Apr 112013

Sub-plenary on Gender and War in a Multi-cultural Setting

The Bangsamoro Women in War and in Peace

Mucha-Shim Q. Arquiza

Secretary General
Asian Muslim Action Network in the Philippines (AMAN-Philippines)

Read at the Asian Peace Alliance "Kalinaw: Asian People Speak Up for Peace", August 29 to September, 2002, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Q.C.

"To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; and verily, God is most powerful for their aid; (they are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right, for no cause except that they say:'Our Lord is God'"
 Surah Al-Hajj 22: 39-40     Al Qur'anul Hakeem

Assalamu alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuhu.  Peace be with you.
To many of us to whom war and violence have become almost a daily phenomenon, monitoring the aftermath of government military operations has become  a futile exercise of accounting how much women, children and the elderly have been figuring out as casualties in wars, where they are seldom part of its victories (if at all war is victorious). Counting heads in evacuation centers has become as exasperating and tormenting as calling for the full implementation of the cease-fire and peace agreements between the Government of the Philippines (GOP) and the Moro liberation movements. Equally as depressing and desperateas NGO and human rights groups would attest -- is the tortuous grappling with the subhuman condition of victims which number keep swelling each day this government conducts its "war against terrorism". Yet official reports by state's Defense Department only acknowledge statistics of soldiers as combatants and the casualties from the side of the rebels.

Indeed, in war and conflict, women, children, the vegetation and ecology the so-called collateral damages   hardly count. And doubly so, the invisibility of women becomes more pronounced when one belongs to the ethnic and cultural communities. Yet, we can not talk only of physical loss and damage to properties here. More damaging than the physical devastation is the psycho-social trauma, the destruction of self-hood and loss of identity for the displaced and refugees; and the general loss of sense of community that mostly women and children go through in the course of conflict.

In this short sharing, as I try to illustrate, from selected cases, the role and status of women in war and peace, I would also attempt to show the inter-sectionality of gender, ethnicity and religion and the state of economic, political and socio-cultural dis-enfranchisement of an indigenous community such as the Bangsamoro of the southern Mindanao, Philippines and the corresponding marginalization of women into a perilous situation of utmost disadvantage and dis-empowerment.

Women in War:
In the traditional western (and modern) concept of PEACE and security, a woman is differently positioned from man. Because war, militarism and valor in the western sense is usually identified as the realm of the male, women and children are pushed into the back-seat and supposed as "passive and helpless" sectors in society for the soldiers and patriots to defend and protect. As "moral, nurturing and peace-preserving" figure of a suffering mother, the woman's domain is chained to the domestic and private life. Ironically, the simplistic and sexist imaging of woman as passive also obscures the centrality of her role in society and the public as the other half of humanity who should be actively involved in peace-building and in changing society, two important political roles.

However, in indigenous societies where communal and egalitarian values are still extant, the role of women in communal defense and peace-keeping used to be as important as that of men.

The Bangsamoro: in a Multicultural Setting

The experience of the Bangsamoro people of southern Philippines, particularly that of the women, in war and peace is a classic example.

The Bangsamoro, who stakes claim of the Mindanao-Sulu-and-Palawan as their ancestral territory has been struggling for political, economic and social self-determination for close to 400 years now, 333 years of which, starting in 1565, is against the Spanish conquest. The colonizers dubbed their campaign against the Moros  a "guerras piraticas" or "war against Moro pirates" not too different from today's "war against terrorism" led  by America.  In reality, it was in fact an aggression against a sovereign and free states of Muslim sultanates. "By using piracy as a reason, the colonizers gave their military depredations the color of a domestic affair, a fight in self-defense, a struggle against evil forces justifiable even within Christian doctrine" (B.R. Rodil, 2002).

The Spanish campaign against the Moros fomented the so-called Muslim-Christian conflict so effectively through a divide-and-rule policy that pitted Christian Indios from the islands of Luzon and Visayas and converts in Mindanao to fight against the Muslim Moros in the south. What were plain land-grabbing and socio-political disenfranchisement of the sovereign Muslim states were projected as campaigns against pagans and unbelievers.

The Bangsamoro resistance against American colonial occupation ran for more than fifty years. Here, cultural institutions and education were potent forces of silencing and further marginalization of the Bangsamoro and deepening the wedge between Muslims and Christians. The American colonial regime did not only set up an educational system that promoted and perpetuated a colonial cum westernized culture but institutionalized the discrimination and prejudice against the Bangsamoro as well. The Philippine constabulary and scouts had also been effective instruments of counter-insurgency. Moros were recruited into the PC and the Philippine scouts so that fighting now became that of Moros against fellow Moros.

The interlinking of education and militarization as instruments of subjection is summarized by no less than General Arthur McArthur in 1901, who had said with respect to the pacification of the whole archipelago:

I know nothing in the department of administration that can contribute more in behalf of pacification than the immediate institution of a comprehensive system of education, such as recommended by the general superintendent.

