“Given the country’s long history of colonization, its relatively short life as an independent nation and its current economic and political woes, the Philippines is especially in need of cultural symbols of a proud, strong, authentic, pre-colonial past.”
Ever since Philippines joined international beauty pageants, our contestants capture the hearts of the crowd and become media favorites. Oftentimes, they bring home a crown. Adding to our list of titlists is Megan Young’s recent Miss World crown in 2013. Young enamored the audience with her “Sarimanok costume” and her dancing of the Singkil, both popularly attributed to the Meranaos, the people of the Lake (Lanao). The costume was slit thigh-high, baring her shapely long legs. First, there is really no Sarimanok costume. If you go to Marawi City looking for a Sarimanok, you will definitely find one. It could either be made of brass or wood-carving. It can be a tidora, an umbrella or a tabak embellishment–but Sarimanok costume?
The “Sarimanok costume” is an innovation. It is what Ruffa Gutierez wore when she competed for Miss World in 1993. She wore a headdress that is inspired by the Sarimanok. I have to admit these beauty queens really did use more beautiful Sarimanok-inspired crowns than are found in my hometown. There are several legends of the Sarimanok but suffice it to say in this post that it is a very important cultural symbol for us Meranaos. It is a common traditional motif that is used especially in royal occasions such as enthronement, kalilang and weddings.
Although I am no beauty contestant, but I did wear something akin to a Sarimanok costume few decades ago. When I was very young, I used to dance the Singkil and eventually competed and won in events sponsored by the local Department of Tourism (DOT). I wore a brass headdress in the shape of a Sarimanok and wore a beaded, flowing long yellow gown to allow me step in between the bamboos without tripping over and not expose my legs at the same time. Although the tradition of the Meranaos has pre-Islamic elements, it combined with the tenets of Islam when my people accepted the religion in the 14th century. I was not even in elementary yet, but my mother made sure that I wore my kombong and that my aurat was not visible. I should say it is marrying our culture with the Islamic faith. After Grade IV, my Daddy, may Jannatul Firdaus be his abode promptly made me stop dancing for his daughter was no longer a child and was “no entertainer.”
The costume of Gutierez and Young is a different story. The more than generous showing of cleavage and legs is not something that a traditional Meranao would approve of. While it is definitely a misrepresentation if not a misuse of the tradition of the Meranaos, even the Meranaos themselves applauded Young’s use of what has now become accepted as a “Sarimanok costume” because it put Mindanao in a positive light for once. Issues about Mindanao has always been cast along the lines of war, underdevelopment, kidnapping and lately terrorism that even the misappropriation of our cultural symbols is welcomed by most of us. Although, one non-Meranao friend who obviously knows the Meranao tradition retorted, “I hope they don’t go to Marawi City and look for people wearing Sarimanok on top of their heads!”
In the recent Binibining Pilipinas 2014 competition, I see three contestants wear, what to me looked like another version of Sarimanok costume. Contestants Number 18 and 4, Ellone Punzalan and Parul Shah respectively showcase Sarimanok-inspired attire under the National Costume category. Both of them show bare midriffs and yes—cleavage for Shah. Parul Shah is half-Indian based on her profile and could always claim it is Indian-inspired. Looking at her outfit though reminds me of the stereotypical belly dancers instead. It is really difficult to prescribe how anybody should wear the Sarimanok costume. After all, there are no set guidelines for it. The costume itself is already an modification in and of itself and is becoming less identifiable to what it claims to portray. I myself could only assume that those costumes are Sarimanok-inspired, as is the trend among beauty queen aspirants. I am not really a big fan of beauty pageants in the first place, but I could not help seeing their photos splashed on our screens. Gutierez only bared her cleavage in one photo, this year’s contestants included their midriffs. What next? Beaded two-piece with the Sarimanok on top of their heads? What “national costume” would that be? If one should, and must appropriate some people’s tradition, then at least try to be true to the spirit of the practice as much as possible. It does not only respect the people’s sensibilities, it also fosters goodwill not to mention shows good research.
Janine Asanion, contestant number 38 sashays in a pink flowing-gown, a matching headdress and an umbrella that is truer to the Meranao tradition than any of the costumes I have seen. That is, if the inspiration is what I think it is. I appreciate how she kept close to how it should be worn—like a true Meranao princess. Meranaos put their women on a pedestal, literally and figuratively speaking. The women in the Darangen live in the lamin, where they are home-schooled and taught everything that royals should know of—art, culture, social, graces and public-speaking among other things. Up in the tower, they are protected from the eyes of the public but they are kept abreast of everything by their tutors. The lamin is like a one-way mirror that shields not their vision, but them from being seen. They are only visible on their own terms. Perhaps it is not too much to ask of the contestants to try an appropriate interpretation of the culture they are so enamored and took liberty to represent. It would mean showcasing something that is pre-colonial and truly our own—proving that this archipelago did not begin when Magellan came. That, though we now have our own respective religions, we can still hold on to something in the past that can meld us together.