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This Muslim Mayor Uses Religion to Unite Her Mostly Christian City in Mindanao

Mayor Sitti Djalia Turabin-Hataman, mayor of Isabela, Basilan, proves religion can unite people.
IMAGE Jamar Lucman
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In a divisive plebiscite in January in which the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) was ratified, Mayor Sitti Djalia Turabin-Hataman had campaigned for the inclusion of her city, Isabela, Basilan province in the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Her city had voted against the call for inclusion. 

Turabin-Hataman, 42, knew she would face an uphill climb for the post of mayor, since her biggest opponent campaigned heavily against BOL. True enough, her stand on BOL was used against her during the election campaign.

“That’s what my opponents capitalized on: I stood for the BOL and the people had voted no. That was my biggest challenge,” she said.

Photo by Jamar Lucman.

Her stand fed the fear of many, and it was used against her politically. The campaign against her included fear-mongering slurs such as, “Isasama niya ang Isabela sa Bangsamoro (She’ll include Isabela in Bangsamoro),” or “Madedehado ang mga Kristiyano pag nanalo siya (the Christians will be at a disadvantage if she wins),” or “Gusto niyo Moro na lahat ng leaders? (Do you want all the leaders to be Moro?).” All of these statements and questions capitalized on Turabin-Hataman’s stand for the BOL and her own personal identity.

She said it was when these things were thrown into the political arena that she realized  fear of the Bangsamoro truly exists, and it is as real as ever, even among professionals.

But for Turabin-Hataman, running for mayor of Isabela was a story of her people's courage.

“It was a choice between the familiar and the uncertain; a choice between the security and comfort of what has long been here; and the risk and fear of something that has not been tried and was even portrayed as fearsome. But the people rose above their fears and took the risk,” she said.

During the campaign, Turabin-Hataman said she went down to communities, visiting and speaking with the people of an average of six barangays a day, and spent time talking to people in each community. She said there is a need to redouble efforts to engage people in conversations so they will understand the situations they face.

Turabin-Hataman believes these face-to-face interactions helped her win the elections. She said even her opponents didn’t expect her to go door-to-door to talk to people: “Alam mo kung ano yung masarap marinig sa mga tao? Hindi yung iboboto ka nila, pero yung marinig mo sa kanila na they are sincerely praying for you—and these are people of mixed religions and faiths.”

She is positive about what she saw in the communities: “If some people use religion to divide us, let us use religion to unite us.”

Photo by Jamar Lucman.

Religion Not a Hindrance to Governance

In her first few weeks in office, Turabin-Hataman showed she doesn’t treat religion as a limitation to her ability to serve or govern. She has even been attending mass weddings solemnized in churches.

“These are places of worship. I’ve entered these places not to disrespect or to suddenly worship within a different religion. But I went there foremost because I am their mayor and these are my people. It is not an issue for me,” said the young mayor, a graduate of the Claret School in Isabela, a Catholic school. 

“I want to send a message that I am here, looking after their welfare, regardless of what religion or faith my constituents have,” she said. It is clear that the young mayor is serious about unity and healing.

After winning the elections, Turabin-Hataman kept reminding people they should not congratulate her. Instead, she said, the people should bear in mind that everyone wins: “Tayo ito, tayo ang nanalo, kaya tayong lahat ang magta-trabaho,” a statement that reiterates the responsibility and culpability of all those holding positions of power.  

Going Back to the Community

Turabin-Hataman is not new to public service. Before becoming mayor of Isabela City, she served two terms as the representative of the Anak-Mindanao party-list in Congress. Halfway through her second term, she decided to quit her post, a move seen by many as rare in a political climate where leaders acquire and retain power.

She did this because she wanted to return to the grassroots movements and serve her people right in the communities where they belong. 

“When the battle for Marawi happened, especially when I heard how young some of the members of this group were—10, 12, 15—I could only ask myself, where did we fail? When and how did we lose them? Had I remained in the communities, as one of them, and spoke to them of peace, perhaps I could have convinced a child or two that it is possible,” she said in her last privilege speech in Congress in 2017.

“We often speak of winning hearts and minds," the mayor of Isabela City said. "The fight is no longer anywhere but in our very communities and homes. The hearts and minds we so desperately need to win over are not anyone else’s but the hearts and minds of our very own children.” 

She returned home, where she knew she is sorely needed—to provide comfort and aid, to spread her message of peace, and to encourage young people to deal with their frustrations and work toward a better future in the Philippines for our people. Turabin-Hataman has spent 18 years of her life advocating and working for human rights. 

Photo by Jamar Lucman.

It was the nature of this work that allowed her to go deep into organizing Moro communities, whose members were among those whose rights have been violated by the state.

During her time in Congress, Turabin-Hataman voted against the reimposition of the death penalty, and in favor of the Reproductive Health Law.  

Turabin-Hataman said had originally planned to work in a non-government capacity or in a civil society organization. “You don’t have to be in a position of power to help people,” she said. 

She said when the idea of running for mayor was floated, she was hesitant. But fate had its way.

“When that moment came, I realized that maybe my intention when I said that I want to go back to my community to serve was this—maybe this was it.”

Co-Owning Goals

Turabin-Hataman said it is important to make sure everyone is on board so the government is working and functional—from the city’s employees, to the city council, down to the barangays

“We want them to co-own that vision, co-own the standards in government service that we want to set up, and co-own that goal we want for Isabela City,” she said. 

The new mayor started cleaning the streets without necessarily displacing people. She began by talking to vendors and engaging them in discussions about how to best help each other. She began reforming simple things, such as installing more street lights, little things the previous administration of Isabela City had failed to do.

In some of these clean up-drives, many of the volunteers came together. Turabin-Hataman said even some of those who didn’t vote for her, and even campaigned against her in the polls, are now one with them.

Photo by Jamar Lucman.

Family, Work, and Balance

Mother-of-five Turabin-Hataman, whose husband is former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Mujiv Hataman, said she had to make some adjustments so she could still take care of her family.

“It was difficult at first because my family was already used to my steady presence,” she said. “Even when I was in Congress, it was easier to be a wife and mother than it is as city mayor. Mayors have to be in their offices in the city.”

Yet that hasn’t stopped her from creating measures to create a good home environment: She is homeschooling her younger children so she can still spend time with them. Their bonding time, Turabin-Hataman confesses, is going to the movie theaters to see a Disney or Marvel film: “Whenever there is a good movie, we go and watch together.”

For Turabin-Hataman, her family is her core. It is from her family that she takes inspiration, and the courage to lead.

Courage to Lead

Turabin-Hataman said it is from her vantage point and experiences as a woman, and from her faith in Allah, that she draws the strength and courage to lead. 

The first-term mayor continued to reiterate her story is not hers alone. It is the story of her people, whom she believes should be treated fairly, regardless of race or faith. 

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About The Author
Amir Mawallil
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Amir Mawallil is a Tausug writer based in Cotabato City. He is the founding chairperson of the Young Moro Professionals Network in western Mindanao.
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