women's rights

[OPINION] Ilaw na, haligi pa: Claiming and rewriting the narrative of the Filipina

Marjorie Muyrong-Rodriguez, Aljanet Jandoc, Julie Nombrado

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[OPINION] Ilaw na, haligi pa: Claiming and rewriting the narrative of the Filipina

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'Many times, the most painful prejudice on women comes from women themselves. This is evidence that while there are triumphs to celebrate, we have a long way to go...'
Babae ka, hindi babae lang

There is pride to being a Filipina. While there continue to be narratives of gendered struggles, triumphant stories of mothers and their daughters are also part of our shared memories. Iyong asawang babaeng sabay nagtatrabaho at nag-aalaga ng mga anak. Iyong single mother na mag-isang nagtataguyod ng pamilya niya. Iyong babaeng nakikipagsabayan sa mga katrabaho. The Filipina is proud of her versatility — something she attributes to her womanhood. 

But there is a myth in this image of the Filipina. Filipino women’s studies scholar Delia D. Aguilar argues that the image of the Filipina that we know is a social construction perpetuated by two colonial powers. We were told to believe that the Filipina possesses a kind of power within her femininity that ultimately concludes with the idea that the Filipino society is internally matriarchal even when we are externally patriarchal. Such myth reveals itself with the contradictions of the image of the Filipina as described by renowned national scientist Gelia T. Castillo published in 1976:

The Filipino woman seems to have her heart set at being “feminine.” …The Filipino woman wants to get married; to have children…to be subordinate yet equal; to be seductive without being seduced; to be beautiful; to be educated, to be a companion to her husband; and a mother to her children.

Such myth glorifies women for having influence over important matters but only “unofficially and in private,” which masks the reality where her economic power is suppressed and her decision-making always becomes deferential. 

Bata, Bata…Pa’no Ka Ginawa?

In many ways, this contradictory “double-vision” image of the Filipina persists until today. But it doesn’t mean that there have been no efforts to shatter it from people who recognize the myth. One would be the late writer, feminist, and activist Lualhati Bautista through the various characters she had written. Among the most famous would be that of Lea Bustamante in the 1988 novel, Bata, Bata…Pa’no Ka Ginawa? 

In many ways, Lea is not your typical Filipino mother. She technically is a single mother raising two children of different fathers. She separated from her husband because she did not want to give up her job when he wanted to work in the province, even when that meant her son would grow up without a father. She then lived in with another man she was not married to and became pregnant with him. She also curses a lot, even to her children. And she talks back to both men and women who call her out for things she believes are not wrong. As she exclaimed to her son in one of the most famous scenes in Filipino film history, “Wala akong ginagawang masama.” Throughout the story, she repeatedly says she will not apologize for the life she leads.

In various ways, Lea is an eclectic character who must have been created by Lualhati Bautista from the varied lives of Filipinas that we don’t usually dare portray as protagonists. Recall how one of the most emotion-filled scenes in the story is the exchange between Lea and the school principal at her children’s school. Many times, the most painful prejudice on women comes from women themselves. This is evidence that while there are triumphs to celebrate, we have a long way to go, because the push for equality and for the same human rights is still constrained within the boundaries of the social norms we grew up with. Women can, at times, still prejudice against women who don’t fit the bill. Despite the redemption plot for the character of the school principal when she changed her perception of Lea after learning about the work she does, and after readers and viewers alike learned about her advocacies, the relationship between these two women reveal the persistence of gendered expectations on women. Lea continues to call on us, “…habang hindi mo pa naiintindihan, h’wag mong huhusgahan.”

We, the authors, are not prescribing either image. As academics, we describe what we observe, reveal what we uncover, and teach students to learn how to do the same. Indeed, feminism and the women empowerment movement have been helping researchers uncover more about the lives of women. In March 2018, an article about the hidden taxes on women was published in The New York Times, written by the Indian male economist Sendhil Mullainathan. In this article, he explains that a woman might not choose to further her career because of the negative responses she gets relating to her work. According to Mullainathan, “successes are taxed in the form of annoyance and misery and are levied by individuals, very often by loved ones. I call these impositions taxes because they take away some of what an individual earns, diminishing the joys of success.” Recall when, in the story of Lea, both fathers of her children ganged up on her for being at work when her children got into an accident. Even more unfortunate, however, is how the article concluded with calling on other men to eliminate these taxes. 

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In 2013, Lualhati Bautista published a peculiarly-written autobiography entitled In Sisterhood — Lea and Lualhati. Allowing her characters from various works to talk about her, her life, and her work, she continues to share with her readers her many musings, thereby allowing us to imagine a sisterhood of like-minded women. Such autobiographical experiment can be thought of as her way of mirroring how Filipino women are now claiming the myth and rewriting it. Indeed, Lualhati Bautista had made a mark in Filipino literary arts for telling varied stories of women — from women inside a city jail, to middle-class women, to old women, from Lea who fought for herself and her beliefs on how to raise good kids to Angela Miguel who literally went crazy trying to protect her kid from the brutality of the life in the city. She told various stories of mothers and the ways they fought for their children. 

