How the women of Marawi weave hope through textiles
When your city is still under siege by terrorists and bombs are exploding outside your makeshift home, it is hard for anyone – especially women with families to look after and feed – to think about anything else other than survival.
Without money, where would one get food, medicine, shelter – the basic necessities of life?
“Na-evacuate kami sa capitol. Wala kaming dala, nakalabas kami sa kuwan na wala kaming dala (We evacuated to the Capitol. We brought nothing with us. We fled the city with nothing in tow),” Soraida Bato, an Arabic teacher before the war, recalls.
It’s the story of many Maranao after May 23, 2017, when armed men clad in black attempted to take over the city of Marawi. What many locals first thought to be a mere local conflict stretched to a months-long war that inflicted wounds that have yet to heal.
In evacuation centers, days go by too fast and too slow at the same time, no thanks to the dizzying mix of uncertainty, anxiety, and the dire situation that it inevitably ends up in. But evacuation centers are also filled with people whose stories inspire, frustrate, and in this particular case, a story that put women both in Marawi and Manila into action.
It was in one of those evacuation centers where Jamela Alindogan, a journalist, met a local weaver who now had nowhere to weave nor a place to sell whatever textile she already had on hand. Instead of simply buying her stocks, Jamela had a bigger and admittedly more complicated idea – to give weavers (or anybody willing to learn) the means to weave and eventually, make their own money.
The process was difficult to say the least, recalls Jamela. Two trainers taught 20 women from Balo-i, a nearby town. But the trip to Marawi from Balao-i turned out to be too harrowing for the initial group of women weavers. Eventually, the group was reduced to around 5 or 6 women based in the evacuation center in Marawi.
The Sinagtala weaving center in Marawi was born.
Jamela and her friends went down to business right away – they bought looms and thread, they found a spot within the provincial capitol, and, more importantly, worked with the women in handling the emotional distress brought upon by the war.
“It was very hard for them to see the positive side of the weaving [at first],” recalls Jamela, a journalist with years of experience, particularly in conflict areas in Mindanao. “They were thinking mostly of aid, emergency issues, relief, medicine. So it was hard for them to see,” she says.
Sinagtala isn’t just a weaving center. It was an escape for the women – a safe space to relax, an avenue for both formal and informal therapy, and a chance to find normality in the unnatural state of war.
“Dumating ang weaving, siyang nakatulong sa amin. Nakalimutan ko ang mga problema ko. Di ko naramdaman na may sakit ako, sa totoo lang…dahil sa weaving. 'Yan ang kailangan ngayon, magtrabaho tayo sa weaving, magsacrifice tayo para makalimot tayo ng mga problema at makatulong sa isa’t isa,” says Soraida, whose bright smile and kind eyes belie a bigger problem – her cancer.
(Weaving came and helped us. I forgot my problems. I didn’t even feel that I was sick, in all honesty, because of weaving. That’s what we need now. We need to work on weaving, we have to sacrifice and forget our problems and help each other.)
The current batch of weavers is a diverse mix of older women, younger women – there’s even a mother and daughter who used to be estranged but rekindled their relationship at the evacuation center during the war.
The way the non-profit is run is simple: Its founders provide capital and raw materials to the weavers and later on, purchase the finished product as well. It’s up to Jamela and her partners, who are mostly based in Manila, to sell the textiles.
Other than that, Jamela and her partners are mostly hands off. The daily operations are handled by the weavers themselves. They too decide on how to split their earnings – they take a portion home, some goes back to the weaving center, and a portion is spent for Soraida’s cancer treatment.
Jamela says such decisions make Sinagtala a more sustainable way to help Maranao women get back on their feet. “First, it’s about their culture – inaul (traditional Maguindanao cloth). It’s their culture, it’s dignified labor, it reconnects them to their work,” she explains.
It also helps that weaving isn’t an invasive activity. The weavers can work on their textiles while tending to their young children and other household chores.
“Whatever they earn, they decide how to split it because we’re aware of their culture. There’s such a thing as the maratabat or the Maranao pride. They have their leader, who is self-appointed,” adds Jamela. Any conflict in the group is resolved amongst themselves. Jamela says they don’t intervene, nor would they want to.
Sinagtala is part of a bigger organization that’s been pooling resources together to deliver aide to conflict areas. In Marawi, too, is a toy library for children displaced by the war and ongoing rehabilitation efforts.
Its products are unique – a mix of traditional hues and styles with dashes of modernity. Those who want a more bespoke experience can opt for customized weaves.
Ultimately, however, Sinagtala isn’t about the textiles but the women who weave it. Jamela, who’s been visiting Marawi – both for work and Sinagtala – over the past year, has seen the change herself.
There was a time when the weavers refused to use black even if the color was part of their rich culture. The reason? They associated it too much with the black flags of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf.
With counselling and gentle prodding, the women of Sinagtala eventually began using the color. They were finally able to take back the color back, and separate it from the negative connotations of the Maute. Sinagtala’s original weavers are now teachers themselves, helping the organization open a new weaving center in Balo-i.
While the future remains uncertain for the women and Sinagtala and the rest of Marawi, they will continue weaving, learning, and helping each other heal from the wounds of war. – Rappler.com
For orders and inquiries, visit Sinagtala's Facebook page