The role of women in the Philippine revolution

Paper delivered at the launch of Paloma Polo’s film, “The Earth of the Revolution”, which shows the role of women in the Filipino people’s armed struggle for national and social liberation, at the Arts Catalyst in London.

By DARA BASCARA, who is doing her doctoral dissertation on oppression at Birkbech, University of London

Some Filipino scholars allege that Western colonization spawned the demise of women’s status in the Philippines. Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the women in the tribes that occupied the archipelago were said to have enjoyed egalitarian relations with men. Though men occupied the role of datu, which made them rulers of the political realm, women occupied the role of babaylan or high priestess, making them rulers of the equally important spiritual realm.

There is also some more recent support for the claim that people indigenous to the archipelago had egalitarian gender relations. According to a Filipino anthropologist, there was once a tribe in the Northern Philippines that had neither concept nor incidence of rape. In 2014, a documentary about this tribe was released under the title No Rape in Bontoc.

To this day, many studies claim that the Philippines is a bastion of gender equality. The Philippines frequently makes it to the top ten in gender equality studies, the best in Asia, ahead of even the UK, and along with Scandinavian countries.

These studies have always befuddled Filipino feminists who are quick to point out that the Philippines is the last country in the world that still has not legalized divorce. Women in abusive marriages do not have an obvious way out, especially in a country where the family is a sacred institution. Talk of reproductive rights is still taboo in the only Christian country in Asia.

This makes me think that if it is true that the Philippines enjoys egalitarian gender relations better than most countries in the world, then perhaps this is more of a sign that gender relations are that horrific. If the Philippines scores so well on gender equality, then I can only imagine how bad it is in most other countries.

Now, war and warfare have always been portrayed as a male activity. But early last year, the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his soldiers to shoot female communist rebels in the vagina on national television. If nothing else, this misogynistic statement is an acknowledgement of the actuality of women revolutionaries in the Philippines.

Filipino women have played and continue to play an important role in the Philippine revolutionary movement. As far back as the struggle against Spanish colonialism in the Philippines, women were involved in armed rebellion. Perhaps the most famous Filipina revolutionary is Gabriela Silang, who, after the death of her husband, assumed the role of commander of her husband’s troops and fought in battle against the Spanish colonizers. Gabriela Silang continues to be an inspiration to many Filipino women. In fact, one of the largest and most influential women’s grassroots organization in the Philippines is named after her: Gabriela.

The organization Gabriela was founded in 1984, after 10,000 women in Manila marched in protest against a presidential decree banning mass demonstrations. To this day, the organization Gabriela spearheads campaigns on women-related issues. Gabriela has been in the forefront of the struggle against domestic violence, poverty, human rights violations, militarization, sex trafficking, and other issues affecting women and other gender-oppressed groups.

In response to the fact that one of the Philippines main exports is female domestic labour, Gabriela chapters have been founded in the USA, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. Gabriela has been crucial in helping Filipino domestic workers around the world organize themselves through the formation of self-help groups and has been a steadfast resource for women who suffer abuses.

In 2010, when a Filipina domestic worker in Indonesia, Mary Jane Veloso, was sentenced to the death penalty allegedly for drug trafficking, Gabriela lead a successful international campaign to save Mary Jane. Although Mary Jane’s case is still not resolved, the Gabriela-led campaign to save Mary Jane has at least resulted in her scheduled execution being thwarted back in April 2015.

In 2004, the Gabriela Women’s Party was launched and has consistently won a seat in Philippine congressional elections. Gabriela representative, Liza Masa, is the author and main sponsor of the Philippines’ Anti-Trafficking Law and the Violence Against Women Act. She is also pushing for the legalization of divorce in the Philippines.

Gabriela has become the most important platform for marginalized Filipino women. The majority of its female members are workers, farmers, or are from the urban poor. The prominence of Gabriela among Filipinos, both locally and internationally, strengthens the legacy of Gabriela Silang and serves as a symbolical antidote to the patriarchal ideal of a meek, weak, and servile Filipino woman. Unfortunately, this prominence is not without cost. In being known as an organization that fundamentally challenges the basic structure of a semi-feudal, semi-colonial, and deeply patriarchal society, Gabriela members have been victims of extra-judicial killings.

