GMA 7’s broadcast journalist Atom Araullo’s documentary about female circumcision in Islam hit a raw nerve among Muslims in Mindanao. Last May 6, he presented “Ang Panday” in his program “I-Witness,” which focused on the role of the Yakan healer in the community. Although the tone of the episode was well-intentioned, the lack of thoroughness and organization of the material resulted in a distorted picture of Basilan.
“Instead of helping Basilan recover from the biased reporting from the outside, it further projected Basilan as culturally backward, chaotic, and underdeveloped,” said Basilan Governor Jim Hataman-Salliman.
Foremost, the misspelling of the title panday is misleading. “Panday” (“blacksmith” in Tagalog) should not be confused with the pandey (with an e), the Yakan term for health worker.
The documentary centered on Embong Ballaho, the pandey who claimed that when a woman is not circumcised, she is not a Muslim. Female circumcision is NOT compulsory in Islam, although it is acknowledged as a ritual on cleanliness. Some tribes practice this, but it is not encouraged.
The episode depicted mothers and young daughters in Lamitan going to Ballaho’s home and the circumcision ritual. Araullo showed his propriety by waiting outside the room while the females underwent the rite.
To present a balanced reportage, Araullo also interviewed Dr. Sitti Amilasan of the Department of Health Region 9 about female circumcision, who said that the local hospital had no record of trauma or infection after the female circumcision and that one can’t mix religion with medical views. The show also featured the appalling state of local medical services. Consequently, the residents turned to the pandey. Health workers were quoted on how their lives were at risk and that they needed to be escorted after their shifts. One health worker revealed how they received text messages about extortion although it wasn’t clear on who was extorting them and what the causes were.
Another disturbing aspect was that the documentary reminded the viewers of the Lamitan Siege. In June 2001, the extremist group Abu Sayaff Group (ASG) invaded a church and a hospital, held hostages and subsequently fought with government troops. It also cited the death of two hostages, who were kidnapped earlier in a resort, as an outcome of terrorism.
“The documentary itself had many issues and showed no focus,” said Gov. Hataman-Salliman. “What does it want to convey? The inadequacy of social services? Violent extremism? Poverty? Peace and security? People and culture? Acceptability or unacceptability of a certain practice? Islamic or non-Islamic?”
The Basilan governor seeks to clarify the following:
*A pandey is a barangay health worker, trained in assisting pregnant mothers and child birth. They have an agreement with the Mayor that deliveries should be facilitated in a health center to ensure safety. They are compensated for every delivery.
*Female circumcision is a dying practice, especially among the Yakan. The source, Embong Ballaho, is a barangay health worker and not a Yakan.
*The episode drew negative reactions from the Yakans who felt that that the incomplete reportage misrepresented their culture. Moreover, they did not wear the appropriate Yakan attire.
*The documentary sought to present reality by showing faces of the children going to Ballaho and there was one particular child shown who was partially undressed after the ritual. Despite the parental consent in allowing their children to appear on television, the girls could be subject to embarrassment in their community.
*The local government has added more health centers around Basilan. There are two hospitals in Lamitan, one private and one government-run; a district hospital in Sumisip; four in Isabela, and rural health units and medical centers in municipalities.
*The documentary gives the impression of connecting female circumcision of the Yakan with violence and extremism. Although Basilan has suffered from extremism and terrorism in the past, the province has bounced back. Araullo only visited Barangay Maganda in Lamitan City and Barangay Baluno in Isabela City, and showed their unflattering aspects. The Basilan Circumferential Road, the first highway, paved the way to the building of other access roads connecting the municipalities.
* The campaign against extremism, involving the military, the police force, the local government units, and the ULAMA resulted in the reconstruction of seven former Abu Sayaff camps; the return of 164 ASG members to the law since 2016; and the restriction of movement of other extremist groups.
*The local government’s initiative to improve the quality of life has resulted in its removal from the list of the country’s 10 poorest provinces; there is more accessibility for travel around the province; increased domestic tourist arrivals and better health conditions; more economic activities and peace and order.
Hataman-Salliman urged media practitioners to be sensitive to culture and religion by consulting the ULAMA Council (Council of Islamic Scholars/ Learned Muslims) to ensure accurate reportage. He also extended his invitation to the media to witness Basilan’s progress.