The secret history of Filipino women

Edited extract from an essay originally published in The Lifted Brow No. 29, March 2016: 49–52, Australia

Filipino women often end up Biblical cutouts. Among ‘specialist’ dating websites, they are presented to (mostly) western men in a couple of ways. On one hand, Filipino women are feminine, conservative and timid: they make great wives. On the other hand, they are an easy lay: they make great girlfriends. In this Madonna-whore complex, Filipino women become, primarily, a function of male desire, the canvas upon which fantasies can be projected.

On screen, they appear or are referred to as maids and wives, often off-camera characters that serve as an in-joke between white characters, and between the show and its audience. In Jessica Jones, Jeri Hogarth (Carrie Ann Moss) recommends a massage to Jessica (Krysten Ritter), saying “I have a great Filipino woman who will walk all over your back.” I have but can share! This is funny because tiny Filipino women are great for relieving high-powered white women of stress.

In 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) tells Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) that Howard Jorgensen, whom he used to mentor, is now “earning seven figures and married to a swell Filipino gal.” It isn’t enough for Jack to assure Liz that he wouldn’t set her up with a married man. There has to be a punchline, and the punchline is that a white man hasn’t really made it until he has acquired a “swell Filipino gal”.

In both episodes, Filipino women are trappings of power and wealth. Their existence enables a certain class of people to make choices — they become mere instrument for demonstrating an elevated kind of freedom.

The fierce dignity of Filipino women has been subordinated so successfully that one would have to delve five hundred years into the past to begin reclaiming it.

The Philippines as an entity did not exist before the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan claimed Samar and Leyte for Spain in 1521. Another Spanish expedition in 1543 led by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos named these islands for Prince Philip II, who went on to become king. Further invasions and settlement expanded Iberian hold over the entire archipelago.

To get a sense of the impact of Spanish hegemonic rule, it is worth noting that there are over 170 ethnolinguistic groups in the Philippines. Tagalog, spoken in the capital and often taken as synonymous with Filipino, is only one of 13 major vernaculars and more than a hundred dialects. These indigenous languages represent peoples who had distinct customs and structures before the first Spanish galleons arrived.

Most accounts of these precolonial cultures were — unfortunately and typically — written by conquistadors. (This does not necessarily mean that they brought literacy, given that the ‘kawi’ and ‘baybayin’ scripts, said to be derived from Javanese and Brahmic Indian writing, are known to have been in use in southern Luzon prior to colonisation).

Jesuit priest Pedro Chirino, who in 1604 published one of the earliest European records of Philippine life, was quite dismayed by the relaxed attitudes about sex among Visayan women. “Virginity was not recognised or esteemed among them,” he noted. “Rather, women considered it as a misfortune and humiliation.” A separate account described islander women as “given to abominable lustful habits”.

Visayan women also monopolised the role of babaylan — healer, medium, and seer. A male babaylan necessitated a kind of transformation, wherein he took on the garment, behaviour and (it is thought) the sexuality of women. The arrival of Catholicism, with its unwaveringly male priesthood, undoubtedly disrupted this ritual hierarchy.

The Spanish also observed that among Tagalogs the groom provided dowry rather than the bride. In some cases, he might have to augment the dowry by providing services to the woman’s family, a custom known as paninilbihan. Chirino also notes that the woman’s consent was “for the present, but not perpetual”. She could separate from her husband by paying him back the dowry.

In those areas where the colonial government did not penetrate so deeply, women were able to retain their customary status. In the highlands of Kalinga, women were pact-holders, maintaining inter-tribal agreements of mutual protection and aid and determining the punishment for breaches. On the southern island of Mindanao, accounts of Muslim royals such as Sima, Tuambaloca and Purmassuri, depict women in governance, some of whom went to battle against Spanish incursions.

The extent to which Spanish-Catholic patriarchal views became embedded is thus a matter of contrast: the late-19th century idealised Filipino woman was demure, virginal, and compliant. Maria Clara, an important figure in Jose Rizal’s 1887 novel Noli Me Tangere, was the epitome of feminine grace for generations of women, with her convent school manners. Notably, her ultimatum at the end of the novel — nunnery or death — repudiates men and their violence. She does not survive.

Filipino women are self-agents in indigenous epics: Matabagka from the mountains of Bukidnon, who steals the wind deity’s powers to save her brother’s kingdom; Bolak Sonday of the Subanons, who rescues her husband’s spirit from the underworld; and Emla, a transgressive figure who leads a head-hunting expedition in the Cordillera ranges, flanked by crocodiles.

These stories probably find their source from a bilateral kinship system in which women could own property, engage in trade, and become chief of a clan. Absolute primogeniture further ensured that daughters and sons were treated equally, with birth order being the basis for inheritance rather than gender.

Filipino women have never been bystanders to history. They played critical roles in the 1896–1898 revolution against Spain. When I was in primary school, I learned about Melchora Aquino, an octogenarian who fed, sheltered, and nursed Katipuneros, and Gabriela Silang, wife of Diego. They were incredible figures, but not the exception. I later discovered an entire gallery of Filipino women who were radicalised under Spain.

Educated Filipino women from wealthy families (who sympathised with the independence movement) were perfectly positioned to spy and smuggle for dissidents. Some financed arms. The Philippine navy started with a single ship donated by Gliceria Villavicencio.

Trinidad Tecson seized Spanish munitions and firearms from storehouses in Caloocan and San Isidro, and fought in numerous battles. Marcela Marcelo led troops in Pasay, as did Gregoria Montoya in Cavite and Teresa Magbanua in Iloilo. Agueda Kahabagan is the first known woman general in the Philippines. Women established some of the first Red Cross units across the country to tend to wounded rebels.

As the struggle against Spain rolled into the Philippine-American War and, not too long after, the anti-Japanese insurgency, women could be found fighting alongside men for country. Simeona Punsalan-Tapang was described by a guerrilla leader as a “big-bodied woman with a man’s strength, fond of wearing a man’s clothes, adept at handling an automatic rifle, and would command on the firing line.” Another anti-Japanese commander, Remedios Gomez-Paraiso, was known to turn up for battle with bright red lipstick, her hair carefully combed. “One of the things I am fighting for,” she would quip, “is the right to be myself.” She once challenged a man to a duel for sexually harassing her.

The first detainee to die under Ferdinand Marcos’ regime was Liliosa Hilao, a 23-year old student who criticised human rights abuses in her university paper. The torture and manner of her death in 1973 foreshadowed the sadism of martial law. Many women joined the underground movement during the 1970s and 1980s, but there were also those in the mainstream who resisted more openly. Journalists and editors such as Eugenia Apostol, Ninez Cacho-Olivarez, Malou Mangahas , Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, Melinda Quintos de Jesus, and many others pressured the government at a time of state censorship and military surveillance. Some of the rare political exposés that came out of the era were published in women’s lifestyle magazines.

GABRIELA, arguably the first feminist organisation in the Philippines, was co-founded in 1984 by a Catholic nun, Sr Mary John Mananzan. She once showed up after midnight at a liquor distillery — wearing her Missionary Benedictine habit — where military personnel were threatening workers who had gone on strike.

It took Corazon Aquino, a widowed mother, to consolidate political forces against Marcos and extricate him from power.

These names from the breadth of Philippine history and literature illustrate that courage, honour and leadership are not manly qualities by default. Filipino women have been prophets, warriors, arbiters, healers. They are multidimensional.

Postscript: Even now, women are at the forefront of resistance to excesses under the Duterte presidency — and his first targets.

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