women to even consider running for elective positions, even if they know they can lead and despite the number of women-politicians from Mindanao who have blazed the trail.
The nagging question, “Kaya ba ng babaeng Muslim yan? (Can a Muslim woman do it?),” has subjected Moro women to unfair judgment. Busran-Lao said she herself heard the same question when she ran for the Senate in the 2010 elections.
“My experience in running for public office was challenging, because my being a Muslim was put into question,” she said. She was virtually unknown in many parts of the Philippines, despite her work for more than two decades as an advocate for women’s rights and the development, as well as an educator, researcher and development practitioner. “Why ask that question when all along, Moro women have proven they can do anything, only that most of them are not senators and mayors?” she asked.
During the campaign season for the May 2016 elections, she thought it was important for political parties to make their platforms more inclusive. Since a few women aspired for the highest positions in the country, politics should shift and open up more spaces for women.
Elections in the Philippines are often accompanied with violence, and Busran-Lao thinks that unless reforms are in place, women will not seek to be elected as leaders. Like armed conflict that restrains women, violent and meaningless elections also prevent women from becoming political leaders. She said: “We need peace in the conflict areas where we, Moro women, live. We also need electoral reforms and voters’ education to inculcate respect of every person’s right to decide.”
She recalled the experiences of Moro women as evacuees constantly leaving their homes to stay in evacuation centers during the all-out war policy in Mindanao under the Estrada administration in 2000. She drew her strength from her fellow Moro women. “In the most dreadful of situations, they still manage to be focused,” she said. “You can just imagine if they were at the helm of leadership in this country.”
Moro women in the grassroots are particularly skilled and prepared, not because they have constantly lived in conflict and violence, but because they are used to managing, arranging, organizing, governing and even settling disputes in their families and communities. They performed these community tasks even as they also attend to their roles as mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters and wives.
Involvement in local governance is not new to the women and their organizations. During the preparations for the negotiations for the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) starting in 2010 which was the result of the peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Moro women mobilized all-women monitoring teams at the barangays that enabled the ceasefire to hold. “Without them, there would not have been three years of peace,” she said. In the crafting of the BBL, the women ensured that their contributions to the document were keyed in, especially those that concern gender issues.
Busran-Lao grew up seeing Moro women assume powerful positions in the family and community – from deciding who would be good marriage partners among eligible young men and women, to defusing armed conflicts. “When I was young, I already considered women as politicians,” she said. “They back-channeled, resolved conflicts and cleaned up.”
As Muslims are clannish, forging a marriage alone would require massive efforts among women like going around neighborhoods and talking to families about the personal background of the prospective couple. These efforts culminate in high-profile meetings and deliberations of the parents and elders about the future of the would-be couple. “Some successful arranged marriages could be credited to the women who worked hard but stayed on the sidelines,” she said.
As family affairs often are under the command of women, the power of Moro women is rendered invisible and unheard of in the political structure of Muslim communities. In fact, Busran-Lao said indigenous women are more empowered in their own tribes than Moro women, as they arrange and preside over important events and are recognized as leaders, unlike Moro women leaders who remain in situations that cultures have long considered ordinary.
While it is the men who are usually seen onstage, Busran-Lao said the men enter the scene only after the women have cleared the way for them. “They (women) may not be acknowledged but this is culturally accepted,” she said.
“Stage management, maneuverings for the common good and settling disputes have been the work of Moro women. They are politicians without posts. And unfortunately, they are not recognized for these crucial roles and functions. They are known more by their indigenous and cultural roots and their religion, which often classify them as lesser than men in status in their communities and in society. They are recognized more by who their fathers are and who they’re married to,“ said Busran-Lao.
The paradoxical situations of Busran-Lao and millions of Moro women, and Robredo’s for that matter, challenges some constitution of power. While they possess tacit authority that comes with their everyday functions, they still continue to make the longest strides towards their freedoms and for an equitable world. #
Note: An earlier version of this story was first submitted to the Women’s Peace Table.