This article titled “‘Aren’t men just cleverer than women?’: building a feminist city in the Philippines” was written by Corinne Redfern, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 13th December 2017 16.37 Asia/Kolkata
Nor-Ain Ibrahem wasn’t looking to learn about gender equality when she stumbled upon the white tent next to the community basketball court. As temperatures nudged 40C in Landar evacuation camp – near Marawi City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao – the 25-year-old says she was simply drawn in by the promise of a moment’s peace and quiet, and the electric fan.
“There were brightly coloured posters on the walls and there was a curtain you could go behind if you didn’t want anyone to see you,” she says. “An older woman gave me a bottle of water and asked, ‘Do you know what your rights are?’ I said I didn’t think I had any.”
Raised in Marawi’s north-eastern district of Disomangcop, Ibrahem had been taught that Maranaw women were physically incapable of work – and that the sooner they got married, the better for everyone. At 18 years old, she was pulled out of an Arabic lesson to get married that same day to a man she’d never met.
“When I saw my husband-to-be for the first time, I thought, ‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.’ But there was nothing I could do about it. I had to stay silent and obey my parents. That’s what you do in Marawi.” She pauses. “Or at least, that’s what you did.”
Earlier this year, Ibrahem and her husband were caught up in president Rodrigo Duterte’s five-month assault against “terrorist insurgents” in the majority-Muslim Marawi. In the nearby evacuation centres, the tent that Ibrahem had found herself in was one of 10 “women friendly spaces” set up by local NGO Magungaya Mindanao Incorporated (MMI).
After two hours of discussion, Ibrahem went to find her husband, Alanor, and tell him what she’d learned. “I said, ‘Did you know I am allowed to work? And that I don’t have to agree with you all the time? And that if you hit me, I can call the police?’ He was so shocked.”
Alanor, 32, shrugs at this claim. It was just surprising to him, he says. He’s willing to accept that maybe things in the old Marawi were not perfect. “When I married Nor-Ain, I did think ‘maybe this is wrong’ because she was crying so much during the ceremony,” he concedes. “But then I thought, ‘I want her’. So I carried on anyway. I know now that I should have asked her permission first.” In the ‘new Marawi’, he hopes all three of his daughters can go to university and find well-paid careers before husbands.
MMI hoped the tents would provide safe spaces for the women. “In times of conflict and upheaval, women are at an increased risk of violence and discrimination,” explains Zulaika Guiapal, the organisation’s area coordinator. But no one was expecting that the women visiting the spaces would leap towards the concept of feminism so enthusiastically.
At one meeting attended by the Guardian, women are energetically and enthusiastically talking over one another. “There’ll be pavements, where we can set up stalls and sell things without men pushing us out of the way,” says one. “And we’ll have schools, so girls can study until they’re 18 or 19, and nobody will make them drop out to get married,” chips in another.
“And if a husband tries to hit his wife, we’ll call the police and they’ll lock him up!” At the last remark, there’s a cheer, and 21 women sitting cross-legged on the floor burst into fits of laughter.
“We didn’t expect this to happen,” Guiapal whispers from the edge of the group. “Six months ago, none of these women could even say their own names without shaking. They were so scared. Now we can barely make them stay silent for a second. They have so many plans for rebuilding Marawi so that it specifically benefits women.”
“We’re hoping that this could be our time for women to not only succeed academically but to really embrace feminism and gender equality,” says Dr Alma E Berowa, vice-president of academic affairs at Mindanao State University. “Together, we think we can build something very positive.”
All summer, she says, stories have emerged of Muslim women fearlessly standing up to the terrorists and escorting Christian men out of the city because they believed they were less likely to be shot than their husbands. “And I refused to leave the university campus all summer, even when bombs were falling so close that the walls were shaking, because I wanted my female students to see me as a symbol of strength, and to know that women do not have to be weak going forward.”
“Three months ago, I thought men were just cleverer than women,” says Norbaisah Badri, 25. She fled Marawi by motorbike with her family in May, after they heard bombs exploding metres away from their house. “Until we reached the evacuation camp, I’d never questioned the way we’d been brought up.”
Women living on Mindanao are often held back from education and employment by deeply pervasive patriarchal traditions, says Guiapal. But the response from all the Maranaw men has been promising. “Once we start to explain that women’s equality will benefit them too, they start to listen. Many of them have been to Manila, or seen TV shows like The X Factor on YouTube, so they know things are different for women outside of Mindanao. Their excuse has always been, ‘Well, Maranaw people do things differently.’ But now everything has had to change, so that reasoning doesn’t stand up any more.”
Newly confident in her rights, Badri cites a few incidents when she’s told men that they’re no longer allowed to hit their wives. “They say, ‘Who are you to tell us how to behave?’ But I’m getting better at responding calmly, and the other week I stood up and held a whole training session for 30 people on my own. My father was so proud of me he went around telling my cousins, ‘My daughter Norbaisah is a teacher now.’ A teacher! Can you imagine?”
Of course, despite signs of progress, the problems won’t disappear overnight. In Pantar – a camp of 109 yellow tents and low bamboo fences – Guiapal gathers participants for a debrief when one mentions that there was a wedding the week before. The bride, Joraina, was 14. Guiapal visibly slumps. Based nearly 200km away in Cotabato, and with so many sites around Marawi to keep track of, it’s impossible for her to know what’s going on all the time.
“But it’s OK,” one of the volunteers tries to reassure her. “It wasn’t a forced marriage – they were in love.”
When Guiapal has gathered her thoughts, she explains: “It’s one thing to introduce the idea that nobody should get married if they don’t want to. It’s another to explain that at 14 you’re still too young to get married at all. But we’ll get there.”
Badri agrees. “So much has changed in the past six months,” she says. “Before the war I had a house, but I was just a housewife. Now I’m an IDP [internally displaced person] and I have nothing. But I feel as if I can take over the world.”
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