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Looking Back

Malala and the women of Malolos

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Malala Yousafzai is a 14-year-old blogger from Pakistan who dared defy the Taliban by simply going to school and publicly asserting her right to an education. At 11, she began a blog for the BBC that focused attention to life in her corner of the world. Her first blog entry in January 2009 reads:

“I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because the Taleban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools. Only 11 students attended the class out of 27. The number decreased because of Taleban’s edict. My three friends have shifted to Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi with their families after this edict.

“On my way from school to home I heard a man saying ‘I will kill you.’ I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”

The Taliban did not allow girls an education beyond the primary level, or Grade 4, but boys’ schools in all levels were allowed to operate. Not content with closing girls’ schools, the Taliban destroyed some school buildings as a clear and visible threat, prompting Malala and some of her brave friends to shed their school uniforms for colorful day clothes which they wore in the pretense of being primary school students when they were actually receiving intermediate education. Malala became a target not just for her BBC blog but also for publicly demanding an education.

Three years after her first blog entry was published, Malala’s “terrible dream” came true. Taliban gunmen shot her and two of her friends while they were on their way home from school. Shot in the head and neck, Malala is still in critical condition and has been flown to the United Kingdom in an effort to save her life, very much the way we cover the flickering flame of a candle with our hands to protect it from a cold draft.

It is coincidental that Malala and her rallying cry for women’s education in Pakistan sounds similar to the Filipino word “maalala,” rooted in the word alaala or memory. Malala’s story should remind bored students in the Philippines how lucky they are to have free access to education. Malala should also remind them of 20 young women from Malolos in the late 19th century who also fought for women’s right to education.

It is unfortunate that Filipino students forced to read the lengthy letter from Jose Rizal to the young women of Malolos published in La Solidaridad fail to appreciate this footnote in our history. In a nutshell, the story begins with the arrival of Teodoro Sandiko (aka Teodoro Sandico, 1860-1939, who served in the Aguinaldo government and was elected governor of Bulacan and served as senator from 1919 to 1939) in Malolos in 1888. A law school dropout, he attempted to open a grammar school in the town but was thwarted by the friar curate of Malolos, Felipe Garcia. On Dec. 12, 1888, Governor-General Valeriano Weyler made a day trip to Malolos and was surprised to be presented with a sealed letter, drafted by Sandico and signed by 20 young and prominent women of the town (not 21, as stated in other sources). The women were seeking permission to open and operate a night school where they could learn Spanish, in defiance of the friar curate who insisted that a woman did not need much of an education because her rightful place was in the home.

Two days after Graciano Lopez Jaena commented on the incident in La Solidaridad on Feb. 15, 1889, Marcelo H. del Pilar requested Rizal to write an encouraging letter to the young women of Malolos, resulting in the famous “Sa mga kababayang dalaga sa Malolos.” This letter is significant because it is one of the few that Rizal wrote in Tagalog instead of his usual Spanish, leading the late historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo to doubt its authorship. Agoncillo was of the opinion that the letter was written by Del Pilar, not Rizal. Fortunately, the evidence points to Rizal as author, with Del Pilar merely editing the letter for publication in La Solidaridad.

The school was allowed to operate in February 1889 on the following conditions: It was to be financed by the women, classes would be held in the mornings, and the teacher would be Guadalupe Reyes, not Sandico. Unfortunately, the school closed after three months, but a point about Filipino women’s rights and education had been made.

Thus Malala of Pakistan should remind us of the 20 women of Malolos: Elisea Tantoco Reyes (1873-1969), Juana Tantoco Reyes (1874-1900), Leoncia Santos Reyes (1864-1948), Olympia San Agustin Reyes (1876-1910), Rufina T. Reyes (1869-1909), Eugenia Mendoza Tanchangco (1871-1969), Aurea Mendoza Tanchangco (1872-1958), Basilia Villariño Tantoco (1865-1925), Teresa Tiongson Tantoco (1867-1942), Maria Tiongson Tantoco (1869-1912), Anastacia Maclang Tiongson (1874-1940), Basilia Reyes Tiongson (ca 1860-ca 1900), Paz Reyes Tiongson (ca 1862-ca 1889), Aleja Reyes Tiongson (ca 1864-ca 1900), Mercedes Reyes Tiongson (1870-1928), Agapita Reyes Tiongson (1872-1937), Filomena Oliveros Tiongson (ca 1867-1934), Cecilia Oliveros Tiongson (ca 1867-1934), Feliciana Oliveros Tiongson (1869-1938) and Alberta Santos Uitangcoy (1865-1953).

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.


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