The matter is so closely allied to the exercise of military force in these islands that in my annual report I treated the matter as a military subject and suggested a rapid extension of educational facilities as an exclusively military measure.

From my point of view, this appropriation (requested for schools) is recommended primarily as an adjunct to military operations, calculated to pacify the people and procure and expedite the restoration of tranquility throughout the archipelago.

Which Rodil (2002) observed that: "It would seem therefore that if the objective of the military was to destroy by force of arms indigenous armed resistance, the intention of education was to diffuse and melt the very spirit of this resistance through the infusion of  new culture, new thought patterns and new consciousness."                                                     

For the past five decades into the contemporary period, the Bangsamoro resistance has been led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MNLF promotes the Bangsamoro nationalism captured in the slogan of Hulah, Bangsa, Agama. The MNLF doctrine exhorts the Bangsamoro to liberate the homeland, to assert its identity as a people and its way-of-life (grounded in the Islamic faith). This is translated as a struggle for self-governance in which the full exercise of religious and cultural freedom and dignity as people are among the corner-stones of its programs of economic, social and political self-determination. On the other hand, to the MILF, the ultimate goal of establishing a "state" of Islam is its answer to the social evils of oppression and injustices. To both the MNLF and MILF, either genuine autonomy or a bid for independence is an ultimate solution to the liberation of the Bangsamoro from neo-colonialism.

Taking off from the 1976 Tripoli Agreement of the Marcos regime and the then MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari, the Aquino administration in 1986 renewed the peace process with the MNLF. This initiative was carried on by the Ramos administration which culminated in a Final Peace Agreement signed between the GOP and MNLF leadership under Prof. Nur Misuari in September 2, 1996.

Meanwhile, the  Government of the Philippines Peace Negotiating Panel (GPNP) has also concluded some talking points for peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which includes among others, Peace agreements on cessation of hostilities; Humanitarian assistance and socio-economic rehabilitation, the recent one being signed in 7 May, 2002.

The Historical Role of Bangsamoro Women in War and Peace

The long and protracted Moro-Spanish war and the subsequent resistance against American and other perceived colonial dominating powers in contemporary times have somehow kept some indigenous practices extant among Moro communities, including that of the role of women in communal defense.

Unlike their Christianized sisters, the Bangsamoro women are traditionally pro-active participants in the community's defense. Because of their long history of resistance against colonial onslaught and traditionally of the warrior culture, the Tausug women of Sulu, for instance, fought side-by-side with men in the colonial wars. Traditional sources and folk narratives talk of how the women of Sama Balangingi and Iranun tribes in the Zamboanga peninsula -- who had been much dreaded by the Spaniards-- figured in history as defenders of their communities. Some accounts even included of women participating in "piratical activities and slave-raiding" (Warren, 1980). We also read in history of women actually leading in resistance not only in the stereotypical roles of nursing and feeding the freedom fighters (mujahideens) or burying the dead, but as active combatants as well as peace keepers.

Tuan Putlih Baluka of the Spanish period was a noted peace-emissary during the trade-blockade and military campaign of General Corcuera in Jolo in the 1760's and during the infamous Battle of Bud Datu. During the time of Governor General Arolas in the late 1800s, Pangeyan Jumlila is also one name that comes to mind. Campaigns led by women, such as that of Putlih Isara and Napsa Lagayan are to these days being celebrated in songs and chanted in the Kissa and Parrang-sabil , oral narratives of the Suluan people. These outstanding women in Sulu narratives depicted the courage of Tausug and Sama women in actually parrying blades and krises with Spanish generals.  Partly, this acceptance of women as combatants may also be accounted by the fact that the Bangsamoro, as predominantly Muslims, abide by the Qur'anic injunction of "prescribed fighting against injustice and wrong-doing" (Al-Hajj 22: 39-40), or of war of defense which is considered a social obligation (Fardu Qifaya) for those who are able, whether men or women.

At the height of Bangsamoro resistance led by the MNLF and MILF, mujahidats or women fighters were involved in the liberation struggle. The Bangsamoro women revolutionary committees were created as part of the politico-military structures of the organization. And mujahidats are undergoing the same combat training side-by-side with men. An MILF leader Hadji Murad rationalizes the training of women and children in combat as part of a preparation for them in case of attack by the military: "It is better to prepare them for battle than let them be vulnerable for any attack. It is more inhuman to leave them to die without being able to defend themselves and their families or villages.", he asserted.  (Cagoco-Guiam, 2002)

In historical times, women as peace emissaries also figured out well among the Bangsamoro. Even among the most marginalized and the sea-nomadic tribe of the Sama Dilaut, which are considered the least mainstreamed yet the most peace-loving of the 13 Bangsamoro ethnoliguistic groups, women are at the forefront of conflict resolution and negotiations within the community and in dealing with the other ethnic groups or "a-a seddi" (the 'others') because they are considered "ahaggut" (lit. 'cool' or more level-headed) than men. (HAGS, Inc., 2000)

However, with colonialism and the subsequent introduction of western ideals and new values, the indigenous women's freedom to participate in socio-political undertakings had been one of the precious legacies first to go. In more recent times, during peace negotiations, the Bangsamoro women have gradually been relegated into the background. Despite the historic visibility of women's role in the Bangsamoro struggle of the past and contrary to the claim of upholding Islamic ideals of equality, in both the MNLF and MILF panels negotiating for peace with government, women are not represented and their agenda is unheard.

