On 17 February 2017, we marked a milestone in the struggle of the Multi-tribal Homeowner's Association, a 105-member Muslim community in Zamboanga City, to gain security of tenure for themselves after having lived under threat of eviction for years. This project is very special because for this pilot undertaking the Social Housing Finance Corporation (the national agency mandated to implement social housing programs for low-income families) has modified its policies to make them culturally sensitive with the view of eventually evolving a fully Shari'ah compliant housing finance model.
For decades, Muslim communities in the Philippines have had to sign on to housing finance agreements and arrangements that were not consistent with Islamic principles. It was a choice between having a home but going against the teachings of Islam or not having a home to uphold one's beliefs; these choices were not just. Therefore, we worked with Ateneo de Zamboanga University, Ateneo de Davao University's Al Qalam Institute and the National Commission for Muslim Filipinos to address a crucial but often overlooked component of "adequate housing" in international instruments like the ICESCR: cultural sensitivity. Consequently, now we have to revise some of our legal documents. Moreover, we asked the help of an architect from Ateneo de Davao to plan the design of the house with the community to ensure that the layout is conducive to the performance of religious rites and customs.
It was a sunny day and, as expected, there were smiles all around. The crew of the local station of a national TV network came to interview community leaders and government officials; the kids were running around. I talked to some of them and had selfies taken. I asked them where their houses were and they proudly pointed to different directions. Over there, the women wore sequined hijabs. One of the local officials noted in Chavacano, the local creole language that is based on Spanish, that she was seeing "mujer pwersa" or “woman power” at work that morning based on the large number of women community officers in attendance.
The milestone was marked literally with a stone marker that was unveiled surrounded by much applause. The stone marker, which was painted green (the colour associated with Islam), was erected at the entrance of the site. It had the details of the housing project, the name of the community, the number of families and even the amount of loan they availed of. One officer joked that the loan detail was meant to remind members every time they leave or go home to the community to pay their obligation!
A poignant moment came when the president of the community, Said Amil, gave a message, or attempted to do so. He started by saying "It's my wife who should be standing here..." And that was all he could manage to say as his voice started to crack. Several community members brought out their hankies to wipe tears. His wife used to be president and it was she who really worked hard to organize her community and rallied them towards gaining security of tenure for themselves. But she passed away last December; it was a shock to all of us…
I remember the first time we met. She was very articulate, sharp, and asked the right but tough questions. I knew immediately that the community was in good hands and that the project will move fast. And it did. I used to always look forward to the "baulo" that she'd baked herself and bring to our meetings. So today was also in honour of this very tough woman Muslim leader whose name will be on the lips of everyone in the community for generations to come: Sitti Nadzra Amil.
There is still much work to be done. Securing tenure is not enough. They still have to work together to build a sustainable and peaceful community, where kids can grow up healthy and educated, where families are climate change resilient, and where households are more financially literate.
About the author: