Beyond definitions and borders

Long have I been exploring the concept of woman in my art works. But this past year and a half, my idea of woman has gone beyond definitions and borders. 

I’ve met so many of them from all walks and unimaginable circumstances—mothers, wives friends, domestic workers, and women struggling to survive on a daily basis.

In the past, my discourse on women was pretty much how I saw this gender from my situation. My works touched on intimate personal details—the daily grind in the domestic war zone.

My loving, selfless mother mainly inspired me, the one I measure myself against. I don’t think I will ever be on a par with her. She gave all her life and self—providing every need, juggling every role because this is what society has given her.

Martyrdom is something we glorify. Our culture, religion, politics have produced so many iconic martyrs whom we idolize. We sympathize and in some way identify with them, but for most, the support is passive: a nod, a thumbs up, salute.

The plight of women is precisely in that place of silent struggle. Women are constantly negotiating this in silence, their fight not quite tangible yet felt. But whatever they have won, we now enjoy the fruits.  

And this is something that has been seemingly forgotten by reactionaries—condemning women power as a sewing circle of rabid women.

The women’s rights we now have were valiantly fought for by the women’s liberation movement. The fight of women in history to liberate themselves is now assisting every damsel in distress.

If not for these laws fought hard for, a woman professor I know would have lost her job. She was asked to take a leave because she got pregnant yet chose to stay unmarried—a situation deemed inappropriate by the school administration. Laws protecting the rights of women allowed the teacher to keep her baby, her single status and her job.

Twin battles

The role of the woman, assigned by society, is a thankless job when measured against the system that puts premium on the monetary value of work.

The woman peasant farmer who tends to labor-intensive farming chores comes home to cook, wash the dirty laundry, take care of the children, serve the equally exhausted husband, and so much more. She is tired herself, but times are hard and the family is hungry. She just has to take on the roles of provider and caregiver.

And it doesn’t stop with bodily exhaustion. There is always the threat of machismo.

A factory worker is welcomed by her employer’s wet kisses. She lines up with all the other women, like in a concentration camp. They cannot pass until they give the password, the password being: let me fondle you. Let me touch you. Otherwise, you lose your job. You have no tenure.

These companies take them on a contractual basis to discourage workers from forming labor unions. The men laborers are exploited. The women laborers are sexually harassed. One woman finally stands up, forms a union, files a case and goes through the whole process. The fight is an obstacle course but she asserts her women’s rights and wins not only for herself or the women, but for all the workers concerned in their company.

The stereotyping of women is an unspoken war fought by women.

I know of one who, as a little girl, was given to different relatives. Due to financial constraints, her schooling was set aside and she was left to do household chores and tend to other family members, while her male siblings/relatives continued with their studies.

They all figured she would just get pregnant, get married and eventually deal with domestic obligations, anyway. But she did not comply with that stereotype. She secretly washed dishes to earn a little and attend school. She later got a scholarship, and finished her studies.

These sketches bring me back to the artist/painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who, as a woman, endured gender prejudice and sexual violence.

Fighting spirit

Despite being a rape victim and subjected to a public trial, she was determined, fearless and driven. Even when she was refused in an art academy because she's a woman.

She painted the harsh reality of women's lives in an era where only fruits, flowers, and still life were expected of her.

Her fighting spirit is in every woman. She rose up from the tragedy, continued creating and became one of the most celebrated women artists of our time.

Lastly, here’s a story that hits close to home.

In a recent interview with a panel of judges, a Filipina artist was asked, “If we give this residency to you, who will take care of your children?” The Filipina artist could not give a ready answer. She instead spoke for about 40 minutes on the struggles of women which her works try to convey. And yet, it was still the homefront that was stubbornly conjured to frame her limitations.

The artist wanted to answer with a question: Is this something you will ask a male artist who has children, too?

It seems that we’re done fighting for women’s causes. We can now vote. We can become presidents and leaders. We now have access to education. We have been given the same perks.

But our battles continue still, especially in developing countries. For women who have seemed to overcome most struggles, we still find ourselves biting our tongues when we share the table with our fathers, husband, sons -- despite our achievements.

We choose to shy away, give the floor to them and comply with societal rules, lest we be labeled as errants or rebels against those we love and respect.

We don’t want to stir up unnecessary conflicts, because more than anyone, the females are the ones banked on to hold everything together.

The role is both a boon and a bane to us.

I read somewhere that everything in the world concerns us because everything affects us. I believe this, too. We have to be a part of the issues that surround us. We move and go through our lives along the path that women freedom fighters now and before have paved for us.

The 'F' word

If one chooses to believe that we are for equality, against exploitation and oppression facing women, there’s a term for this identification. The “F” word—a word I used to be afraid of.  A word I have denied before since I was ignorant of its genuine meaning.

It is much more than the misunderstood concept of a woman who hates men, who is a lesbian, who is mad at the world, who does not wear make up.

In celebration of the international women’s month in March, I am honoring the women and men who are proud Feminists. One does not have to subscribe to the word, because of the many meanings that it now holds.

The spectrum of struggles of the Feminist is wide and overarching. It is full of contradictions and revisions. But definitely, one can identify with the fight that it continues to wage.

And it remains a war to be won. - Rappler.com