I have never met Bobby Wong Jr., but because I signed up on his website, I’ve been getting astounding electronic postcards from him every week. The website is called postcardsfrommanila.com, but the photos he takes are from all over the country, the length of which he has been traveling. He’ll be in Mindanao for a few weeks then suddenly he’s up somewhere in the Cordillera, but wherever the postcard comes from, the images of people and places always elicit the many adjectives of the heart: heartwarming, heartbreaking, nakakataba ng puso (please don’t make me translate).
One recent photograph was that of a 94-year-old Kalinga woman named Whang-Od, a mambabatok, translated by Bobby Wong as a tattoo artist, with people queuing for her to tattoo them. The photograph of Whang-Od shows her in a pensive mood, her own body a living canvass.
The photograph amazed me because while tattooing has taken off in the Philippines as an occupation, with tattoo shops springing up everywhere, and the artists having their own conventions and competitions, it has remained a predominantly male domain, both in terms of the artists and the clients. Yet here is Whang-Od, a woman who is tattooed as many Kalinga women are, and who tattoos other people.
Conservatives like to argue that women’s lib is a western import, and a decadent one at that, which will ruin Filipinos. But when you look at our indigenous communities, you’ll find women doing all kinds of work that are traditionally defined as male in lowland cultures. (I’m not comfortable with these terms “indigenous” and “lowland” but have to use them for want of better terms. “Lowland” would refer to Tagalog, Kapampangan, “Bisaya” and the others that were colonized.)
And if you look hard enough at lowland groups, you’ll find, too, that we have many “strong” women who run against the grain, from women farmers in Ilocos and Cagayan Valley, to the many women migrants, whether the domestic helper in your own homes, or a teacher in one of the US inner cities.
Why are there so many strong women in societies that are on the surface very patriarchal, full of machismo?
The terms “matricentric” and “matrifocal” are sometimes used as a way of saying that, “Yes, the men are powerful, but family relations are built around the mother.” I feel though that “matricentric” and “matrifocal” do not quite capture the whole picture because the women in these societies are strong even outside of the family domain, asserting themselves in the public sphere. Just as an example, I have fellow professors from the United States and Europe who, when they visit, are always amazed at how many women hold very high positions in our universities as deans, chancellors, even presidents, which is not the case in their countries.
For today, I want to focus on strong women in indigenous communities, which were less affected by western colonialism. Today, of course, they are exposed to the world—I asked around and have been told the people who go to see Whang-Od include westerners—but they retain many social structures and norms that help us understand ourselves, as Filipinos.
Reading about Whang-Od reminded me about the book Dreamweavers, published by Bookmark many years ago, featuring T’boli women who create exquisite tnalak weaves that are then made into clothing. Tnalak is processed bark, pounded and dyed with designs that come in the women’s dreams. In the past, tnalak could only be produced by women and even today, while a few men are said to have began producing tnalak, production is still dominated by women.
I have to explain here that this is not ordinary weaving. The work is something that one might, stereotypically, classify as male because you have to strip down the bark, then pound and wash it in the river. Originally, the dyes had to come from plant sources, which had to be gathered and processed. But here we have women having the prerogative to weave.
In a video that accompanied the book Dreamweavers, some of the women weavers were referred to with the title “Bai,” which is used in many indigenous communities in Mindanao. It’s not just a term of respect, but one of status. In other parts of the Philippines, we have datus and, in Islamized communities, sultans, but note how those are usually male terms. “Bai” is different, and should be further explored. The Cebuano “bay,” pronounced bai, is more of a male term, shortened form of abay, more of a close and reliable friend. But, who knows, maybe the female “bai” of indigenous communities speaks of the reliable woman.
Traders, diplomats and more
The historian Anthony Warren, drawing from numerous historical accounts for his three-volume “Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce,” writes about the “high degree of economic autonomy” of women in the region at the time of initial contact with westerners. Early European and Chinese traders were said to be “constantly surprised” having to deal with women traders. There were women too engaged in diplomacy, including peace-making. And here’s still another intriguing revelation from Warren: There were some male rulers surrounded by women, not as members of a harem but as bodyguards, the autocrats not trusting fellow males.
Some of you might be thinking now of our own Princess Urduja but, sorry, I have to tell you she probably never existed. But who needs a Princess Urduja when we have so many other strong women figures? Gabriela Cariño Silang comes to mind, the woman who took over the leadership of an 18th-century insurgency in the Ilokos after her husband, Diego, was killed. The militant women’s group Gabriela took their name from this heroine. People think of her as Ilokana, but historians now point out she was actually Tingguian, which is another indigenous group.
There’s so much yet to rediscover about women in Southeast Asia and in the Philippines, outside of the usual “lowland” cultures. Let’s not forget the Muslims in the Philippines. Few people are aware, for example, of the alima, literally women with knowledge, women who know, who are consulted in communities on matters religious and secular. We don’t even have a loose equivalent of the alima in Christian-dominated communities.
Note how I’ve used “strong” rather than “powerful” because the two terms are different. Often, I wonder if our women have to be strong because our men do not always live up to their responsibilities. I was watching a documentary, “The Learning,” which is about four Filipina teachers slaving away in Baltimore and how two of them suffer so badly because of male relatives left behind who can be described, mildly, as leeches. The women were strong, very strong, but as I watched the video with my students, I could sense the audience wanting to shout out, “Leave the jerk!” during the scenes showing the women trying to stand up to their men.
Women or men, we stand to learn from the ways women’s strength translate into power in a moral sense, moving people, transforming lives.