Another important militant women’s organization is MAKIBAKA (MA-layang KI-lusan ng BA-gong KA-babaihan) or the Independent Movement of New Women. In Filipino, the word makibaka is used as an invitation to join in struggle. Although many of the militant organizations already had a women’s bureau, the founders of Makibaka saw the need for a women-only organization that addresses women’s oppression whilst situating it in the context of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism. MAKIBAKA is among the core organizations that is part of the National Democratic Front, a broad alliance of left-wing organizations that work together for comprehensive social, economic, and political changes in the Philippines.

Several members of MAKIBAKA went underground and trained as soldiers in the New People’s Army. The late Lorena Barros, one of the founders of Makibaka, is of notable importance. In 1973, the year after Martial Law was declared, Laurie was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. While in prison, she was told that her husband had surrendered to the military. This, however, did not dampen her commitment to the Philippine revolution. She managed to escape prison and rejoined the New People’s Army and, like Gabriela Silang, took her husband’s place and fought in his stead. In 1976, Laurie died in battle. Legend has it that as Marcos’ soldiers approached her, her gun jammed, so she said, “You are lucky gentlemen, my gun is jammed.”

Laurie is not the only Filipino woman who has lost her life in the service of revolution. We all know of the current President Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, which has killed thousands of people without due process. But the Philippine Government, despite changes in presidency, has been guilty of extra-judicial killings of political activists and community organizers for many, many decades. In the Philippines, you do not have to have signed up to become a combatant in warfare to be a target of political violence.

Currently, Christina Palabay, the General Secretary of the human rights organization Karapatan is under threat. She received a death threat via text from an unknown source, just hours after her colleague Bernardino Patigas was murdered. Death threats on political activists and human rights defenders in the Philippines need to be taken very seriously. Government forces do not discriminate between women and men.

Annaliza Capinpin, president of the Agrarian Reform Council for Mindanao Pioneers was shot in August of last year. Elisa Badayos, a coordinator of Karapatan was shot in November 2017 by two unidentified men on a motorbike whilst she was involved in an investigation on land rights abuses in her area. Mariam Acob, a paralegal at the Kawagib Moro Human Rights Alliance, a champion of the rights of minority Muslim Moro communities, was shot seven times in her car in September of last year. Laura Leonor Pineda, a member of Compostela Farmers Association who defended her community against large-scale mining projects was shot in her house in 2017. Women activists and grassroots organizers have been harassed, tortured, and killed by government forces.

So far, I have only spoken about women and women’s organizations and their participation in revolutionary struggle. A main theme in this exhibition is ecofeminism and the environment. According to a recent study by HSBC, the Philippines is the third country most vulnerable to climate change, next to India and Pakistan.

We now live in a time when it is difficult to deny that unrestrained capitalism is incompatible with environmental conservation. Capitalism thrives on the exploitation of human and environmental resources. There is therefore a natural alliance between the struggle against capitalist expansion and the quest for environmental sustainability.

This natural alliance is most evident in the rural parts of the Philippines, where many poor Filipinos and indigenous peoples are engaged in cooperative activities with guerrilla soldiers. One of the biggest problems in resource-rich Philippines is the emergence and expansion of corporate mining industries, both local (owned by Filipino elites) and foreign MNCs and TNCs. These mining companies threaten the ways of life and cause the displacement of indigenous peoples. It is only through persistent collective action and building solidarity amongst affected tribes can they have the chance at defending their ancestral lands and saving their communities. Indigenous peoples have engaged in numerous acts of civil disobedience, like chaining themselves to trees to physically prevent the creation and expansion of mining sites across the country.

From communal farming and communal fishing to the building and running of free schools where poor children can learn to read and write, Filipinos in the countryside are engaged in a collaborative effort to survive against the consequences of climate change, human cruelty, and indifference. Communism, at least in the form of sharing resources, is the logical conclusion for people who have close to no resources.

Given this, we may ask what is the role of women in the Philippine revolutionary movement? I think the revolutionary Filipina is a woman in touch with the pre-colonial woman. She values the ways of life of indigenous Filipinos and sees herself as an agent of Mother Nature. She is powerful and capable of leadership. She is brave, ready to fight, whether in military combat or ideological warfare. She is embedded in the struggle of her people.

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