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SHE TALKS PEACE: Beauty and Activism

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 14 November) — Beauty does not have to be skin-deep only.  Take Gemma Cruz-Araneta, the first Filipina to win an international beauty pageant   (Miss International, 1964).  I was a kid when she won but I was so amazed with her performance.  The other contestants were all made up with elaborate hair styles and tons of make up.   Gemma had a minimum of make up and just had her long black hair loose – a genuine tall, statuesque Malay beauty.  Her intelligence shone in her interview.  Wow, I thought – truly a combination of beauty and brains!

Do you know she donated her prize money to Boys’ Town, an institution for homeless children?   But what’s so remarkable is that she didn’t rely on her beauty as she embarked on her career.  She didn’t go into modeling or advertising or the movies.  She is a writer, she is into culture and saving old Philippine landmarks, particularly in Manila.  She even became Secretary of Tourism.   I have been following her blog – on art and history and politics.  Her latest blog (Nov 11), entitled “Political dynasties, according to President Duterte,” tries to decipher PRRD’s statements.

Gemma wrote, “President Rodrigo Duterte seems to have a visceral conviction that political dynasties can be good and bad at the same time,” citing the Duterte children – Mayor Sara, Vice-Mayor Baste and Congressman Pulong. Gemma then recounts PRRD’s recent trip to Siargao Island, where he noted that the governor, congressman and the provincial administrator are all Matugas.  While admitting that political dynasties are known to “monopolize businesses,” “kill their enemies” and lead the drug trade, the President then says that dynasties are here to stay, unless our culture and the Constitution are changed.  According to Gemma,  “A collective gasp was heard, what about his daughter?  Having said all that, his zinger of a conclusion was, ‘dynasties are not bad.’” (http://www.gemmacruzaraneta.com/)

I mention Gemma Cruz-Araneta because the guest of She Talks Peace today is another beauty queen/activist, from Malaysia.  Deborah Henry is in the same mold as Gemma, a beauty queen and advocate for change.  Deborah calls herself an “accidental beauty queen” who saw the spotlight as a way to focus attention on social issues:  poverty, development, human rights.  As a child, she would ask her grandfather why so many people go without, why  people suffer. I guess her grandfather gave her a nudge in the right direction because Deborah has used her stage in society to support refugees given sanctuary in Malaysia, kids who can’t go to school or who have to drop out to work.

In 2008, The United Nations Human Rights Commission asked her to host a documentary on the Somali refugees in Malaysia.  Interacting with the Somali families, having dinner with them, changed her world.  One building she visited had a sign that said  “no Somali tenants welcome.”  She decided to help.

Deborah has always believed that education is the solution, a great equalizer.  First, she raised money to give to the refugee children for school.  This was not sustainable so she started a small school – Fugee – with 60 students.  “Fugee” is her shortcut for “refugee.” Like “bakwit” is our term for “evacuee.”  Today, Fugee has educated over 500 refugee children. “Fugee empowers refugees as leaders of change to access high-quality education and integrate into the job market in their host countries so they lead dignified lives and contribute to society.” To sustain the school and to provide the students and their families with income, she and her friends set up Fugee-lah, a social enterprise that sells jewelry, accessories among others.

In our conversation, we noted that Southeast Asia used to be so proud to be pluralistic communities living in peace with so many ethnic groups and faiths.    But dividing lines are being drawn, walls are being erected.  Enormous challenges have arisen threatening pluralism.  Deborah asks, “who are drawing these lines?“  Are they the ones who fear the unknown “Other”?  She finds It quite intriguing how we can be so opinionated about the unknown, even if grossly wrong.

How do we build a bridge of tolerance, understanding and respect, connecting one side with the other?  Deborah firmly believes in dialogue as a bridge that goes both ways, allowing influences to permeate the walls that divide communities.

If you wish to know more about Deborah’s work, visit Fugee at https://fugee.org/ and her Fugee-lah at https://fugeelah.com/.  Who knows, you just might order one of the interesting jewelry made by the young Somali refugees.

Eavesdrop on our conversation with Deborah, whose beauty goes beyond skin deep.  At the end of the day, there is a beauty queen or a handsome king inside each of us.  We just have to let them out.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro, peace, human rights and democracy)

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