Canada·First Person

I loved that my people were called 'pirates' — until I learned the hidden meaning

A Filipino space is almost always a Christian one, writes Alia Rasul. That's why, as a Filipino Muslim, she is speaking up about her people and culture.

In Canada, I’m often the only Filipino Muslim in the room

Alia Rasul made this illustration from a stained glass window in her grandmother’s house. It depicts their people, the Tausug, who were also described as pirates. (Alia Rasul)

This First Person article is the experience of Alia Ceniza Rasul, who moved to Toronto from the Philippines as an international student. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

When I was younger, my dad used to tell me stories of his home in Sulu (now a province of the Philippines). One of my absolute favorite things he would say is that our people, the Tausug, fought against the Spanish, never to be colonized by them. They were even called pirates. 

As a kid, I was enamoured by the idea that I was descended from a group of people who fought in boats against the steam-powered ships of a much larger foe and won. 

Alia Rasul wears a badju sug, a traditional Tausug garment, as a child. (Alia Rasul)

It spoke to me as someone who never really fit in: I have a Muslim dad and a Christian mom. It also helped me make sense of my family's nomadic lifestyle and a childhood spent across four different countries. After all, Tausug means "people of the current." I also have always had an intense temperament growing up. It was fun to think that it was something I shared with my fearless ancestors, and not because I was just being a difficult child (or now, a proudly difficult woman).

I was fiercely proud of this heritage but as an adult, I've come to understand the word "pirate" differently. The Tausug also belong to a group of people who identify as Moros — one of the 13 Islamized ethnic groups in the Philippines. They were fishers, farmers and traders. Due to their resistance against the Catholic church, Moros were branded as pirates to villainize them, to incite fear, and to justify the violence against them, which involved more than 300 years of constant attack under the Spanish occupation.

The legacy of villainizing Filipino Muslims exists today. In 2017, Philippine officials proposed a mandated "Muslims-only" identification system to "identify and weed out undesirable individuals and terrorists." In January 2020, there was a U.S. State Department report that the police in Manila internally released a memorandum requiring schools to identify Muslim students in secondary and tertiary education institutions as part of their counter-terrorism efforts. 

"They treat us like second-class citizens," my father often says. 

A Tausug “pirate” ship is depicted in the Sulu Sea in this illustration circa 1850. (Wikimedia Commons)

By default, a Filipino space is almost always a Christian space and that is true in Canada as well unless I — often the only Muslim in the room — pipes up. I feel an expectation and burden to speak for all Muslim Filipinos as if we're a monolith. I've had my share of racism and discrimination just being a fat Asian woman. You can't really blame me for not wanting to invite another layer of prejudice. 

Since moving to Canada, I noticed that a lot of the culture presented as Filipino culture is actually Moro culture or culture from Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines. As part of reconnecting with their roots, Filipino Canadians are reaching back into their heritage and in the spirit of decolonization, are looking past the portions of their culture influenced by colonialism and reconnecting with their pre-colonial cultural practices; performing dances like the singkil, and using instruments like the kulintang, wearing woven textiles such as the pis siyabit and adorning themselves with tattoos

Young Filipino Canadians are taking inspiration from our culture, remixing and making it their own, which I am excited about. It is lovely to see my heritage brought to life in new ways, especially being so far from home. 

Recently, my father was invited to lead in prayer at an awards event for university alumni, where he recited the Surah Al-Fatihah, the first chapter of the Qur'an. Recognizing Filipino Muslims in this way is something I never saw growing up and it's a nice sign of some progress where the default is to start with a Christian prayer.

Alia Rasul’s grandfather, first from the left, and father, first from the right, are pictured with the Sultan of Sulu and the crown prince in this photo taken in the Philippines in 1974. (Royal Sultanate of Sulu)

What's not so lovely is the lack of conversation around the sacrifice it took to preserve it, and the plight of Moro and Philippine Indigenous Peoples today who are still marginalized. The practice of Philippine heritage simply for its aesthetic without acknowledging its history and context, even if it's well-meaning, feels appropriative at best. The act of romanticizing certain parts of the culture, and removing all of the parts we need to be accountable for is wrong.

What I have experienced is the erasure of my heritage, and my silence doesn't help.

Usually towards the end of my dad regaling us about the pirates of Sulu and how they would stick it to the colonizers, my mom will pipe up and say "Well, they DID kidnap people." My mom, (the O.G. "difficult" woman), grew up in a city called Dumaguete, one of the Spanish-controlled towns that used to get pillaged by the Moro revolutionaries. 

As a joke, Alia Rasul’s brother created a family collage on the same stained glass illustration showing Tausugs. Left to right: Rasul’s mother, Cecille Anne Ceniza Rasul; dad Amroussi Tillah Rasul; brothers Rajik Ceniza Rasul and Tariq Ceniza Rasul; grandmother Santanina Tillah Rasul and Alia Rasul. (Tariq Ceniza Rasul)

This is a less fun part of the story. I remember getting annoyed with my mom for bringing this up, because it made my pirate fantasy seem real and violent. Worse was realizing that a big part of raiding and pillaging included slave trading, which occured throughout the Philippine archipelago at the time. I appreciate more now that she never remained silent about this, because it taught me to sit with the discomfort of accepting the whole history, and taught me to make space for many truths — not just the one I relate to the most.

I hope my fellow Filipinos can do the same. As members of the Philippine diaspora begin to confront their relationship with colonialism, it is important to also acknowledge their role and their ancestors' roles in the oppression of others in the Philippines. We need to get into the habit of bringing the full story forward, so we and future generations can benefit from its lessons. This way, we are setting ourselves up well to build a decolonized and better future together.

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Alia Ceniza Rasul is a Filipina comedian and storyteller based in Toronto. She recently published her first poetry collection called “Super Important Filipina Thoughts.”