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Fighting ‘lolas’

/ 12:10 AM March 08, 2017

When you talk about women fighting for their rights, the tendency is to think of younger women pouring out into the street rallies, which is what we tend to see in mass media.

But the reality is, the most courageous of women fighting for their rights, as well as for the rights of others—women or men—are older women, the ones we call, generically, lolas or grandmothers.

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I suspect this is especially the case in societies like our own, where women actually gain power and status as they age, sometimes because of biologically-related roles: becoming a mother, a mother-in-law, a grandmother, a great-grandmother. Note, too, how widows, especially in midlife or later years, can assume the role of even the more powerful matriarchs, making important decisions that may include who their grandchildren can marry or not.

The temptation for women in such societies is to become complacent, to sit back and enjoy retirement. Yet we also see women who turn down that settled life and take up the cudgels for others. The most iconic example in the Philippines is Melchora Aquino, better known as Tandang Sora (Elder Sora), who provided sanctuary for Katipunero rebels fighting Spain in the late 19th century.  “Sanctuary” here is a mild term; she was said to have provided financial help as well, and for those who found refuge in her home, there was food and shelter, and medical help.

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She was arrested by the Spanish Guardia Civil and exiled to Guam, returning only after the Americans took over the Philippines.

Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay

Very appropriately, the College of Social Work and Community Development (CSWCD) in UP Diliman, which is located only a few kilometers from Tandang Sora’s home, gives an annual award named after this geriatric heroine. The award honors women, not necessarily elderly ones, who carry on Tandang Sora’s legacy. The two previous awardees were Flora Lansang and Salve Basyang. Last month, the college bestowed the Tandang Sora Award for the third time, this time to Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay, who is a lumad and has come to represent the struggles of Filipino national minorities in general.

Without a birth certificate, the actual age of Bai Bibyaon is a mystery. At the awarding ceremonies she was given the age 93, but with an admission from the emcees that no one really knows because she does not have a birth certificate. We do know she was already born during the Japanese occupation. She never married and came to be known outside of her ancestral home—in the Pantaron mountain ranges of southern Mindanao—when she led her fellow Talaingod Manobo in resisting the incursions of a logging company.

That was in the 1990s, and the logging company withdrew from her town. But in recent years, Bai Bibyaon has led another struggle, this time against mining companies not just in her town or province or Mindanao but throughout the country.

With no formal education, she speaks only in Talaingod Manobo, but she is so articulate, her thoughts racing through her mind, such that translators always find it difficult keeping up with what she’s saying.

Her themes are constant, but she delivers them differently each time, mainly the very simple aspirations she and other lumad have: to have peace in their homeland. It is a peace, she explains over and over again, that will come when there is justice, when their ancestral lands are respected so that their bounties are shared by the lumad themselves.  Her hopes are anchored in the young lumad being able to pursue education, hopes which have become fragile in recent years because of militarization in mining areas, accompanied by assassinations of leaders, and the burning down of schoolhouses.

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Bai Bibyaon has become a familiar face in UP Diliman, having joined the last two years’ Lakbayan—first leading some 700 lumad in 2015, then some 3,000 national minorities from all over the country in 2016.  Camped out in UP Diliman, we welcomed them as visiting professors who shared their stories and knowledge with our students, faculty, staff and community.

Wiry but feisty

I marveled at Bai Bibyaon still able to march, wiry and looking so very frail, in rubber slippers, with much younger companions, and raising a clenched fist not to express fury or ferocity but determination. She does complain about body aches and she refuses western medical care, but she didn’t turn down a cushion for her back, which I gave her last year—perhaps one of the few “luxuries” she has.

I rushed over to the awarding ceremonies from another event, which was a symposium on “kuwentong bayan” (folklore or, more accurately, people’s stories), where I had decided to stay a little longer to listen to Felipe de Leon Jr., former head of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, giving an overview of Filipino folklore. In his presentation, he dismissed the popular Filipino “folktale” about “Malakas at Maganda,” the first man and woman.  He dismissed this folktale as a fairly recent creation and challenged the claim that the story reflects an egalitarian view of women and men, given that it still hews closely to stereotypes of men as strong and women as beautiful.

The more accurate archetypes, he said, are found in stories of the first woman being Si Ka Bay and the first man, Si Ka Lay. These “ancestors” are truly equal because both are referred to as “Ka,” that important prefix found also in kaibigan (friends), kasama (comrades), kapatid (siblings).

Which takes us back to this year’s Tandang Sora awardee. The “bai” in her name is an honorific for women, used among many lumad (national minorities of Mindanao). The closest English term would be “Madam,” but that latter term is now archaic and old-fashioned, and has even taken on negative connotations. Bai, on the other hand, retains its meanings of status and honor. (Note, too, in the Visayan languages, men sometimes also call each other “bai,” coming close to the English “brod.”)

Bibyaon comes close to an equivalent of “datu,” a title given to her when she led the resistance against logging companies. Which leaves us with her name Ligkayan Bigkay, and I realized only recently I never asked her for the meaning of her name.

I suspect she’ll be remembered more as Bai Biyaon, just as Melchora Aquino is remembered as Tandang Sora.

Whatever her name, Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay is a model not just for lolas but for lolos—and for younger people who believe you’re never too old to fight for rights.

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