Through the many years of struggle for emancipation, the Filipina rose from the preconceived image of frailty and subordination to strength and candor. Today, the Pinay continues to emerge from her mere housewife function to becoming as important a part of society as her male counterpart.
In order to understand how the Filipina image evolved through time, we sat down with Dr. Maria Luisa Camagay, director of the University of the Philippines Press and editor of the More Pinay Than We Admit anthology, a collection of 16 beautifully-written essays with accompanying photographs that chronicle how the Filipina came to establish her identity and create her own niche in the male-dominated sphere.
What were the predominant characteristics of the Pinay during the 19th century?
MLC: Based on my research, Filipinas in Rizal’s time were free-spirited, contrary to the image that was inculcated to us by the novels of Jose Rizal, particularly Maria Clara if we’re going to take her as the epitome of a woman in the 19th century. They were actually quite an emancipated group, like the “Cigareras” or female factory workers, they went on strike when they had grievances against their employers. But since the reports were done by males, the strikes were recorded and documented as mere “alboroto” or a tantrum because the feeling then was that men were the only ones capable of staging a “welga” (laborers’ strike).
The perception of the male at that time was that women are flighty and moody and that they are not capable of doing serious actions such as strikes. That was why they referred to this action as an “alboroto” (tantrum), similar to that of a child who is not given candy and would throw a tantrum. So that was the equivalent action or term men referred to when women get in to a strike.
How was she expected to behave, what were the most drastic changes in her behavior and attire from pre-colonial times?
MLC: The Judeo-Christian religion was influential to how we view the Filipina. Based on the Judeo-Christian religion, women should be subordinate to the male because they came from the rib of Adam. But if you take a look at our own legend si Malakas at si Maganda, they came from the same node of a bamboo tube. This suggests equality contrary to the subordination suggested by the Judeo-Christian religion.
Also contrary to popular belief, Filipinas were liberated and true to themselves. If you take a look at Rizal’s novel Salome and Elias, they (main characters) were living together, and they were not even married.
Filipinas were clothed and very well covered. This explains the “baro at saya” (traditional Filipino two-piece dress) of the women. The “baro,” the top part of the attire, is partnered with a “panuelo” [textile padding] to cover the breast, since there were no brassieres at the time. The “saya,” (skirt) would also have to be covered with a “tapis” [undergarment] so as to cover the lower part of the body. The rich women would have lavish embroidery in their gowns, some even made of gold. Even so, their bodies were really heavily covered, from their hair [with veils] down to their feet [the skirts went down to the ankles]. We can say that the friars were very successful in policing the bodies of the Filipina.
But of course, there were also Filipinas who tried to go around the dictates of these friars. They would freely express themselves in their choice of clothes, or lack of them. Some women from the Cordillera region do not wear tops, therefore exposing their breasts. They would even have tattoos as part of body ornamentation.
MLC: Women have been dressing up for the men. There was a time when fashion dictated women to have an hourglass figure. The ideal waistline then was 13-inches. This compelled women to wear corsets to enhance their forms. Whereas in the ’70s, groups that advocated women power burned bras, saying that these were constricting. “Why can’t women wear bra? Why cannot be our breast liberated?” Those were their arguments. The answer is because it is the males that dictate beauty and what women ought to wear. It’s the same rationale behind breast augmentation and other figure-enhancing surgeries… for women to please their men. When you see advertisements of cigarettes and whiskey, there’s always a sexy woman, isn’t it? That means women are commodities – some call it the commodification of women. The woman becomes the product. It is as if cigarettes and whiskey won’t sell if there were no women endorsers.
What was the role of the Filipina during the anti-colonial struggles against Spain, America and Japan? How did the leadership of anti-colonial movements, such as the Katipunan or the Hukbalahap, view women members? Were there women leaders of note, aside from Gabriela Silang and Gregoria De Jesus?
MLC: There are many documentations of women’s support. Some were placed in the battlefront, but they were quite few. Usually they would find their role in giving moral and fiscal support to the males. In the Philippine-American war, women bought cigarettes for the men and acted as nurses to the wounded warriors. They also served as spies against the enemy.
The Katipunan had a women’s chapter. The role of the wives, mothers and sisters of the katipuneros was to conceal the secret meetings of the revolutionary group to mislead the Spaniards. The best example of a woman who had played a role in the revolution was Gregoria De Jesus. Her biography tells us that she hid important documents of the secret meetings and had to move around the city just to mislead the enemies. During the Japanese occupation, there was a [women's] chapter also in the Huk movement. Salud Algabre, who was very much involved in the Sakdal movement, wanted independence for the Philippines against the Americans. The documentation of the role of women in the revolution started when there was this decade of Women by the United Nations so this interest on women in the ’70s would result in many documentations of women.
Do you think women are capable leaders?
MLC: Yes. We have many examples, we have two women presidents so there is the capacity [and] the potential for women to be leaders of the nation. If you take a look at other countries in the world there is a growing [number of women leaders] from the time of Thatcher or Golda Meir of Israel, Indira Gandhi, etc.
Let me tell you that the male sex were once against [women's] right to vote [and] suffrage. You have a legislature which is male-dominated and they felt that women are not capable of coming to a decision. They thought that giving women the right vote also gives them the right to leave the household and start a career. With all those kinds of arguments, it’s typically the males dictating the women’s rights and the roles they ought to play.
What are the difficulties women usually have in the workplace, for example, or in their families, because of society’s norms?
MLC: During the Spanish period, male employees are paid more than their female counterparts because of the notion that men are their families’ breadwinners. I believe that there is equality now in terms of how men and women are being compensated. But there are still other factors, work conditions that need to be addressed for the female workers. For example, there should be sensitivity in the workplace for mothers and there should be provisions for daycare where they could leave their children while they go to work. Also, double-income families are becoming a trend because of the hard times. Women are compelled to work abroad to augment the family income and leave their children behind. When mothers are absent in the household, it leaves a very big social cost. If you read the papers, there are incidents of incest, of drug addiction among children, and delinquency because the mother is absent. That’s the sad, sad social cost of working women especially [those] working abroad. So I hope that can be reversed and we can entice the women to come back home and make the family intact for the next generation.
What is the “ideal” Pinay? How has this ideal changed through the years and what factors affected the definition of the “ideal” Filipina?
MLC: It is very difficult to define the ideal Filipina because what’s “ideal” is usually set forth by the media, by the church and by other institutions. They try to make a mold, a template of a woman so it’s really very difficult to speak of an ideal because that will be really dependent on the institutions, the social class, the ethnicity of a woman. Surely, the book [More Pinay then We Admit] features different essays on the identity of the Filipina. But we can not say that there is one solid image of who she is. The Filipina identity evolves with time and with her experiences.
I personally believe that there should not be an “ideal”. Let the Filipina express herself according to what her mind dictates her to. The unideal [Filipina] is [someone] who’s being herself, being autonomous, being aware and being conscious that “I am this kind of person” as a woman. What’s important is that knows what and where she wants to be.
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