Feminist voices have been occupying social discourses in the Philippines. For instance, we can boast of the wealth of women writings from the novellas of Lualhati Bautista to the poems of Prof. Benilda Santos. Today, Filipino women are claiming the power they are said to have. It cannot be denied that women in the Philippines are reliable with productive work for the economy and with housework — and we take pride in that. “Ako na ang bahala,” usually uttered by the woman, is proof of how we embrace and appropriate the power of the Filipina perpetuated in our mythic image. 

It is a well-accepted notion that the increased participation of women in labor markets arose from the need to meet the increasing economic needs of families. However, this notion is suspect for at least two reasons. One, we find dual-career couples across all income classes suggesting that there are non-pecuniary factors why modern women pursue their own careers or businesses. Two, it has been long acknowledged that women’s labor market decisions arise from the desire to have more participation in the household decision-making.

We, Filipino women, have not been only doing productive work for economic growth and national development, we also have been managing our households and taking care of the families. Even in the earlier decades, the Filipino mother has always been known to be enterprising. Even at the height of disruptions caused by the pandemic and lockdowns, anecdotes of enterprising mothers and daughters abound. Indeed, we know that when the father fails to do what is expected of him, the mother will step up to find the money to put food on the table and send her children to school. We always hear it in movies such as in the less famous exchange between Vilma Santos and then-child actor Carlo Aquino when the mother told her son, “Kayang-kaya kong maging tatay.” In a lighter and more playful scene, Lea joked to her kids, “Ang dapat ngang itawag niyo sa ‘kin, natay!” The Filipina is not just the manpower Gelia T. Castillo describes; a study published in 1972 shows evidence she can also wield power in both the household and the family business:

[T]he Filipina does not need to be liberated because, in fact, she already dominates the home and family businesses as well…. She wields her authority through the position of assistant manager or treasurer. While she is not too interested in planning and organizing work or marketing and production, she exercises considerable authority in control and executing tasks, financial and housekeeping functions. The woman-executive acts like one, i.e., comes and goes as she pleases…

While Delia Aguilar argues that this particular study is part of the discourse that perpetuates the myth of the Filipina, we cannot deny the successes in recent years. In her book The Filipino Family, University of the Philippines sociologist Prof. Belen T. Medina cites that the Filipino society is becoming more accommodating of the changing roles between women and men. As more women take up work, their husbands adjust to complement what their wives bring to the family. Traditional roles are now giving way to ensuring that wives and husbands are playing complementary roles in the household. A more recent study in 2018 shows that Filipino wives are now able to get support for their careers from their husbands, as evidenced by husbands doing more housework in response to their wives’ increasing salaries. The study shows promise of the changing social norms in the Philippines and the success of Filipino wives in bargaining for more power in the household.

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Bata, Bata…Pa’no Ka Tatanda?

At the end of this novel, Lea becomes the guest graduation speaker at her son’s school. This is where she asks the harder question about child-rearing. In many ways, Lea’s character is portrayed to be so flawed in the eyes of society that her credibility to speak is almost questionable. This is because we keep forgetting about the work that she does — something the school principal in the story does not and which, as mentioned, actually changed the way she sees Lea. This is the same work that she chose to fight to the detriment of having a husband that she obviously wants to have and the father her son needs. Her credibility comes from her work. But her credibility also comes from simply being a woman unapologetic for her passions and desires. In the novel, she explains, “Hindi ako nagpakulong, sinikap kong lumaya…at natiyak ko na ang kalayaan ay hindi nahihingi kundi ipinakikipaglaban.”

Ultimately, what we — women and men alike — want is to raise our children to be good people. When Lualhati Bautista allowed Lea to talk about being a good person and seeking to raise good people, what Lualhati Bautista is doing is making us question our image of good people. In fact, it can be argued that she is challenging readers (and the viewers who watched the film) to see Lea as a whole — she is more than a mother trying to fill the role of a father. While we can continue debating whether she actually made mistakes or not in her personal life, the work she does definitely creates good for the lives of women they help. Sabi ni Lualhati Bautista sa simula ng isa niya pang libro, “Nagsusulat ang manunulat dahil may gusto siyang sabihin…” The feminist movement, more than being about equality, is a movement about human rights — isang kaisipan na hindi niya nakalimutan banggitin para sa ating lahat. – Rappler.com 

Marjorie Muyrong-Rodriguez is a PhD Sociology candidate at La Trobe University. Despite the sociological focus of her dissertation, she is a trained economist from Ateneo de Manila University.

Dr. Aljanet M. Jandoc is a full-time faculty member and Department Chair of Business Administration of the College of Business Education at the Nueva Vizcaya State University, Bayombong Campus. She is also a member of the Zonta Club of Nueva Vizcaya.

Julie Nombrado is an elementary public school teacher in Marikina City. She graduated from UP Diliman and served as teacher fellow for Teach for the Philippines, Inc.

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