Reclaiming #WalangHiya: Changing Gender Roles from Precolonial Times to the Present

I have never been a dalagang pilipina, the ideal chaste, modest Maria Clara-esque maiden seen as the epitome of womanhood in the Pilipinx popular imagination, and neither has my mother. We’ve both been accused by past lovers of “wanting to wear the pants” and I know that at less-confident post-failed-relationship points in my adult life I’ve questioned my own femininity, wishing to be softer, less strong-willed, to shine more dimly (these thoughts never lasted long because, F*CK THAT). Because my mom’s relationships never worked out. Because I felt doomed to recreate her patterns. She always attributed our proclivity to quick tempers and drama to our “Spanish blood” – when in fact I now know it has nothing to do with the colonizers, and everything to do with the indigenous warrior blood that runs through our veins, giving us fire and a strong sense of justice, a love of freedom, the willingness to stand up and die for our beliefs, unconquerable, without shame, walang hiya.

I always have, and suspect I always will have, a resistance to authority if I don’t get explained the reason for it. “Walang hiya ka!” because I would ask why, because “because I said so” was never a rational answer to me. I was walang hiya for speaking my mind, for moving out young, for getting tattoos, for going to punk shows, for cutting my hair off and dying it every color of the rainbow, because I’ve “lived in sin,” because I didn’t get confirmed, because I went to art school instead of med school. The question I always had though, is what did any of this say about the quality of my character? I feel like as Pinays, if we don’t just blend in, don’t grow our hair long and smile and nod at the appropriate times and look like everyone else, that somehow says something about our morality. It’s in our blood to adorn ourselves with tattoos and embroidery, beads and gold.

Agta hunters

I’ve never personally ascribed to the idea of fitting into gender roles or having to be “feminine”, hence being accused of wanting to “wear the pants” by less-evolved dudes. If you really wanna talk about wearing the pants, in some precolonial Tagalog regions (surprise surprise, where my lineage stems from), if the woman was especially distinguished, the husband usually took her name. So it wasn’t unusual to hear men referred to as “the husband of Ninay” or “the husband of Isyang.” Colonization brought with it the idea of westernized gender roles as we live with them now – that the woman’s place is in the home and church, and the man’s place is out in the world, the scholar, the breadwinner. Back in the days, regardless of tribal affiliation, there was always an egalitarian relationship between husband and wife and in regard to household duties and childrearing. Women played an important part in the economic life of the community and were often the chiefs of their family’s livelihood, doing needlework, weaving, poultry and hog raising, and working in the field. Negrito women also joined men in hunting, fishing, and gathering food.

Among the Kalinga and Bontoc, women prepared the fields for planting and food for eating, while men worked on irrigating the fields and protected the community against tribal enemies. Men also shared in other household chores and in rearing children. Among the Cordilleran tribes of Luzon, a man’s hunting may be more highly valued than the gardening done by women, but the two modes of production are seen as complementary and the division of labor is not strict. Rituals for hunting and gardening draw on the same complex repertoire of magical objects; in the house when food is being distributed, women cook and allot rice portions, while men cook, cut, and distribute bits of meat. During the day, when women are gardening, men spend long hours with their children, and husband and wife may keep an infant between them while they sleep. A marriage forms a core, an enduring and cooperative social unit; the only Ilongot expression for “family” means “married couple” or “those who have intercourse together.” Whereas now men expect to receive some kind of special recognition if they’re decent fathers, and women only get noticed if they’re particularly awful – being a good mother and taking on all the housework is expected as part of our assigned gender role.

