Race, financial status, religion, educational background, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity are but some of the factors that compound women’s existence as worker, artist, academic, advocate or just “merely” being a “plain” human being.
Add to that the societal roles that come with being identified as mother, wife, sister or daughter and we see just how gender biases still complicate women’s growth and progress – even today.
To continue the discussion on whipping away labels and gender-based stereotypes, we asked women who have dealt with multiple labels and burdens about their experiences.
We asked how they were able to overcome these challenges and turn them into personal successes. Hopefully their stories can serve as inspiration for others to find their own strengths.
Pride, prejudice and perseverance
Labels are all about categorizations to help us grasp abstracts. It’s easier to understand people based on certain shared qualities. Yet when we tag certain people using labels, are these tags proper or not?
As someone who circulates in international circles, Jean Enriquez is all too familiar with such tags. As executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP), she has worked with numerous marginalized women who have also been negatively tagged in their lives. This is why she is also aware that such tags need to go.
“I am referred to as Executive Director as a title and would not like to be called boss, because in nonprofits and social movement circles, we would want the environment to be as non-hierarchical as possible,” Jean said.
While this strategy is all good in local circles, Jean’s next struggle is proving her identity in international circles. “Being an Asian woman, I feel I was expected to be docile. While labels were not explicitly used, it was the treatment that gave away the discrimination. Such differential treatment stops when I speak and when they see what I do or how I lead. My being brown, relatively young for my position and a woman at that, are generally seen as signals of vulnerability to discrimination. I do feel I’m being treated or looked at differently, until I speak and claim my place.”
Dealing with negative labels
On a more personal tone, women who defy the status quo of expectations are usually subjected to negative labeling by their peers or even their family.
FIGHTING BACK. Ana Santos struggled with an overprotective family in her youth.
Rappler’s own sex-health columnist Ana Santos said, “Growing up, I was always called the black sheep [or] the rebellious one because I answered back. I still think I was just fighting against the restraint of overprotective parents and extended family more than anything else. Fighting to free myself from that restraint forced me to find ways to be self-reliant and independent.”
Ana was able to turn these early qualities around into something useful, especially for her current profession. “I was so suffocated that I desperately wanted to be on my own. Who knew it would come in handy as a solo mom? It also comes in handy as a journalist on assignment in the field.”
Yet while Ana was able to whip her label around, Palanca award-winning essayist Kia Sison had a different experience when she outed herself in Manila.
“When I introduced myself as a lesbian – a feminine one at that – a number of male colleagues were threatened, started bullying me and finally dragged me to the men's bathroom because they wanted to find out whether I was ‘really a man or a woman.’ I left that job quickly after reporting them to a female superior who told me that since I was the one who was gay, I should be the one to adjust," Kia recalled.
Religion is also another barrier to understanding women’s capacities and roles. In a predominantly Catholic county, women of a different faith especially feel this.
DEFYING STEREOTYPES. Samira Gutoc put up with prejudice in her faith journey.
Peace advocate and former Marawi legislator Samira Gutoc Tomawis attests to this kind of labeling common to Muslim women in the country. “Confusion is part of the journey to finding peace. When I was young, I wasn’t wearing my cover. As a young adult, I started with wearing a cap because I was reading through my faith materials. I started with the covering of the head until it grew to not being ashamed [of covering] the whole head. [The] labels came when things I decided on myself were being labeled in a wrong way.”
Yet Samira was able to process the negative and make something positive out of it.
“I think it was that journey of being bullied, of being discriminated and looked down upon by tricycle drivers, socialites, or a teacher who might make you stand out in a crowd because you’re different, it is a part of strengthening myself: I had to be put down so I could rise up, stand up, and be myself. It’s part of being strong.”
Sensing society’s sensibilities
Expectations based on gender roles are the reasons why women and girls get harassed or bullied in the Philippines and elsewhere where such gender-based discrimination exists.
Yet our fearless females have learned – and continue to learn – how to navigate such expectations.
