It was impossible to miss Farah Ali Ghodsinia, the Muslim guest speaker at the recent graduation ceremonies of Miriam College High School (MCHS). Amid the 600 students wearing royal blue togas and black caps, she stood out in her a gold hijab, a barong top, and a long blue Maranao skirt.
Farah, who is the peace ambassador of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPPAP), is back at her high school alma mater 10 years after she graduated from the same institution with a message that already showed in her wardrobe that day.
“My personal story in Miriam College is quite an unusual one, and let me tell you this through my clothing.
“I was born in Manila so you can consider me a child of Luzon thus the barong. But I am also a child of Mindanao with my great, great grandfather being a well-loved Sultan [in Marawi] and to represent my Maranao lineage I wear is malong. The Sablay is from UP as I am an Iskolar ng Bayan.
“Finally, I matched my blue malong with a gold headdress to represent the colors of this school — the blue and gold of Miriam.”
Farah was proudly ‘wearing’ the message she wanted to share with the new graduates that day. Growing up, embracing diversity was a value Farah’s parents, who are both Muslims, taught her. They never hesitated to enroll their daughter in an all-girls’ Catholic school that carried the name of Mother Mary and where Farah recalls she was the only Muslim in her batch.
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“You might wonder why my parents, both Muslims, would enroll me in a Catholic Institution. For them, it’s because they wanted to give me the best education they could here in Manila.”
Farah credits her alma mater for shaping her as a woman, as a Muslim, and as a Filipino citizen. “Despite differences, it was here where I gained my first batch of sisters, not just friends but sisters. Here we all shared the same second home and we all had the same set of second parents — our teachers.
“We were all raised to be empowered like Mary to lead in service bounded by the [school’s] core values of truth, peace, justice, and integrity of creation — values which are universal to all of humanity. Ultimately, this is what you call unity in diversity. Despite our differences, all of us are bonded by unity.”
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Farah recalls that all throughout her 10 years at Miriam College, she consistently topped her Christian Living Education (CLE) subject. “I studied very hard for all my subjects and even CLE was a subject that I considered seriously. For some reason, every year, it was always I who would top the CLE class. It was that kid who wasn’t a Christian and who wasn’t a Catholic who would get the highest scores and imagine me receiving that kind of admiration,” she says.
“Up to now, I remember several passages from the bible, several songs from the mass that if you would put me in a Sunday mass I could very well follow the [rites]. For me this is still one of the best things that happened in my life because, here, I was given a chance to learn another faith that is cherished by millions of people across the world and thus I gained deeper insight about it,” she shares.
Farah credits to her parents for the way she sees the world. Her mom is a full-blooded Maranao, while her Dad is from Iran, both self-made individuals. While they share the same religion, her parents’ different cultural backgrounds had posed challenges during the earlier days of their marriage.
Maranaoans, especially those of royal lineage, are usually not encouraged to marry outside their tribe, says Farah, but her parents managed to beat the odds because of their openness to diversity.
“I was born into a life with so much diversity and being a Muslim studying in a Catholic school opened my eyes to so many things,” Farah shares during an interview.
In her hometown of Marawi, Farah founded Children of Mindanao, a socio-civic venture that provides educational assistance to children from the southern Philippines. Its goal is for more children — Muslim or Christian —to learn together in peace.
One of its current projects is the opening of new libraries in Marawi City. Together with her brother, Arman Ghodsinia, they further promote nation-building with Arman focusing on STEM. Her brother is the first Maranao to have graduated Summa Cum Laude in the Molecular Biology department in the University of the Philippines.
Farah’s message of diversity and unity comes at a time when the young need to hear and be assured of it the most. She may have ‘worn’ her message across through her clothing during her speech, but there is still nothing like her words resonating to the young hearts and minds in the audience who are about to carve new paths for themselves.
“You see, diversity is a fact of life,” she tells the young graduates, “it exists and will always exist. Each day we are given a choice to focus on the differences that can divide us or focus on the similarities that define us. We have that choice to make.
“And each day when we make that choice to stand by/for each other, recognize this — we become better and stronger as a people. When we look out for each other and when we care for the well-being and rights of other people as much as we care for our own then we can live in a better world, one that is more just and fair and kind for all.”