Illustration of Queen Sima of Cotabato

In precolonial times, women were respected in matters of business and leadership, as opposed to these areas being seen as mainly the domain of men. Formal contracts were only done in the presence of a woman, and a woman’s signature was enough to make a transaction valid. In fact, very few husbands would dare enter into contracts without the consent or presence of their wives. Precolonial women were not barred from acquiring high ranks in society, specifically in political affairs. Gender was not an issue in terms of leadership succession. When the tribal chief died, the first child would automatically assume leadership. There are many popular legends (which have basis in historical fact) in which women are powerful and beloved leaders. There are the legends of Queen Maniwantiwan, the wife of Datu Marikudo whose consent had to be secured before he could sell his lands to the Bornean immigrants led by Datu Puti; of Lubluban, known as the first lawgiver who effectively addressed concerns in ritual practices, inheritance and properties; Princess Urduja who ruled Pangasinan and led an army of skilled women; and Queen Sima who was believed to be one of the rulers of Cotabato in the 17th century and who maintained peace and prosperity in the region.

The Spanish missionaries brought with them the belief that ‘women are made to weave, to give birth, and to weep,’ surrounding “mujer indigena” with ill-disguised fear manifested as contempt for the female as “frustrated male,” a perennial inducement to sin. How to keep the deep powers of woman at bay, how to domesticate her natural sensuality, control her mind, keep her quiet and obedient became the subject of tome upon tome of missionary instruction. The influence of Spanish culture on the mujer indigena is directly related to the position of women both in the Church and in the society of the Iberian peninsula during the so-called Siglo de Oro (Golden Age); it makes sense that the colonizers brought the ideas of the age and the customs of the people to their colonies. Misogyny wasn’t an invention of the Church, but was passed down since antiquity from Plato and Euripides, and with the Old Testament. The letters of St. Paul and church fathers such as Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Thomas Aquinas are filled with hectic anti-female sentiments. St. Jerome, who suffered in his temptations of presumably sexual nature, launched a diatribe against sex and marriage. St. Augustine considered women to be unstable animals, citing three arguments with which husbands could use to silence their wives: “we are men, you are women; we are the head, you are the members; we are masters, you are slaves.” Such ideas prevailed in the Church and after the fourth century married men could no longer become priests and priests couldn’t marry, because of the fear of contamination of marriage.

The missionaries praised the mujer indigena’s intelligence, strong will, and practicality, but they condemned her for being too sensual and free in her behavior. They made use of her influence in society to be the vehicle of a more effective propagation of Christianity, but they spared no efforts in remolding her to the image and likeness of the perfect woman of the Iberian society of their time. In order to ensure that the mujer indigena would learn to be “virtuous women,” the Spaniards established colleges for girls and introduced the cult of the Virgin Mary. Yet while they went to extreme lengths to protect the virtue of the mujer indigena, the Spaniards had no qualms about robbing her of it. There are remarkable frequency of entries of official complaints against Spanish friars for solicitation and interestingly, prostitutes were housed in separate quarters in the same institutions sheltering young girls from the temptations of the world. Prostitution seems to have come into practice precisely when purity and chastity of the woman was being OD preached in the islands.


Rape of Sugbo by Manuel Panares       Queen Juana 2 by Manuel Panares

The imposition of a strongly patriarchal system had super negative consequences on the role of women in society. The young Pilipina girl under Spanish domination became a sheltered, over-protected, timid maiden who received religious education and training for the only two courses open to her, either as housewife or nun. She who could previously transact business with anybody, look after the economic welfare of the family, who could bear the responsibility of being a pact holder and a leader of her tribe was reduced to a helpless creature like Maria Clara in The Noli who could never even leave the house alone. Her freedom of choice in important aspects of her life was curtailed by the imposition of new laws and mores. Confined in her area of action, the woman poured all her innate sensibility and energy into the activities allowed her, developing a religious fervor that would verge on fanaticism. She was constantly reminded of her innate danger to men as the seductive Eve and was relentlessly exhorted to follow an impossible model – the Virgin Mother. She could venerate her but her efforts to emulate her ended up giving her an abiding guilt complex which added to her timidity and lack of self-confidence and in many cases reducing her to frigidity. On the pretext of putting woman on a pedestal as an object of veneration and adulation, patriarchal society succeeded in alienating her from public life, public decisions, and public significance.