As a mother, Ana said, “I was labeled for a long time as a solo mom with all the negative connotations attached: separada [separated], desperate, in need of financial security. It was very fulfilling to prove people wrong. I was recently asked by a foreigner what it’s like to get an annulment and why I got one, and what’s it like to have no divorce. I said, ‘I made a mistake and I wasn’t about to let the Church or the State tell me I couldn’t undo it.’”
As soon as a Filipina embraces the label of “mother” or “wife,” expectations based on gender perceptions become the barometer women are measured against – to the detriment of her own interpretation of such labels.
As a mother, Jean had her own take on the role. “I might be reworking the mother archetype, having been a single mother for a long time. To many young women and men, as well as sex trafficking survivors whom we organize, I’m often referred to as a mother. Especially for those who have been abused and could not return to their biological families, they seek new families and relationships that are nurturing.”
In embracing the role of the wife, Kia found it easier to negotiate the label since she is legally – and luckily – protected in her second home.
“In the US, I am a legally married lesbian and I call my spouse my wife. Some object to this label because it is heteronormative and mimics a husband-and-wife relationship. I feel I have reclaimed this label. When I say ‘my wife’ there is no confusion: she is my wife the way any man has a wife and our marriage should be treated the same.”
She added, “It is a statement that says, ‘I am equal to you no matter how you feel about us, and it is your problem to accept that or not, or challenge it legally if you wish.’ Unfortunately, the Philippines is far away from same-sex marriage, but I still believe that my use of, and comfort with, my labels allow others to at least dream of being comfortable with theirs.”
Harmony in solidarity
The key remains to be education: educating others about women, educating fellow women about their rights and responsibilities, and educating ourselves.
True strength comes from within. In helping ourselves, we help others along the way. What is personal could later on become political, or at least socio-civic.
Jean started by reaching out to young women. “In our youth camps on gender issues and sexuality, we have exercises where the young people affirm themselves by knowing honestly who they are, what they want, what they are capable of, what their limitations are, and how they can be more empowered. We build confidence in young women, and instill respect in young men, among other values.”
Beyond the rainbow horizon, Kia sees some silver lining as well. “I think Filipino women are still conservative and bound by stereotypes and gender roles. But the fact that the Philippine workforce is being led by more and more women empowers the female sector to be better leaders and role models in their families, especially for their daughters. Daughters no longer grow up being taught that their place is in the home, and many sons are also being raised by empowered women who are their family's breadwinners. Hopefully there won't be setbacks to this progress.”
Ana encouraged others to deconstruct their own selves. “I was always called a bitch or I called myself one. I embraced it. To me, being a bitch does not mean you’re a vile person who particularly enjoys the suffering of others. I was just someone who goes after what she wants through plain hard work and resourcefulness. I’m nice, but no nonsense. I’d rather be a bitch who gets things done than be a doormat.”
For better constructions, Samira encourages starting on the flip side of this exercise – and involving other “players” in the game of life.
“I love deconstruction, trying to understand the images that are hoisted on us as women – that you have to be pretty, sexy, smart, and all [these] images. I am aware that there are two sides. I can’t fight everything. I know that it’s a societal disposition to be the perfect mother, to be a perfect professional, to balance it all. But at the same time, I am telling [men] that you also have your share of work in the house, you’re also a mother in the traditional sense. The burdens [are] not for women alone. Men have to share in the burden, and we’re changing, the society is changing. Men have to come up and fight the stereotypes with us, not against us.”
Label me not
Indeed, the fight against negative labeling is not merely a gendered one – it is a human one. And for us to step up and shine boldly, both women and men – gay or straight, whatever faith we profess or whatever our status in society might be – this is a concern for all of us.
Let’s work together to have a better future – for our girls, and also for our boys. - Rappler.com
#WHIPIT – A challenge for women to be empowered and shine boldly by defying beyond labels and stereotypes
Watch out for the full results of the survey and more discussions on gender bias here on Rappler. You can also join our #WHIPIT Wednesdays conversations.
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