When feminism is survival

My grandmother, Idang, was born in 1910. Her father made her stop schooling when she finished primary school (that’s fourth grade in today’s educational system). My great grandfather refused to spend a peso more to educate her further.

“Idang wouldn’t need a good education. She was pretty enough to find a good husband,” her father reasoned. Indeed, Idang looked like the actress Tessie Quintana.

“Idang wouldn’t need a good education to keep house, give birth, and raise children,” he said. So Idang stopped going to school at the age of 11.

Isko, a friend of Idang’s brother, came by their house often. When he passed the licensure examination for geodetic engineers, he asked Idang to marry him. For a while before the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines, they had a good living. Idang married a man who had a steady job and a steady income. They had six children, two of whom died in infancy. Four survived.

Isko’s family disdained Idang. “She was too pretty,” they said. Some said, “There’s nothing in her pretty head. She has no education.” Idang held her head high anyway.

Isko’s profession took him all over the provinces of Rizal and Laguna where he undertook surveys of real property to facilitate registration of lands under the Torrens System introduced by the Americans. Isko was away from home, often, for weeks at a time. Idang cared for her four children, kept house, raised chickens and a pig, and kept a vegetable garden in the backyard. She did all the chores in the house by herself. They had no indoor plumbing so she brought water from the well behind their house to bathe, cook, and clean. She chopped the wood she cooked food with. Sometimes, Isko’s surveying work in the field took months to finish. Household money ran out and there was nothing for Idang and her children to eat.

During those times, Lola Idang woke up at 3 am, left home before 4 am, took the bus without chaperone or assistance to to to the shores of Laguna Bay. She negotiated and bought fish wholesale and on consignment from the fishermen coming home from the night’s fishing. She brought it to her hometown, Paete, where she peddled them.

She carried ten kilos of fish in a wicker basket on her head, and in a basked on her arm, she carried a weighing scale and fillet knives. She de-scaled and gutted fish right in front of the customer. By 8 or 9 am, she’d have sold most of the fish. What was left over in her basket, usually, the bia and the ayungin, would be their food for the day. Some of the leftover fish she traded for vegetables and fruit. When Idang returned home from peddling fish, she’d do the laundry, bathe the children, clean house, cook the food, take care of the vegetable garden, fold and iron the clothes. She did this every single day.

When her in-laws heard about Idang peddling fish in town, they clucked their tongue at her. She was the family disgrace. Peddling fish! What was she thinking? She was, after all, sister-in-law to two well known lawyers the provincial capital of Sta. Cruz.

When Isko came home, he was annoyed that his beautiful wife peddled fish in town. He was jealous. He accused her of parading herself. Lola Idang did not keep silent. Smelling of fish under the hot sun was not “parading” herself. They argued.

To maintain marital harmony, Idang stopped peddling fish when there was money in the house. But when Isko delayed coming home and there was no money in the house again, she’d peddle fish. Sometimes, she brought my mother along.

The townsfolk told my mother the same thing, “Oh, Delia, you’re too pretty to be a fishmonger.”

My mother hung her head.

Lola Idang told her, “Selling fish is more honorable than stealing, more convenient than starving.”

When the Japanese came, Isko became a guerilla. His job as a geodetic engineer was his cover — he was always in the hills, anyway, measuring lots and fields, mapping out trails that could be made into roads. He became a courier for the guerillas. He brought and delivered to them medicine, maps, food supplies, ammunition, anything they needed.

Because Isko was seldom home during the war, Idang peddled fish throughout the Japanese Occupation. Just before Liberation, Idang received news that Isko had been shot by the Japanese. Widowed at a very young age with small children, peddling fish became Lola Idang’s permanent livelihood and regular source of income.

She never remarried. “ Married once is plenty.” She told me when I asked her why.

Idang never thought of herself as a feminist. That concept had not crossed the Pacific Ocean yet. She did think herself equal to men. She never questioned why her neighbors looked down on her or why she never had the same opportunities as her brother.

She broke free of the prison that society erected around her gender because she had four mouths to feed. To her, earning money, running a house, making decisions for her children, and being responsible for herself and for her children, were instinctive. Her feminism was the by-product of her struggle to survive.

Survival came at a price, though. I rarely saw her smile or heard her laugh. I never saw her kiss my mother. She never kissed or hugged me. Carrying fish in a basket on her head made her hard and unyielding. She lived life her way and lived to the age of 88. Feminism was her synonym for survival.