Inequality in Asia and what it looks like

Zahria Pandao Muti-Mapandi

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Inequality in Asia and what it looks like
My heart rebels against these realities as I know deep in my soul that these are wrong. For a Muslim taught by my faith to enjoin what is good and forbid what is bad, I am not allowed to sit back and let these things happen.

(Editor’s Note: Zahria Muti-Mapandi, Executive Director of the Al Mujadilah Development Foundation, addressed the Asia Regional launch of Oxfam’s global campaign against inequality, “Even It Up,” in Bangkok, Thailand, on January 20, 2015.

In her keynote address, which follows, she discusses the inequalities between Muslim men and women in the Philippines and her hope that these would be bridged by the Philippine government.)


Perhaps, before I begin my story, I need to introduce myself first. I am a minority in our country as I am Muslim and come from a Maranao Tribe, a tribe that belongs to the Bangsamoro identity that has been fighting for autonomy and self-determination for several decades already. My tribe is perhaps one of the most conservative ones in the Philippines. Our tradition and culture are heavily peppered with very conservative interpretations of our religion.   

When I was a child, my parents kept telling me that I was lucky to be born a Maranao woman. According to our elders, Maranao women in our community are treasured. We are protected. We are the jewel of the family. We are well-provided for. We symbolize honor and wealth for our clan. 

An insult to a Maranao woman is  considered an insult to her entire clan.  

As I grew up. I heard other women’s stories that contradicted my childhood conditioning. 

I heard stories of women who consider household work as a burden but believe that they should not complain as this is their sole duty. Their major role in life. Complaining makes them bad women. 

Women who have the skill or capacity to help their husband support the family but they can’t because they are not allowed to work. 

Women farmers who contributed to the work of their husband farmers but their contributions are not valued or recognized, therefore their needs and potential to become better farmers are neglected and invisible to our community. 

As I hear these stories. I realize that the lived realities of our men and women are different. 

A woman is forced to marry. She cannot divorce her husband believing that he is the only one allowed to declare divorce. If she succeeds in divorcing her husband, the full care of her children is left to her. She struggles not only for herself but her children as well. 

A man can be forced to marry. But he can easily divorce her wife. In most cases, he can abandon her, leaving her with the responsibility to support the children he left behind. What is more infuriating is when his daughter gets married, he gets to marry her off and take part of her mahar or bridal gift, then take off again. He can do this as he is the recognized wali or guardian. Her mother, who spent her life dedicated to her children’s welfare cannot be her wali. Such an irony. Such inequality. 

A woman’s husband marries another woman. She only finds out about it after the wedding ceremony. Although there are policies that allow her to complain about it, she does not know how to go about it nor does her family encourage her, to preserve family dignity. 

A married man can marry another woman. He is told by law to ask permission from the Shariah court, but he does not do this. He dismisses the protest of the first wife as he genuinely believes that the decision to take on more wives is his decision alone. The community lets this pass. They believe the same.  Most of them keep silent as they do not know that by law, polygyny is regulated. 

Some of the participants from the Philippines with us today, especially non-Muslims, may be surprised that early marriage, divorce and polygyny is allowed in their own country when majority of the Filipinos are not allowed to do this. This is because it is allowed by the Philippine law through the Code of Muslim Personal Laws that Muslims-Filipinos can do these legally. Perhaps they call this religious tolerance and respect for differences. I call it culturally-justified violence committed not only by Muslim and government leaders in our country. This is another form of inequality both for the Muslims and non-Muslims in our country. 

Once I heard a Muslim man in our community justify polygyny. He said, polygyny is justified by nature of having more women population than men. His basis? 

There are plenty of girls in schools than boys. This is true. Usually there are more or less 30 girls in a class while there are more or less 15 boys in a class. 

He forgets that this is not a good indicator of our population as there are more boys who drop out of school than girls in our community. Despite the difficulty to convince parents to let girls stay in school, more girls graduate from college than boys in our community. As an advocate of gender justice, I am not happy about this. Why? 

