Philippine Her-story Is Our Story
Written by Gertrude Abarentos — March 30, 2021
ONLY SMALL SPACES IN HIS-TORY
Imagine if you could only remember a portion of your life while the other half was missing — your identity would feel incomplete, wouldn’t it? This appears to be the case when we talk about our nation’s upbringing. The stories we retell today are predominantly about both notable and notorious men ranging from the narration of Spanish and American colonization to the dictatorship years, with only patchy appearances of female figures.
While these men deserve their place in history, it sparks the question of:
Why is it that only one side of the gender spectrum appears to have put this country together?
With years of women’s quest for independence, struggle for democracy, equality, and social justice, which is visible to the present date, where are all the women’s stories in the points of our nation’s statuses of struggle? Additionally, perhaps, it is hard for some to understand or be concerned about gender inequality because we hardly ever talk about its beginnings and how we, throughout the years, struggle with this silent crime in our personhood. So in celebration of National Women’s Month, may we shed a light on Filipino women’s definition and position in nation-building by acknowledging the necessary details in the story of how we became who we are today…
[Pre-colonial & Spanish Colonization]
Spaniards sought tasty food; infiltrated the harmonious Philippines with misogynistic ideas instead
To start, pre-colonial Philippine society reflects an epitome of gender equality in our native version of how humans were created. The Legend of Malakas and Maganda narrates how the protagonists came out at the same time after a bamboo was split in two. This is contrary to the androcentric biblical account of creation in the Book of Genesis with the chronology of creation giving primacy to man:
“it is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him” (2:18) said the Creator after the man has settled in the Garden of Eden in which to fulfill this, the Creator put the man into sleep and plucked one of his ribs and made it into a new being called ‘woman’ (2:21–23).
(The latter story denotes that women are made for and a mere extension of men. Worse, the story led to the woman starting suffering to the world.)
At this period, women exercised enormous rights and privileges akin to men as there was mutuality and not subordination. A woman could rule over the barangays and perform the role of babaylan (priestess) that is chiefly concerned with culture, religion, medicine, and theoretical knowledge (Salazar 1994 called them the ‘proto-scientist’ among ancient Filipino). Herstory indicates that babaylan women were not subservient to datu rather, they worked closely in heading the barangay. Furthermore, women had the right to own a property, to obtain a divorce, or in instances of separation, is granted a share of earnings and children. 
They even availed higher regard compared to men as narrated in prejudiced accounts of Spanish historians e.g. in Martin (1886):
“The Spaniards were very vocal about their disdain of the Indio. He is described as indolent, taciturn, boastful, capricious and hard-headed, cowardly, and fond of gambling, lascivious, and indifferent… Yet everyone recognizes the greater intellectual superiority of the Indian woman to the Indian man, of whatever class or social condition. She is a more serious and formal partner in making contracts.”
Valdez (1891 as cited Aguja 2013) succinctly narrated the overall high-esteem status of women in the pre-Spanish Philippines in one of his work:
“…the law does not give her any special right or any official representation but by her own superiority the power of custom have made her, the woman, the principal instrument of nature, culture and power, more or less hidden which moves and directs the man in his public life and is the one who really controls domestic society.”
However, the Spanish conquest in the 16th century shattered the indigenous culture. As their self-righteousness worked its way to remodel the Philippines, it especially altered and constricted what women are supposed to be in society as Santos (1991) wrote,
“The new Filipina was now her father’s meek daughter, the husband’s faithful subject, the church’s obedient servant, and before marriage, a chaste virgin who would yield only to her husband, (and occasionally to the friar)…The woman of the Spanish period was a woman tied to the house, whose main function was to bear children…Marriage was seen as their final fate, either to escape the state of servitude from the among or landlord, or from strict abusive parents…”
The status of Babaylan experienced an abrupt change as Spanish friars policed the religious and spiritual beliefs of indigenous women. The intimidated religious figures claimed that the priestesses were blessed with powers from “the black magic.” The antagonistic Christian indoctrination also colonized their bodies; suppressed and controlled their sexuality via the confession with sexual activities (masturbation, homosexuality, sexual touching) labeled as sinful and therefore must be professed to a priest.
