Manila Bulletin, Sept 20, 2010

MANILA, Philippines – It is hard to believe that modern Filipinas whose ancestors suffered two waves of colonial rule — Spain in the 16th century and the United States in the early 19th century — have a tradition of feminism that dates back to pre-Hispanic Philippines. Yes, every modern Filipina should know that she owes her freedom and strong-mindedness in part to a more than 500-year old tradition of intentional, forceful, and positive feminism, longer than the history of women’s liberation in the West.

The babaylans, an empowered class of women who reigned prior to the arrival of the Spanish colonials in the 1521, were healers, advisers of men, intercessors between material and spiritual worlds, inspirers of arts and crafts, and believers of a holistic world view, according to the scholarly writings of Dr. Fe Buenaventura Mangahas and Professor Jenny Romero Llaguno, co-editors of the 192-page Centennial Crossings, Readings on Babaylan Feminism in the Philippines, published by the C & E Publishing Inc. in 2006.

Identifying with the babaylans nowadays, appreciating what they went through when their men were defeated by colonial rule — how these women hid, survived, and preserved their culture during the colonial era — will give feminists in the Philippines a more solid historical ground to stand on in their advocacies on freedom and responsibility.

Majority of Filipinas would not have found it necessary to strut in the 70s and in the 80s like their bra-burning sisters from the West who eventually became anti-male and anti-family. At the time, feminism, coupled with romanticism and rebelliousness, claimed a major role in attracting young female intellectuals in universities to join the Maoist red flag. Later, many of them were dismayed to find out that macho culture was not only present but remained strong in the underground movement. Well, the season of tears is over and it’s not too late to get affirmation from an older past, sisters, asserts Mangahas, former chair of the Social Sciences Department of St. Scholastica College and now a full time book writer on history and Philippine feminism.”I have been studying the babaylans since the 80s,” she recalls.

In a joint project with historian Dr. Zeus Salazar in 2000, Mangahas remembers reconstructing the Philippine prehistoric socio-political structure in the pamayanan (kingdom) as containing four types of leaders: the datu (king); the sundalo (warrior); the panday (technologist) and the babaylan. “In 2005, I coined the word babaylan feminism because many believed then that we did not have an indigenous tradition of feminism,” says Mangahas. This was more than 30 years after she, too, almost succumbed to the belief that Western feminism presented the right model for emerging, liberal Filipinas. For Mangahas and Llaguno, modern-day feminists can use babaylan as an adjective to identify Philippine feminism. In a sense, the babaylan-spirit is like a cross to ward off the Draculas of the past and the neurosis of colonialism which have burdened us with disturbing questions about identity.

Knowing the babaylan spirit, the authors say, can help Philippine feminists understand why, despite their conscious drive for freedom, they continue to love men without guilt and nurture families unconditionally.

What was the inherent nature of the old babaylans? “Because of the babaylans, we can say that we (Filipinas) were the avatars of Asia. In pre-historic time, we never had patriarchy or matriarchy. Gender ties were egalitarian,” says Mangahas. The division of labor between men and women then was not a curse, but a form of harmony. In a country that was often visited by volcanic eruptions and typhoons, men and women shared the dangers equally and protected their progeny.

This magical order was disrupted. “When the Spaniards in the 1500s co-opted the datus, the babaylans resisted fiercely. Then, they creatively adopted Christianity in order to survive; they became pasyon chanters. They functioned as a priesthood — natural Christians who balanced both the connection between the material and non material world,” explains Mangahas. “When the babaylans became rivals of the Spanish priests, the latter called them bruha or witches who allegedly dabbled in black magic. They were demonized. But I think the babaylans had true access to the good spirits,” she adds.”It was a good thing that the priests who came to the Philippines also studied our languages and cultural practices, which they adapted to propagate Christianity. That also helped in the preservation of our culture (including the babaylans),” says Mangahas.”Our Western sisters too must have had it (the babaylan spirit), in the past, but their patriarchy became too strong and their society too rationalistic that they were forced to undertake a radical form of feminism,” she explains.

Asked about the reactions of Filipino men to the book, she says, “The Filipino men who have read the book were in awe. They never imagined there was a time in the past when Filipina women were empowered, who were part of a power system, and had an egalitarian relationship with men.”

“We speculate that the spirit of the babaylan still exists up to the present time. You see women who behave that way,” Llaguno says. For Mangahas and Llaguno, reclaiming (intellectually) the indigenous dignity of Filipina women in the past is, ironically, the only way to give a deeper dimension and unique meaning to the freedom being sought by post-modern Filipinas. Their other mission, they add, is to end the negative view perpetrated by the Spanish priests about the babaylans.

The book, composed of 15 articles written by contemporary women who were inspired by the babaylan spirit, was a project that began in 2005, recalls Llaguno, also the book’s copy-editor. A lecture on the book, including a re-launch, was held before members of the Diliman Book Club at Restaurant of Choice, University of the Philippines Alumni Association building on September 11.

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