While our girls finish college and find good jobs, they end up married to men who have not finished college and have no jobs. The probability of this happening is very high as our girls are not allowed to marry men outside of our tribe. Further, they end up with men with very conservative beliefs such as looking after the husband’s needs despite the wife having a job. The belief that women are the primary caregiver of the family has not shifted even if more women are employed in our community. 

When you visit our community and ask about violence against women, they will happily tell you that there is no violence against women in our community as police reports will show you that there are no reports of it. 

The reality is:

A woman is abused (by her husband or by any other male). She chooses to keep silent, to keep her family away from shame and rido (clan feud). On the other hand, a Maranao man may be harassed verbally by anyone. He does not hesitate telling  his clan to avenge him. In both cases, we do not let the police get involved. The police ignore this. They do not want to be involved in the feuds. They do not impose the law. This is one of the reasons why lawlessness is rampant in our community. 

My heart rebels against these realities as I know deep in my soul that these are wrong. For a Muslim taught by my faith to enjoin what is good and forbid what is bad, I am not allowed to sit back and let these things happen. We have to do something about this.  

I also know that as a Muslim this is not what my faith allows.

Women and men should not be forced to marry and both have the right to declare divorce. 

Polygamy is a practice that existed even before Islam came. A practice regulated by the Prophet. He was married to only one woman, until she died. He married other women, thereafter, not for procreation and personal choice, but to build an Ummah that can only be built through intermarriage during those times and for the protection of women whose husbands died in the Muslim wars. He showed through intermarriage at that time, that personal choices can be sacrificed for the good of society, a reasoning that cannot be used in any practice of polygyny nowadays. 

Women have the right to their dowry. They have the right to claim support from the husbands, own assets, and properties and work to earn.    

There is a clash between traditions, realities and Islamic teachings. Continuing this inequality means we can never move forward. As long as there is any women, or person, left behind, we cannot truly move forward. 

One challenge we face in helping improve the lives of women to promote family and community harmony is how we do it without excluding and antagonizing men? 

In most of our conversations with our community partners, income tops as the primary driver for this situation to change. 

Both men and women believe that if there is income brought in by both husband and wife to the family, their situation will improve. Creating opportunities for them to earn income is a challenge, however.  It has to be supported by other factors such as:

  • Having new skills and knowledge 
  • Changing beliefs and norms in the community 
  • Ensuring social support from the family and the community

Obviously income is not the end solution for improving the lives of women and their families. 

However, having income will increase their negotiating space leading to  improvement of their social situation, particularly in education and health. 

This can further lead to ensure their participation, increase their benefit and hopefully realize their leadership in various spheres of life. 

And this is the reason why we engage government in any possible opportunity available as they are the duty-bearers. We make them responsible for making change happen for the community especially the women. 

This is the reason why pushing for local governments to listen to women’s voice in creating Gender and Development Plans and Budget through our Gender-Responsive Budgeting project with Oxfam is important.  

Gender-responsive budgeting stems from the recognition of the importance of public resource allocations for gender equality and women’s empowerment. It is critical that budgeting is seen as both a political process and a technical process so that we are prepared to engage.  We need to understand budget priorities, how these priorities are set, and to what extent we can influence these priorities to advance gender equality.   

The Philippine gender budget initiative involves the allocation of 5 percent of (national and local) government budget as a way of financing gender mainstreaming efforts by government, with the gender budget serving as a leverage fund for making the rest of the government budget address gender issues and women’s concerns. 

We are hoping that by making the government and women talk and design programs for gender mainstreaming that women’s voice are not only heard, but their experiences of inequality will change into experiences of empowerment.  

My prayer is, I see the roadmap towards this change begin taking shape in my lifetime, that my daughters and son get to experience a world where equality is not a dream but a reality, and that my grandchildren get to have a life where inequality is just a word of their elders. –

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