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When Taking Up Space is not a Birthright

Babu Lapid's inspiring story as a Muslim leader

In recent years, Muslim women around the world have emerged as influential figures in various fields, including politics, social movements, education, and entrepreneurship. The increased exposure of women in leadership roles has also spotlighted them at the forefront of efforts in creating a just and inclusive society.
Babu Lapid during a workshop
© forumZFD

Among a myriad of narratives of women catalyzing positive changes within and beyond their spheres of influence and concerns is the inspiring story of Lapid Alih Adlawan, or Babu Lapid as she is more well-known (Babu is a title of respect used to refer to community elders). She is a respected leader in her community called Jamâàh Sta. Cruz. Situated in the beautiful island paradise of Talicud, Island Garden City of Samal in the southern Philippines, Sta. Cruz is home to a vibrant Muslim community that has contributed to the island’s rich culture and history.

Jamâàh Sta. Cruz is a seaside community of at least 29 households, whose primary source of livelihood is fishing. It is where the majority of the members of the Tausug, Sama-Banguingui, and Laminosa groups in the island have sought shelter and established life anew after fleeing from Jolo, Sulu at the height of martial law in 1972. Having preserved their traditional governance structures from the island provinces, the most prevalent form of leadership is the system of appointment and succession of a Panglima (Chieftain), who is selected from among the elder men in the community. As the founders of the community, Babu Lapid’s parents, Panglima Ilajih Alih and Maharajah (Secondary Chieftain) Jai Alih gave a life of service to Jamâàh Sta. Cruz, which Babu Lapid was exposed to from an early age

Fishing is the primary source of livelihood in Sta Cruz.

Taking up space is no birthright

Although coming from a predominantly Tausug area, Babu Lapid, has tirelessly served beyond the limits of her jamâàh. In the Islamic context, the term jamâàh refers to a group of Muslims who gather together for prayer, study, or other religious activities. Babu Lapid has not only worked in her own Tausug jamâàh, but has been active with diverse communities of other Moro ethno-linguistic and indigenous groups as well as non-Muslim populations. In fact, in her earlier years as dayang-dayang (translated “princess of princesses”), a title traditionally bestowed upon women of noble birth among some Moro groups, she has engaged with other leaders in the wider Samal community, often being one of the few, if not the only, woman actively involved in development initiatives for the Muslim minority.

Her noble status nonetheless never limited her view of the important role she plays in advancing her community’s interests. To Babu Lapid, her contributions root far deeper than birthright alone. She stresses how she, from a young age, had to work hard to learn effective leadership styles all while overcoming challenges associated with the very fact that she is a woman trying to speak up and take up space in a predominantly patriarchal society.

“There were doubts from other people who constantly questioned me, my efforts to initiate steps towards positive changes in our jamâàh, and my being a Muslim woman. They say it is prohibited [to take up a leadership role],” shares Babu Lapid, further underscoring the need to amplify women’s voices in governance and decision-making processes, especially in their own communities.

Breaking through the glass ceiling

While taking up space may not necessarily be a birthright, it is an essential right that each person should have the ability to exercise, regardless of their background or identity. For Babu Lapid who is a Tausug, Muslim, Mindanaoan woman, taking up space almost means encountering or even being the very subject of gender injustice, religious discrimination, and/or outright human rights violations.

“There was no time when my efforts were not met with criticism, usually from the very ones who claim they should be leading in our jamâàh.” She continues, “Even with initiatives as important as providing a decent water source for our neighborhood or repairs and renovations in the local mosque, people will always find negative things to throw at me, doubting my every move.”

Despite this experience, Babu Lapid has broken through the glass ceiling and made significant local impact. In 2020, she helped facilitate the provision of a public water source for their jamâàh, making clean and potable water more accessible for community members and mosque-goers.

She has also spearheaded coordination efforts with the local government, asserting their right to social services and ascertaining they are provided with these when needed or available. Through these endeavors, she was tapped by the same government unit to be the Purok (village) Chairperson of Sta. Cruz in 2014. This also enabled representation of her jamâàh in local political processes.

Recently, Babu Lapid has furthered her cause by supporting Samal Island Muslim Communities Development Center, Inc. (SIMCDC), a non-governmental peoples’ organization which advocates for environmental justice and the advancement of social, economic, and cultural development of Muslim communities in the island.

Mat weaving is one of the ways in which the women in Sta Cruz earn a livelihood and preserve their culture at the same time.

Babu Lapid has been serving as a member of the organization’s Board of Directors since her election in 2022. Her contribution includes being the point-person for SIMCDC’s socio-economic and cultural development activities and her active involvement in the organization’s partnership with forumZFD on Nonviolent Conflict Transformation.

A gendered lens in conflict transformation

Babu Lapid’s contributions to the partnership allowed for a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of local conflicts affecting Islamized communities in Samal. Not long ago, her leadership was disputed by the son of the imam (the central religious figure in the community), who was no longer able to perform his duties due to old age and sickness. The son expressed his desire to be acknowledged as the rightful leader of the community. This conflict caused tensions and divided the community into two opposing sides.

Conflicts like this have different effects on men and women, and it is essential to recognize these differences to develop effective strategies for conflict transformation. In Babu Lapid’s words, “It is particularly hard for me as it might look like I am in this constant need [for validation] to prove and assert myself,” a sentiment other groups might not necessarily resonate with.

Gender-sensitive conflict transformation involves promoting gender justice and empowering women to participate in decision-making processes. However, Babu Lapid recognizes that taking up space should not be seen as a zero-sum game, where her empowerment comes at the expense of another. Rather, it should be seen as part of a collective effort to create a more just and equitable society for all individuals, where everyone's voice and contributions are valued.

“I know where I stand,” she remarks. “It was never my intention to deprive others of the chance to serve [the jamâàh]. I recognize my limits [as a Muslim woman, referring to the preference of men in spiritual leadership roles], but step up when there is a need to." This manifestation of culture- and conflict-sensitivity in Babu Lapid paved the way for the leadership conflict in Sta. Cruz to be resolved through a mediation intervention willingly requested by the conflict parties themselves.

The mediation process was held in the masjid in Jamâàh Sta Cruz.

The mediation process focused on finding ways where both parties can contribute to communal development, without inhibiting each other’s individual leadership capacities. Ultimately, both parties concurred that they, along with every member of the jamâàh, must unite to move towards their common goal of development. The agreement was that the imâm’s successor will be leading spiritual and religious matters, while Babu Lapid will continue to be the point person for administrative-related activities such as those concerning social services and coordination with the local government unit. The result is a clearer delineation of roles that nonetheless still recognizes Babu Lapid’s leadership.

Muslim women shaping the future

In serving her community, Babu Lapid is motivated by the reality of “social injustice affecting herself, her family, her neighbors,” which she has witnessed and experienced firsthand over the years.

“My dream for my community is simple. I want nothing more than a secure life in a peaceful environment my children and grandchildren can continue to enjoy,” she expresses in a hopeful tone.

Indeed, Babu Lapid sets an example of how Muslim women have shown that their contributions to society are invaluable and indispensable, in the face of breaking barriers and paving the way for future generations to follow the same. Her story of strength and resilience reminds us that gender, religion, or culture should not limit our ability to take up space. In our ongoing efforts to create a world where history is also herstory, we must acknowledge and celebrate these inspiring women and support their efforts to effect positive change.

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