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Filipino Princess discusses Muslim culture

Vilim, Laura | Thursday, October 30, 2003

In an attempt to help educate students and faculty about the lives and cultures of Muslims, the University hosted a lecture Wednesday by Filipino Princess Emraida Kiram entitled “Being a Muslim in Christian Philippines.”

Kiram, who was born in the predominately Muslim region of Mindanao to Sultan Kiram and Sultana Bai Labi Laila Kiram, focused her talk on the hostile relations between Muslims and Christians. She also highlighted the way these relations have dictated political and economic change within her country for centuries.

The estimated 3.5 million people – less than five percent of the Filipino population – who are Muslims in the Philippines are concentrated largely in the southern regions of Mindanao and Sulu. Although there are far more Christians than Muslims in the Philippines, several powerful Muslim separatist groups have been founded to protest the treatment of their people by the overwhelmingly Christian-led military and government.

Kiram began her lecture with a n account of her childhood, a time she remembers as one that was relatively peaceful between Christian and Muslims. She commented on the ease with which she lived in both the Christian and Muslim world by taking on a Christian name in school while practicing her Muslim beliefs at home.

As time progressed and Kiram continued to seek higher education, she increasingly became aware of the stereotypes and insults thrown at her religion by the Christian majority. Although she had obtained a law degree and was enrolled in a journalism program in Manila, she was outcast by Muslims and Christians alike.

“People thought that to be educated meant to be Christianized,” Kiram said. “It was in Manila that I realized the stereotypes against Muslims.”

In addition, Muslim women were encouraged to focus on marriage, not education, for it was dishonorable for Muslim men to marry someone smarter than they were. Thus, Kiram recalled that by her early 20s, she knew that she was being oppressed but failed to understand the reasons why her religion was being attacked.

Because Kiram could not start a career or continue her education due to the strife in the Philippines, she moved to Madrid just as the Muslim Separatist Movement was gaining momentum in her home country. During the middle of the 1970s, Muslim rebels waged violence against the Philippine military and the Marcos government, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and the displacement of more than a million others. Under intense pressure from the Moros National Liberation Front (MNLF) and other rebel groups, Marcos made some concessions to the Muslim Filipinos, which put a brief end the widespread fighting.

Currently, Kiram and her fellow Filipino Muslims are still fighting for political and economic autonomy from the Philippine nation. They are asking to be given back their communally owned ancestral land that was taken from them and redistributed by Christians.

“It is very difficult to imagine a time when the government will sit down and talk with us,” Kiram said.

Until this time comes and Muslims begin to feel a sense of independence from what they view as the harsh rule of the entirely Christian Filipino cabinet, discord between these two groups will continue to escalate.

As a way of promoting knowledge of the Muslim-Christian conflict in the Philippines, Kiram has worked for the past 27 years at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is the chair of the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations, and serves as president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Filipino-American National Historical Society.