Pilar College prepares program for lifting ban on hijab by June 2013

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/16 September) – “A breakthrough in  inter-religious and intra-faith dialogue in Zamboanga City,” was how Fr. Antonio Moreno, Ateneo de Zamboanga University President, described the resolution of the issue banning the wearing of hijab (veil) by Muslim students in a school run by Catholic nuns here.

In a two-page Joint Statement released Sunday,  titled “Responding to the Signs of the Time: Journeying from Good to Better,” officials of the Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM),  the congregation running the 118-year old Pilar College of Zamboanga City, and the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) agreed, following a dialogue on September 14,  to implement programs that would eventually lead to the lifting of the ban on hijab or what the statement refers to as “the voluntary wearing of hijab in accordance with agreed specifications.”

“It has to do with the design and color of the hijab to be eventually used by the female Muslim students in Pilar College when the appropriate time comes. Since it will already become part of the uniform, it will consider simplicity and uniformity which shall be proposed to the parents and students who will decide to use the hijab,” Sister Maria Fe Gerodias, representative of RVM Southern Mindanao province and one of the signatories of the Joint Statement, told MindaNews in an interview by phone and e-mail.

She said they are eyeing June 2013, the opening of the next schoolyear, as the “appropriate time.”

Sister Fe explained it takes time to introduce changes and Pilar College and NCMF “need to prepare the Christians and the Muslims in the introduction of such change.”

“There is a need for everybody in the Pilar College Community, Christians and Muslims,  to develop the right attitude and understanding of the meaning and value of the wearing of the hijab and Muslim spirituality, thus the program for social preparation.  The need to go through the process of the educational intervention for formation,” she said.

Social Preparation

The Joint Statement said the school “will make available an ongoing social preparation” which includes a six-point program: that Pilar College would link up with Muslim institutions “to deepen the understanding of the Muslim culture and traditions, particularly in the areas of commonality and partnership opportunities with the Christian community;” conduct a series of fora with stakeholders “on hijab and its significance in Islamic spirituality;” include Comparative Religious Studies as one of the Religious Studies courses; conduct  “Marian (Sitti Maryam) dialogue and spirituality fora” (Mary is known among Muslims as Maryam); provide regular updates on Christian-Muslim relations; and encourage interfaith and intrafaith dialogues among Muslims and Christians.

The NCMF, the only national government agency that caters to the needs, aspirations, welfare and interest of Muslims, has committed to assist Pilar College in implementing the six-point program and to assign a female representative to “regularly participate in the implementation of interfaith programs of Pilar College.”

The statement was signed by Sister Fe and Sister Maria Nina Balbas, President of Pilar College; and NCMF chair, Secretary Mehol Sadain. Sadain in early August wrote an open letter to Sister Nina, saying he was writing “not to argue, but to enlighten; and not to object, but to appeal for your kind reconsideration and compromise, in behalf of the hijab-wearing Muslimah enrolled in Pilar College.”

A dialogue between representatives of  Pilar College and the NCMF was held on August 7, facilitated by  Fr. Albert Alejo, SJ, Assistant  to the President for Social Development of the Ateneo de Zamboanga University. Alejo also facilitated the September 14 dialogue.

The Joint Statement also noted that before issues on “public expression of faith” reach the level of the school administration, this should be resolved first at the level of the parents and teachers.

“The Board of Directors of the Parents Teachers Association (PTA) shall directly dialogue with students, parents and guardians who have issues touching on public expression of faith,” it said.

Fruit of Discernment

Sister Fe said the decision on the hijab was “the fruit of discernment”  made after a series of consultations, dialogue, meetings  with “Pilar College’s students, teachers and staff, parents, alumni, RVM administrators of the Congregation, Catholic church hierarchy, Catholic clergy, Leaders and members of the association of catholic schools, Muslim scholars, President and some Members of Bishops-Ulama Conference and finally with our Higher Superiors.”

She said that within one month, they met with “15 groups with varied views and opinions” and it was from these meetings “that we sincerely discerned our decision.”

Sister Fe said Pilar College and NCMF share common values of hospitality, communion, sensitivity to the signs of the times, openness to dialogue and respectful service but vary in one particular value.

She said the nuns “specified in its prescribed uniform the absence of the hijab to avoid discrimination against the Muslims whose wearing the veil might be frowned upon by Christians and even by other Muslims who interpret the practice differently.”

Same purpose: avoid discrimination  

“For its 118 years of existence, there was a brief time that the hijab was allowed, but the Administration saw that it did not serve the purpose of creating an atmosphere of harmony. The hijab, became, as it were, a barrier, thus to equalize and democratize relationship and the environment in the campus, the hijab was not included in the prescribed uniform,” she said.

NCMF on the other hand, she said, “wanted the female Muslims to wear the hijab, thus, wanted the ban lifted to avoid discrimination by allowing difference in the campus.”

“Thus, they vary on the level of position, for they are opposites.  On the level of value, both are trying to avoid discrimination and thereby promoting respect and equality. With this, we see a difference – one tries to avoid discrimination by hiding the difference and the other tries to avoid discrimination by accepting the difference,” she said, adding that it was on this note “that the room for dialogue was made possible.”

The September 4 dialogue was also attended by representatives of the Bishops-Ulama Conference, National Ulama Conference of the Phlippines, Office of the City Mayor of Zamboanga, People Power Volunteers for Reform, Al Qalam Institute at the Ateneo de Davao University, Parents Teachers Association of Pilar College, Institue for Comparative and Advanced Studies, Ateneo de Zamboanga University and ADZU Peace and Culture Institute. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)