Women as Unrecorded Victims and Invisible Casualties of War

One of the immediate and most devastating effects of continuous militarization in Mindanao and Moroland is massive displacement and dislocation. This has resulted to disintegration of old egalitarian/communal values and the severance of primordial ties for most of the indigenous communities, therefore, the deprivation from the security of social relations and loss of a sense of belonging.

The flip-side situation of fighting women and children in history, are of those who are now caught in the crossfire as hapless civilian victims. In recent years, the long wars have displaced families, uprooted homes and destroyed communities such that, in due time women and children have lost their central roles in communal security, in its defense and peace-keeping.

Role-reversal of genders and coping up with the multiple burden of keeping a household have also been adversely affecting women.

One community in Upper Sinangcapan, in Lamitan, Basilan is a case in point. At the height of military operation against the MILF in 1991, for months, the whole village experienced tremendous trauma in the hands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Later, the village was declared a no-man's land. Massive damage was wrought not only in properties and lives but, worst, in the disruption of family and community-life. The lasting damage can be felt to this day. During the day, one could find only old folks and very young children tending the fields. Meanwhile, young men belonging to the Tableegh (religious fundamentalist group) milled around what remained of a mosque, offering prayer and doing dah'wah (religious mission of preaching). At the end of the day, in the cloak of darkness, the ghostly village would be awakened by the commotion of horse-back riding armed men who would pass the night with relatives and family members who had chosen to remain. Yet, one wonders where the young and able-bodied women were. Most of the women were working outside of the village either in the urban centers in Isabela or Zamboanga City or abroad in Arab states employed as domestic helps.

In yet another village in Central Mindanao, the virtual obliteration of common landscapes has brought a deep sense of insecurity and disorientation to the villagers. In Dumabalas and nearby barangays in Datu Piang, Cotabato province, a Maguindanaon woman evacuee lamented that the "mopping up operation" of the military had not been limited only to burning of houses, demolition of mosques and madrasah buildings but was also accompanied by rampant cutting of trees, uprooting garden patches, butchering of farm animals and general destruction of vegetation. It was intentional and so deliberate that the community which, suspected by the military as harboring rebels in their midst would have nothing to go back to.

The Experience of Violence

State-sponsored organized violence such as the military operations affects on the psychological, social as well as material conditions of individuals, communities and nations. It does not only create a disastrous condition of "complete emergencies" but causes trauma out of dislocation and loss of sense of community. Not to mention that civilians are not only incidental victims but are targets of violence; torture, rape and mutilation and other forms of dehumanizing acts.
And all these largely impact on women and children.

Uprooting History The ecology and general landscape of the community are not only means of economic life and sustenance to the indigenous community. To them are attached meanings and spiritual connections which are most crucial and significant to the communal and social life. They are repositories of the people's collective memory. In every tree, rock, river or vegetable patch is etched the history and tradition larger than the people and even community itself! Uprooting trees, periodic bombing or burning houses to the ground are systematic ways of uprooting people's history, erasing identities and sense of belongingness.

Once history is obliterated, the people lose their sense of familiarity and become disoriented from their community. The youth and children become alienated from their identity as they are deprived of socialization. Because women are the ones usually invested with the role of taking care of the vegetable gardens, planting the trees and nurturing the household as the basic unit of community organization, the loss of community-life is also a loss of her sense of being and identity. As one Sama Dilaut saying goes: Alungey Bissalah, Alanyap na Bangsa.  Lost language, vanished people.

Thank you and Wassalam.  


Cagoco-Guiam, Rufa (2002). Child Soldiers in Central and Western Mindanao: A Rapid Assessment. Geneva, Switzerland: ILO Publication.
Hags, Incorporated (2000). On Evolving a Development Framework for the Sama Dilaut of Tambakan Iligan City. Iligan City: Hope for Change, Inc.
Report of the War Department, 1902, Volume I, Part 4, pp. 257, 258.
Rodil, B.R. (2002) Mindanao History, unpublished.
Warren, James (1980). Sulu Zone. Quezon City, Philippines: New Day Publishers
The Holy Qur'an. Surah Al-Hajj 22: 39-40 "To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; and verily, God is most powerful for their aid; (they are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right, for no cause except that they say:'Our Lord is God'"



The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in 2002




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