These Spanish impositions activated numerous gender disparities in the country. The government became a domain solely for men. Educational opportunities became uneven with women taught only enough reading and writing skills to do prayers, otherwise a lot of needlework. Hence, their aspirations were directed to teaching, becoming a nun i.e. they are “to be devout, to do charitable work, and to avoid politics”. The option to divorce was vetoed and could not remarry if become legally separated, nonetheless. As wives, they cannot freely engage in business without their husband’s consent or to hold any public office except for the office of the teacher. It killed and silenced so much of who we are.
This inculcation did not go unquestioned for long though, even Rizal firmly evoked in his essay To the Young Women of Malolos:
“Remember that a good mother does not resemble the mother that the friar has created.”
[Philippine Revolution, Suffrage Movement, Fil-Am War, and Japanese Oppression]
In regaining one’s strength, women — both loud and sneaky — adjoined men to fight for independence, democracy, and against male chauvinist pig abuses
With Gomburza having sparked anti-Spanish sentiments, Filipino minds were further stimulated to revolt, and consciousness raised through reform-minded campaigns. the Propaganda Movement and the Katipunan. The prominent organizations mentioned were not exclusive in the fight, however. Hundreds of thousand members of Katipunan consisted of different genders aimed for the same goal and women organizations with both logistical and intellectual contributions of their own manifested resiliency, assertiveness, and stubbornness to give up native values and inherent rights.
Asociacion Filantropica de la Cruz Roja is one noteworthy women’s association under the revolution. Their primary function was to collect funds for the war and treat injured revolutionary soldiers. Another remarkable yet overlooked effort of women is found in the literature, through revolutionary publications such as El Heraldo de la Revolucion and La Independencia. Some used physical strength and fought on the battlefield such as Aguada Kahabagan in Laguna, Trinidad Tecson in Bulacan, and Teresa Magbanua of Iloilo during the Fil-Am war.
Unfortunately, patriarchal and feudal norms remained undeterred by the rouse of women’s empowerment and continued to marginalize Filipino women. Hence, feminist organizations in the 20th century hiked. The first organization to recognize itself as feminist was found by a member of the working-class, Concepcion Felix de Calderon, called the Asociacion Feminista Filipina (AFF), followed by Asociacion Feminista Ilonga by the elite woman Pura Villanueva Kalaw who triggered discourses for women’s right to vote.
Apolinario Mabini first advocated women’s suffrage by drafting the constitution and gave female taxpayers who have attained the age of 21 years the supposed right to vote for public office. It was not adopted nonetheless, as women in the revolutionary movement did not pursue the right at the time. Women’s suffrage was only approved through a plebiscite on April 30, 1937, with 90% affirmative votes.
Not long after this victory, however, Imperial Japan occupied our country during World War II and women were once again demeaned and objectified. They became susceptible to war crimes and some were poorly subjected to horrifying acts of sexual slavery. Worst cases of systemic rape in wartime happened when,
“Some were promised jobs, and subsequently brought to ‘comfort houses’ where they experienced repetitive rape by tens of Japanese soldiers per day.”
Even so, Filipino women did not persist without a fight. They actively participated in armed resistance. Felipa Culala or alias Dayang-Dayang strikingly acted as a female guerilla commander and led one of the earliest guerilla forces under the group HUKBALAHAP or Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon (People’s Army Against the Japanese). She is one of what the press and post-war Philippine government call “Huk Amazons” or the umbrella term for female guerillas.
To nurse or to brawl, a Filipino woman can only be defined by her own…
[Dictatorship years and beyond]
A husband-and-wife tandem wrapped up in themselves obtained high power. The country and its people were abused and have heavily struggled — — but struggled through
It was only in the late ’60s when the Filipino people once again began their new waves of outcry as the Philippines experienced amplifying economic inequalities and distress through unconstrained graft and corruption. The rise of students, workers, farmers, and other social movements brought about new steam for the women’s movement, especially with the Marcos’ regime’s economic development plans of the laid out unearthly policies for women. The Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan (Movement for Freedom by Progressive Women) or MAKIBAKA was established to, “attempt situating women’s liberation within the context of the struggle against foreign domination and class oppression”.
