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By Loren Hallilah I. Lao
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: January 18, 2009





MARAWI CITY, Philippines—Without a tirung (head scarf) and in T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, Atty. Raissa Jajurie hardly looks like a traditional Muslim woman. But looks can be deceiving.

Barely five feet, this lawyer certainly stands tall in the Muslim community where she has dedicated her life to the cause of Moro women. Upholding the teachings of Islam, Jajurie makes sure that Moro women can live in equal status with the menfolk, as the coordinator of the Mindanao branch of the Center for Alternative Legal Care or the Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal (SALIGAN).

Born and raised in Jolo, Sulu, Jajurie and her family had to migrate to Manila when war broke out in Mindanao in the early ’70s. A privileged life, however, did not shield her from the injustice faced by marginalized sectors, and this led her to eventually become a labor organizer after earning a Political Science degree at the Ateneo de Manila University. Her passion for social justice later led her to SALIGAN, where she worked as a legal researcher, publications officer, coordinator of the women’s unit and executive director, before heading the organization’s Mindanao branch in Davao City.

Jajurie’s forced acquaintance with injustice propelled her to take up Bachelor of Laws in the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. Although the law degree and her impressive alma mater came with the promise of a lucrative job as a hotshot lawyer, they also immersed her deeply into cases where justice was often denied simply because people didn’t know they had a right to it.

As a development lawyer, Jajurie found herself helping women claim their rights. She recalls how, while still based in Manila, she travelled for eight hours across the Sierra Madre mountains to get to Aurora for a rape case handled by SALIGAN. Similarly, she trekked to Quezon province for a woman who was seeking to dissolve her marriage because of domestic abuse. The long trip paid off. The woman’s petition was eventually granted.

Not all the cases she has handled have turned out well, but Jajurie remains undaunted. She recalls, “The rape case in Aurora resulted in the acquittal of the accused because the complainant did not exactly fit into the typical profile of a rape victim. So her testimony was not seen by the judge as credible.” It wasn’t a total loss, however, says this lawyer who has spearheaded gender and paralegal training in the group’s area of operation. The idea, she says, is to familiarize non-lawyers with the law so that they can help themselves and others to claim their rights. “I think the whole process that we had to undergo with the women-farmer paralegals was empowering in the sense that they were able to see the potentials and limitations of the justice system,” says Jajurie.

Aside from training paralegals on the finer points of the law, Jajurie and SALIGAN have also worked to improve the law and make them more responsive to existing realities. Especially in women’s lives. Among the legislation the group has helped midwife are the Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act (VAWC), the Anti-Sexual Harassment Law and the Anti-Trafficking Law. SALIGAN is also heavily involved with the Reproductive Health Bill pending before Congress.

While these are landmark legislations for women, Jajurie is realistic about their effect and reach. “Although these legal instruments are far from perfect and do not always translate into de facto rights for women, we still see them as milestones in our advocacy for women’s rights.”

An important component of the group’s legal literary program is the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the women’s international bill of rights, to which the Philippines is a signatory. The treaty is used as the standard to illustrate gender equality and non-discrimination.

Although CEDAW is not yet integrated in the Code of Muslim Personal Laws, Jajurie works with the Nisa Ul-Haqq fi Bangsamoro (Women for Justice in Bangsamoro) and conducts workshops on the treaty among Muslim women in a bid to improve their status. The impact may be minimal at this point, but getting the women interested is a good beginning. “I hope the workshops are able to bring the principles of CEDAW to Muslim women for their reflection, and ultimately, their action,” says Jajurie.

She adds: “We are also looking at specific women’s issues in this part of the country, like the issue of early marriages in Muslim communities.” Jajurie and the Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation are now in the final stages of research on early and forced marriages among Muslim Moro girls.

Jajurie sees no contradiction between the international standards on gender equality set by CEDAW and the teachings of Islam.

“I believe Islam was given to us by Allah because the Almighty wanted us to live in a just, peaceful and compassionate world,” she says. “I believe Allah created human beings in equal dignity and worth so whatever prejudice and injustice committed against any of His creations is not a part of His plan. It is a fitna or trial for us.”

In the same manner, she notes, discrimination against women is un-Islamic. Islamic texts, Jajurie explains, teach the values of justice, peace and respect for mutual dignity. However, the limited understanding of these values has led to injustice and discrimination against Muslim women. CEDAW, she hopes, would help enlighten her fellow Muslims.

A recent training conducted by Jajurie among 20 Muslim women to study gender and Islam did just that. During the session, the participants read Qur’anic verses, the ahadith (written traditions of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.) and tafsir (exegesis), and discussed these among themselves. The discussions, reports Jajurie, convinced them that contrary to popular notion, Islam does not actually teach discrimination against women as a doctrine. It is the interpretations of religious scholars with a limited understanding of Islam that have perpetrated such belief. The change of perspective makes the training truly empowering for both the Muslim participants and organizers, adds the lawyer.

Still, she concedes, many Muslims, even the women themselves, might not be ready to accept this view. In the local consultations conducted with Moro women, the participants themselves raised questions on the standards set by CEDAW, which seem to contradict their culture and Islamic (Shari’a) Law, a sensitive issue among Muslims.

Jajurie sees such concerns as a “challenge for Moro women to become more introspective in analyzing some of the cultural practices that might actually be perpetrating discrimination against them.” In this case, she adds, CEDAW becomes just the right instrument for women, Muslim or not, on which to base their analysis. “CEDAW can help in the process because it provides standards against which we can make comparisons with our lived realities,” she explains. “We should see CEDAW as a tool for this process and in looking at our own values.”

She admits: “I know that the years of doing culturally accepted but discriminatory practices are very hard to peel off. And this is true not just for Muslim communities but in other societies as well.” Women’s Feature Service

CEDAW is still being introduced to Muslim women. Groups working on resolving the seeming contradictions between the treaty and Shari’a have focused their activities on advocacy, consultations and research.