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Tumba Lata: Knocking down oppression in Jolo, Sulu

When Tumba Lata was established in Jolo, Sulu on the 18th of March 2011 (also Bangsamoro Freedom Day), it only had about 30 lesbian members. But over the years, as the organization continues to face challenges that threaten the very lives of its members, it has become a family of sorts for many of its members who continue to look to it to provide them a voice to be heard.

It was on the 18th of March 2011, also Bangsamoro Freedom Day, when Tumba Lata was founded in Jolo, Sulu. Merilyn “Mherz” Jamad, Tumba Lata’s founding president said, “Mga tambay lang kasi kami dati, mga out-of-school. Magkakabarkada kami pero hindi siya organization. Kinausap kami ni Kah Sherfa na kung kaya na ba naming bumuo ng organisasyon ng mga lesbiyana. Kesa tumambay lang kami, mas mabuti na may karanasan na rin kami na mag-organize (We were just bystanders/idle before, out-of-school youth. We were a group of friends, but we were not organized. We were consulted by Ka Sheilfa Alojamiento if can form a lesbian organization. Instead of doing nothing, it was better for us to experience to organize).” About 17 – 20 lesbians initially joined as members.

Their lesbian organization was named Tumba Lata (literally, to “knock down the can”) after the traditional Filipino street game of arrests and escapes where each player’s life chances depends on the toppling of a tin can watched by a tag who plays guard. “Mula rin sa bansag na tomboy. Dapat itumba ang lata, para makaalis ang mga kalaban. Kumbaga sa pelikula, dapat itumba ‘yung pinaka-mastermind para makalaya (Also from the usual tag used to refer to lesbians. The can should be knocked down to eliminate the enemy. If it was a movie, the mastermind should be defeated in order to be free),” Mherz said.

Since the founding of Tumba Lata, the group faced many challenges. “Nahihirapan kaming ilabas ‘yung members at organisasyon namin sa Jolo dahil sa pagdakip ng mga kilalang aktibista, kagaya ni Cocoy Tulawie. Ano na lang kaya kami na pipichugin (We are having a hard time to expose our members and organization in Jolo because of the detention of known activists like Cocoy Tulawie. How much for us who are less known)?” Mherz admitted.

Organizing meetings proved to be a difficulty as well. “Nahihirapan magpatawag ng meeting dahil wala naman kaming permanenteng opisina sa Jolo. Minsan sa bahay o tambayan namin sa Kapitolyo. Hindi kami nagpapahalat na nagmimiting. Kunwari nag-vi-videoke lang kami (We even have difficulty in calling for meetings because we don’t have a permanent office in Jolo. Sometimes we do it at my house or at our hangout place at the municipal plaza. We keep our meetings discreet, we pretend to be just singing videoke),” Mherz said.

In September 2011, Tumba Lata engaged in an anti-rape campaign to respond to the series of gang rapes from 2008 to 2009, and another case that month. “Pinag-usapan namin kung papaano i-solve. Haka-haka na mga lesbian daw ang may pakana. Napagkamalan ‘yung mga kaibigan naming lesbiyana na tumutulong sa mga nag-re-rape dahil may biktima na nabuhay na nagsabi na may tomboy na kasama. Sinuplong namin ‘yung mga na-involve sa gang rape (We discussed how to solve it. Lesbians were blamed for it. Our lesbian friends were alleged to be involved in rape because a victim who survived mentioned that there was a tomboy involved. We were able to report those who were involved),” Mherz reported. Three accessories to the crime are now jailed but the main perpetrator remains in hiding. Tumba Lata reports of threats from the politically influential family of the rapist against those who will speak up. Tumba Lata considers their anti-rape campaign a success in the promotion of women’s and lesbian rights.

They continue their crusade again sexual violence. As Mherz adds: “May bagong kaso naman ng rape naman ngayon at sila rin ang may pakana. Mga racing group ‘yan sila sa Jolo. ‘Yung mga ni-re-rape ay pinapatay. ‘Yung isa na naabutan namin sa ospital. Walong lalaki ang gumahasa sa kanya. Pinagtripan pa, nilagyan ang ari niya ng bote. ‘Pag naalala daw niya ay gusto na niyang magbigti. Ayaw niyang makakita ng lalaki at ayaw niyang mahawakan (There is a new rape case now and they are still the ones who are behind it. They are a racing group in Jolo. They kill the ones they rape. There was a victim we saw at the hospital. Eight men raped her. She was violated, they inserted a bottle in her vagina. Everytime she remembers this, she thinks of killing herself. She doesn’t want to see any male and doesn’t want to be touched).”

Aside from helping rape victims, Tumba Lata deals with the socio-economic problems that their members continually face. One is the discontinuing of schooling. “Majority ng out-of-school youth sa Jolo ay lesbian. Dahil sa hindi pagtanggap ng mga magulang, hindi na nila pinapag-aral. Walang trabaho ang mga magulang namin para ipa-aral sa amin. May mga ayaw na mag-aral, gusto nalang magtambay (Majority of the out-of-school youth in Jolo are lesbians. Due to the non-acceptance of parents, they are not supported to go to school. Other parents don’t have jobs to support their children’s education. Others just don’t want to continue schooling,” Mherz said.

One dimension in the dropping out of school among lesbians is cultural. “Sa high schools, kailangan mag-hijab o magturong. Eh ayaw nila. Kesa magsuot nito, tumitigil sila. May kaibigan kami na hanggang third year high school lang dahil sawa na sila sa pasuot ng purong. Noong elementary, nag-u-uniform ako ng babae. Pero hindi ko talaga masikmura. Ayun, tumigil ako sa pag-aaral. Sinunog ko ‘yung uniporme noong Grade 6 ako (In high schools, the practice of hijab or the wearing of veils is required. They don’t want to wear it so they stop. We have a friend who dropped out when she was in third year high school because she was fed up with wearing veils. In my elementary years, I wore the girls’ uniform, but I couldn’t stomach it. I dropped out. I burned my uniform when I was in sixth grade),” Mherz said.

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Mherz added that lesbians who come from middle class families are able to finish schooling because they are educated in private schools where the practice of hijab is not mandated.

Tumba Lata’s membership process involves the filling up of forms that include the securing of parents’ consent. “Mahirap na hindi malaman ng pamilya. Gusto namin alam ng mga magulang ang sinasalihan na organisasyon (It’s difficult if the family is uninformed. We want parents to be aware of the organization their daughter is joining),” Mherz said.

The major reason for this process is the tension between Moro tribes in Sulu. “May problema lang kami sa mga miyembro na Samal o Badjao. Minsan pinagbabawalan ng pamilya. Kasi takot ang mga Samal sa mga Tausug. Ang mga Samal halos walng tiwala sa mga Tausug. ‘Yung iba, pinapaalis sa Tumba Lata. Mas Tausug kasi ang pinakamarami (We have a problem with members who are from the Samal or Badjao tribe. Sometimes their families would prohibit or ask them to leave Tumba Lata. Samals or Badjaos are afraid and mistrust the Tausugs – the majority of the organization’s membership),” Mherz said.

Mherz is proud of Tumba Lata’s achievements since its founding. She shares Jolo people’s usual question to them when they distribute advocacy materials: “Hindi ba kayo natatakot na nag-di-distribute kayo ng mga ganito? Taga-rito pa naman kayo” (Are you not afraid of distributing these? You are residents here).” And they would courageously reply: “Hindi. Dahil ‘yan ang totoo eh (No. Because that is the truth).”

For additional information or for those who want to donate to Tumba Lata, email sheilfa@yahoo.com or visit the group’s blogsite.

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