What is a Hijabi doing in front of Clydes’ Bar at Carlton, Melbourne Saturday night, on the eve of Ramadan? No wonder a couple, perhaps slightly tipsy from alcohol noticed me and had very different reactions. I was peering inside the bar, obviously looking for somebody or something with my bright-colored and patterned hijab that I forgot that my hijab alone is already a cause for consternation to some people. However, hiding nothing and fearing nothing, I nonchalantly went around the bar looking for my fellow Filipino students. Probably out of curiosity or for whatever reasons she may have, one of the couple finally begun a conversation with me. The guy with her immediately felt repulsed and moved away angrily from us and said: “Why are you talking to her, she is not a Christian!”
Ignoring her partner, the lady asked me if I liked Australia. In the few seconds between her question and my answer, images of bar brawls crossed my mind and I saw myself figuring in those fights. How can I explain my presence without being judged? I can almost see the scathing rebuke that would come my way had I been in harm’s way: “Why would she go to a bar on a Saturday evening anyway? She has deserved the humiliation if not the physical harm. No Muslim woman in her right mind goes to places like that. Etc. etc. etc.” Then I answered her, quite loudly to make sure that her partner hear what I said: “Oh, I love it here in Australia. People are sooo nice, friendly and courteous.”
Her partner, still angry repeated what he said earlier. I carefully looked towards him as a precaution and assessed his physical reaction, just in case he intends to become violent and then, I smiled my sweetest smile at his female companion.
“I love it when people like Australia. Don’t listen to him.”
“No worries. (Instead of “It’s okay.” Feeling Aussie in this expression). I understand.” I assured the lady that her partner’s attitude did not bother me. Unexpectedly, she asked me if she could kiss and hug me and I said of course. I guess she wanted to make up for her partner’s obvious distaste of my presence and warmly hugged her back. She asked for my name and told me her name was Vicki. She asked me what I was doing there and told her that I was looking for my friends. She bids me get inside and inquire and wished me well.
As soon as I entered the bar, all eyes were on me. No, it wasn’t like your Western movie scenes where the character comes in, with a gun in his holster that brings chills to those inside the bar. It was more like inquisitiveness on their part and I should have been probably the one fearing for my safety after the encounter earlier, but what is there really to be afraid of? Death? The manner of death? The tongues of people? Many a noble, righteous and brave heroes died without their deeds memorialized and were even slandered after their deaths. Death, is but a coming home and ultimately, it is neither the tongues, nor the pen of men, which is the final arbiter of what or who a person is. I inquired about the function for Filipino students and the bartender gladly directed me to the location.
I was finally united with the Filipino students in Melbourne. Some of them have just concluded their studies from universities like University of Melbourne, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Swinburne University, Monash University and Victoria University. Some have just arrived from the Philippines and some are like us, in the middle of our programs. Few of them that I have had the pleasure of meeting in past Filipino student gatherings, but most of them I have yet to meet. As soon as I removed my black coat, the maroon jumper all the more complimented my checkered hijab and my bright color amid the mostly black colors they were all wearing made me stand out. Maybe, I was just exaggerating. My hijab alone will make me the odd one out, not to mention my staying away from alcohol. It was an all-in-one event: graduation, welcome, recognition and get-together party and finally the election of the new set of officers.
Being the only Muslim student among them, I find myself naturally different from them in some ways: abstaining from both wine and pork and of course my hijab. Aside from that, I know that we have more in common than our differences. After all, we do share a common bond somehow. If I do not join the organization, how would we know if we can work together or not? How would they ever see my perspective, if I do not take the first step to make them see me as a fellow Filipino though from a different faith? Yes, I do consider myself a Filipino by virtue of birth and heavenly design. Otherwise, I would have been born Japanese if I wasn’t destined to be a Filipino. I do love my country, even though there are many instances that I feel that that love is not being reciprocated at all. But, I am determined to be both a Moro/Muslim and a Filipino and I will do my insignificant service to sow the seeds of understanding even if I shall not live to see it to fruition. Of course, my hijab, which I wore even in locations such as a bar is my fierce statement that I am a proud Moro and will remain to be such. While I had no say in the choice of the venue, I can determine how I behave and handle myself given the situation. (P.S. After all, my husband wasn’t actually far away from me. He just parked his car somewhere and I knew that had something untoward happened, I can handle the situation until he came to my rescue).
Meeting the Filipino students and talking to most of them reminded me of the obvious that aside from our different faiths, we are all students with the same issues like studying, writing, budgeting, coping with homesickness and dreaming of bringing our families over to Melbourne among other concerns. Indeed, knowing a thing or two about the other Filipino students opens more chances not only for understanding but for networking and future cooperation. It was nice to find some of them who are Bis-daks. Although, I am not fluent in Bisaya, but being able to speak Bisaya reminds me of Mindanao State University (MSU) Marawi City, where Tagalog/Filipino takes a back seat as more MSUans speak Bisaya instead. It brings memories of many Christian friends who are now very successful in their own careers who are the first to come to the defence of Moros against irresponsible reportage from unenlightened newspaper writers and reporters—lumping all Muslims together and making the sin of one, the sin of the whole faithfuls. It takes real connection—face-to-face communication—to know that the bottom line is that, we are not just all Filipinos but we are all human beings, different like the fingers of our hands but all important for the full functioning of the hands.
I had a small part before the night concluded and I was able to relay to everybody the struggle I face as a Muslim Filipino student. While they were inside waiting for everybody to arrive, outside I was facing a battle that some Muslim hijabi women face throughout the world. Our hijab sometimes puts us in precarious situations, although it can also be a starting point of dialogue. Maybe I have touched the heart of some of the Filipino students present, or maybe not. It does not really matter to me. After all, I cannot dictate how one should feel or react towards me. What matters most to me is to have done my part in what I believe in. The result is beyond my control, so I leave it to the Almighty. As a Muslim, I say Alhamdulillah for whatever comes after that. On the other hand, I do know that although I might never meet Vicki again (but who knows?), I feel that her idea of a hijabi would have included a calm hijabi who did not take offense at her partner’s uncalled for remark. That tight embrace she gave me was warm and sincere.
As to my fellow Filipino students, I know that it is just a beginning of a lasting relationship that will include concession, cooperation, meeting half-way, disagreements and also working together. None of us really wanted to become officers of the three-year old Filipino Australian Student Council Organization-Victoria (FASTCO), knowing the huge demand on our time. However, forced by circumstances and the call to duty, some of us found ourselves given positions whether we like it or not. As our first female president Nyc Guzon put it: “Para sa Pilipinas.” Here, positions are seen as duties to fulfil for the sake of our country. In the Philippines, government positions are, well; the road to family fortune, fame and power. The first order of the day was to decide on the induction party of the new set of officers. Having been made as Vice-president, I too had to do my own part in the service of Filipino students in Melbourne. This time, I suggested that the ceremony take place after Ramadan as I am fasting. Of course, I do know that the other officers will take into consideration my special circumstance. I am sure, if I did not meet them half-way, choices for the dates would not have included considering Ramadan. My presence in the Organization is an opportunity for both of us to widen our horizon, our choices and our appreciation of the diversity of the world around us, most importantly as international students. While I do not Tango, but I do know that it takes two to Tango. Cliché as it sounds, but yes, para sa Pilipinas.