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Philippines: This Ali Fights For Muslim Women

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In Marawi City, images of women dressed in figure hugging outfits are spray-painted and teenaged girls are forced into early marriage. The rampant injustice against women in her city, spurred Sittie Ali, a Muslim Maranao from Lanao del Sur and an instructor at the Mindanao State University, to educate Muslim women about their rights.

According to Ali, Muslim Maranao women not only face prejudice on account of their gender, but their culture and religion as well. And this cycle of discrimination begins early in life. As young girls or even single adults, they are under the strict control of their fathers. It is also drilled into them that a woman's primary responsibilities are to look after the family and manage the home. Once married, they have to follow the wishes of their husbands.

But, perhaps, the worst discrimination they face is the practice of early, arranged and forced marriages that are negotiated by the family. Fortunately, Ali did not have to face this, because her father was against the idea of an early marriage for his only daughter. He could see her determination to finish her studies and encouraged her to do so. However, while still in college, he unexpectedly passed away. And, as feared, a few months after his death, she was married. "I was still mourning the loss of the person I loved the most," she recalled. "He was not only my father. He was my source of comfort, my confidante. He was the foundation of my strength and dreams."

Her husband was not of her choice. But according to her relatives who had negotiated the alliance, the family needed a man to take care of them, as her brothers were too young to take over the responsibilities of managing the household. As often happen to Maranao women, Ali's family decided when, where and whom she was to marry.

Here, too, she got lucky. Despite her marriage being arranged, it proved to be a successful one. In fact, her husband even encouraged her to complete her graduation. Still Ali would not recommend this route to anyone. "Not all men would be as understanding as my husband," she says. "It was only luck and Allah's mercy that I got married to a caring, sensitive and loving man. I did not choose him but luck was on my side. Most women forced to marry are not so lucky."

As per the Code of Muslim Personal Laws (CMPL), a special law on family relations which applies to Muslims in the Philippines, the consent of both parties - bride and groom - is an essential requisite in the contract of marriage. However, parents or guardians of the bride often overlook this. Many Maranao girls are forced to marry young and they are certainly not as fortunate as Ali is. Once married, they are either discouraged from completing their education or they get so caught up in household duties and with children that they no longer have the time to pursue their studies. In contrast, the husbands are free to do whatever they want, completely free of household and childcare responsibilities.

These are just some of the many reasons why Ali feels that it is vital to educate Maranao Muslim women about their rights. And she sees CEDAW as the right instrument to empower them to speak out and fight the injustices they face.

Ali first heard about the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) while working as a Junior Program Officer with an NGO, the Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation (AMDF), on its programme on gender and women's rights. In fact, she worked as a facilitator of the 'Orientation to CEDAW: A Local Consultation Among Moro Women' that was conducted in Marawi City. She was also a researcher for the project 'CEDAW-based Action Research and Advocacy on Early Marriage Among Moro Women in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)'.

Among the numerous provisions of CEDAW, she found Article 5 on 'Sex Roles', Article 10 on 'Education' and Article 16 on 'Marriage and Family' particularly useful in her work.

CEDAW was also especially helpful in her campaign because it supported gender equality - one of the principles of Islam. Says Ali, "According to Islam, God created women and men as equal and He prohibits any harm or injustice being done to His creations. So let us not encourage men and women to continue committing injustice and discrimination against women."

Ali also believes that NGOs, women groups and even local governments need to come forward and ensure that Muslim women are not discriminated against. In Marawi City, for instance, violation of women's rights is rampant.  As she points out, a city ordinance penalises women who do not dress "modestly". Women with exposed hair or those wearing clothes that outline the body's contours or have sleeves that show the elbows, are abused by 'well-meaning' citizens. Yet, no one is apprehended for these atrocities. "If only the national government will pressure local governments to implement CEDAW, then Muslim women will feel safer and believe that they have a good instrument in CEDAW," she says.

Although she is now no longer working full time with AMDF, Ali is committed to her cause. Her work has not only empowered other women but herself as well. As she put it, "After attending our seminars, every time a woman says that that she does not want her children to experience gender discrimination or vows to treat her children equally, regardless of their sex, I feel empowered."

(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)

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