Later on, Katipunan ng Bagong Pilipina (KABAPA) was founded in 1975 by women who were active in HUKBALAHAP. They are influenced by third-world feminism that addresses national, class, and gender issues. Two more women’s organizations were formed under this era (1) the Kilusang Kababaihang Pilipina (Philippines Women’s Movement) or PILIPINA in 1981 and the Katipunan ng Kalayaan para sa Kababaihan (Organization of Women for Freedom) or KALAYAAN in 1982 that intended to focus on women’s issues through studies and campaigns against sexism in media, violation of women’s reproductive rights, gender violence, prostitution, and gender issues in the workplace. PILIPINA conceived a,
“Philippine society where women possess dignity, autonomy, and equality and proactively engaged in social work and capacity for women,” while KALAYAAN has its major call: “Kalayaan ng Bayan, Kalayaan ng Kababihan, Sabay Nating Ipaglaban!”
KALAYAAN developed the line “the personal is political” and shaped the establishment of the largest women’s network in our country today, the GABRIELA or General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action in 1984. It was the attempt to be the encompassing organization of all feminist agenda and upholds that,
“Class oppression remains the primary enemy of the people even as it has taken on feminist issues like violence against women.”
Regardless of the closure of avenues for democratic participation during the dictatorship years, the Filipino people successfully toppled Marcos with the 1986 people power revolution. This propelled the first Filipino woman presidency, reigned by Corazon “Cory” Aquino whose administration period both restored democracy and benefited women’s groups. The regime created several legislative victories as well, from the 1987 Philippine constitution that recognizes the role of women in nation-building and ensures fundamental equality before the law of women and men (Art. 11, Sec 14), to The New Family Code of the Philippines.
This eliminated many of Spanish colonial law-based discriminatory arrangements in the Civil Code of the Philippines, and 8 other Republic Acts to improve the conditions of women. Particularly, the R.A, 792 or the Women in Development and Nation-Building Act of 1992 mandated Philippine Plan for Gender-Responsive Development (PPGD) 1995–2025 that makes provision for Gender and Development (GAD) Budget in government programs and services.
Hega et al. (2017) saw these triumphs as,
“The period following the overthrow of the dictator showed how feminists found spaces for feminist articulation with state and civil society; thus, political democratization was also about feminists trying to push the bounds of patriarchal liberal democracy.”
[The Stories of Present Filipino Women]
It continues with us today.
Protests and organizations related to gender inequality have been continuously rising in our century, mostly youth-led, and now with never-ending ways to convey their messages. An increase in Filipino women who are taking up larger spaces in society is also visible (5.34% increase of women elected in public office from 1998–2016, PCW). Our current actions usher what will and can someday be, similar to how these remarkable women movements grappled for the freedoms we reap today.
It is my hope that we never forget the details of Ourstory, and at the same time realize that while it may not be (entirely) repeating itself as the adage goes, it does refine itself. To ordinary students and citizens who are not flashy for historical records as the Babaylans, or Huk Amazons, or the next Philippine legislator or female president (or at least not yet), may we remember that we are still inescapably writing our nation’s history.
Let us wear the definition of unique womanhood (our individual needs, experiences, and interests) or the feminism that suits you best at the given time — be it social media, academic writing, or whatever way this generation records and watches Ourstory pass by. Together, let us celebrate how all our becoming, exceptionally and collectively, creates the refinements we wish to see. Live, lead, fight (because there is a point in doing so), and love. Choose and own the verbs that you want your story to have. They are all yours.
Happy 2021 National Women’s Month! We all matter in and out of March!
This is an article highlighting exceptional stories and the needlessness to be an exceptional woman to make history and/or matter.