The iska in niqab
MANILA, Philippines – When she climbed up the stage to receive her diploma, they barely saw her skin. The black piece of garment concealed everything but her eyes.
She was not all covered up when she entered UP in 2011. But she wasn't the typical young girl with the ambition to only conquer the world. What she had in mind – and heart – was more, let's say, political and religious, something that would define her later as a person and daughter of Mindanao.
On her 3rd year in college, she surprised the class when she entered wearing garments that practically swallowed her whole. No one recognized her.
In that class, she was the only one wearing a niqab. She was alone. Through their stares, almost everyone made sure she would feel that she's alone. But she never felt different. In fact, under the niqab was a confident and intelligent woman, so self-assured that she was way better than many others in the class.
Mardheeya Nuruddin, 20, graduated cum laude at the University of the Philippines Diliman with degree in Bachelor of Business Administration and Accountancy.
It was sweet vindication for the young Moro who was subjected to nasty jokes and was discriminated against because she was a Moro and on top of that, a Moro woman wearing a niqab.
Nuruddin's journey from Zamboanga to the capital tells of a struggle of a young Moro from the southern Philippines – her dreams, frustrations, pain, and victories.
"I studied at the Universidad de Zamboanga in high school and I was deeply hurt when they banned niqabi," she said. "All other niqab-wearing women, including my sisters, were affected by the policy."
"I was very affected that time. I took it as a challenge to do better in school," she said.
When she passed the UP entrance exams, Nuruddin said everyone around her was happy, but she did not get the support that she expected.
"Kaya mo ba (Can you do it)?"
"UP yun, taga-Mindanao ka lang (That's UP. You are only from Mindanao)."
"Discrimination lang ang makukuha mo doon (You'll just be discriminated there). You can’t protect yourself there."
"Mahirap sa Manila, kailangan mong mag-adjust, baka kailangan mong tanggalin yung hijab mo kapag nandoon ka na (Living in Manila is difficult. You need to adjust. You might be compelled to remove your hijab when you move to Manila)."
These were only a few of the comments she received after telling people about her plans.But these did not dampen her determination to prove that someone like her – a niqab-wearing Moro from Mindanao – can make it in the big city.
"I did not stop there. As if there is something within me telling me that success comes from Allah and these matters should not hinder me," she said.
Being in UP was a battle in itself – in fact, a difficult one. On her first year, she said she lost herself as she went through a roller-coaster emotional ride of academic challenges, adjustments, and, yes, discrimination. But in the middle of it all, she discovered herself – and her capacity to weather the storm.
"Now I understand that it was only to truly find me," she said. "Alhamdulillah (praise be to God), were needed for me to find Allah. There was no one to cling on to at that time as effectively as clinging on to Allah and His words."
Her faith, she said, made her a strong, "different" Moro woman.
"Islam and my faith in Allah became my source of strength," she said. "And because of His help, and because along the way, I understood that success comes from being steadfast in obeying Allah, I decided to devote as much time as possible in learning the deen."
On her 3rd year in college, she found herself wearing the niqab. And it started it all.
"That’s where challenges started. People were hesitant to be my friends. I felt like I was not welcomed at all," she said in mixed Filipino and English.
During classroom activities, the feeling of hostility against her was always palpable, she said.
"I think my classmates are confused and scared at the same time. First day in school, in almost all of my classes I make sure to find a way to explain my face veil and my background. It was my way of making them accept and welcome me in class," she said.
And she proved that she was no different – if not better – from others when she excelled and made a name in school.
Making a name for herself
Apart from being a cum laude, she was a Finex champion and Zuellig Awardee when she graduated. All throughout her stay in UP, she was a Creamsilk scholar and was a UP Alumni Association scholar on her last year in school.
Looking back, Nuruddin said things changed for her when she relentlessly reached out to people. She made them feel that that there was nothing wrong with people who practice their faith in a society.
"Usually, we tend to keep our practices to ourselves specially when we are in a non-Muslim community. But I think it helps when we actually open our religion to people. Make them understand why we pray and how we pray," she narrated.
So when she joined her classmates for a competition that required them to train for 6 months, she felt that everyone was not only welcoming of her but were also considerate of her as a practicing Muslim.
"I was offered to join a team competition. And we had to be trained for 6 months. It meant that I will be with the team from 7 am to 8 pm every day even during classes. We were given free meals. So, whenever we order food, they knew we needed to buy from somewhere Halal," she recalled.
"And then when the prayer time strikes, we stopped our quiz bee drills for few minutes. During Ramadan, we adjusted the dinner time to iftar time and sometimes we go to eat for iftar," she added.
Nuruddin, a Tausug, said she wants to be lawyer. But more than that, she wants to help other Muslim women assert their right to practice their religion.
"I'm seeing this as a way to help niqabis who struggle to be treated equally and so I will comply," she said. – Rappler.com
Amir Mawallil, 27, is a member of the Young Moro Professionals Network (YMPN), the country's biggest organization of Muslim professionals.