We see these gender roles constantly reinforced through Pilipinx TV and pop culture: the image of the dalagang pilipina as the ideal woman – chaste, demure, mindful of her “honor,” allowing men to make her major life decisions, bowing to societal norms. I was recently watching On the Wings of Love to get my Tagalog skills up before coming out here, and there’s this scene in which the two main characters have to sleep in the same bed under pretense of being a married couple – Clark says to Leah, “I know that you are a dalagang pilipina” aka “I know you’re def not DTF because you’re a good girl.” I feel like this is one of the most damaging (well, they ALL suck) remnants of colonialism on the way women limit themselves, to fit into some foreign mold of purity and perfection. In precolonial times, virginity wasn’t some kind of virtue or prize, and unwed mothers did not lose face in the community nor were their chances of marriage damaged (ALL of which are majorly nakakahiya in our present culture). I can say with absolute certainty that my family’s colonized mentality about gendered “appropriate” behavior really f*cked up my ideas about sex and intimacy while I was growing up. During a time when we’re learning about our bodies and exploring our sexuality, being constantly reminded of these roles attached a ton of super negative associations to sex like guilt, secrecy, wanting to please others above myself, and wondering if my completely normal sensuality was a problem.

Marian Rivera as the title character in GMA Network’s Amaya (2011), a precolonial warrior princess destined to change a culture and society dominated by men

Many of our precolonial goddesses were warrior deities, such as Ynaguinid and Haliya, completely casting aside the stereotype of Pilipina as soft and submissive. Equality of the sexes (we traditionally have three, btw) is evident in our pre-colonial mythologies and creation stories, such as the one of the first man and woman who emerged from each half of a split bamboo when a bird pecked it open – totally different from the Christian creation myth in which woman was created from the man’s rib, and then went on to seduce him and f*ck everything up for humanity for eternity. Women were also shamans, spiritual leaders, healers, midwives, the first psychologists, who had contact with the spirit world and were active participants in important events in society – birth, wedding, death, planting, harvesting, and warfare. Called babaylan in the Visayas, catalonan in Central Luzon, and baglan in Northern Philippines, they are also known as Mombaki, Dawac, Balyan or Balian, Ma-Aram, Mangngallag, Mumbaki, and Mambunong in other regions. Most babaylans in precolonial times were women, although men and transgender women also took on the role.

According to “The Complementary Roles of the Mandirigma and the Babaylan” by Perry Gil S. Mallari: “The pre-Hispanic Filipinos put equal importance on warriorship and spirituality hence there was gender symmetry between the warrior or mandirigma and the babaylan – the female ritualist. Regardless of fighting prowess, a band of warriors was considered half-ready without performing the appropriate war rituals and the initiation of this was reserved exclusively to the babaylan…A similar balance of roles was observed by author Herminia Quimpo Meñez among the Isnegs of the highlands of Cordillera. A small portion of the Isnegs was already Christianized but the majority of them are still animists. The tribe no longer practices headhunting but the tradition is still represented in enduring rituals such as the say-am. In the latter, the role of the female shaman is revered even today, ‘Headhunters and shamans were the idealized roles for Isneg men and women – roles which defined gender complementarity and equality in Isneg society. The say-am, their principal public ritual, makes explicit these relations in a three-part sequence: first, the sacrifice of a dog’s head; second, the splitting of mature coconuts by male warriors while reciting raiding boasts, and third, the climactic ritual dance of the tungtung, which the Isneg themselves consider the most important part in the sequence, and one which requires the presence of the entire community,’ wrote Meñez in her book Explorations in Philippine Folklore.

Detail of a babaylan from the mural “History of Philippine Medicine” by Carlos “Botong” Francisco

Meñez noted that female shamans enjoyed the same level of prestige as headhunters in Isneg society because of the former’s supposed spiritual potency. They were venerated, ‘not by killing human enemies but by vanquishing dangerous spirits in the forests and in the world beyond.’ The say-am, Meñez observed, is ripe with symbolism of masculinity and femininity, ‘Life giving and life taking – usually treated as bipolar themes – receive a different treatment in the say-am, where the climax especially dramatizes the complementarity and unity rather than the opposition between hunting and agriculture, between man as killer and woman as nurturer.’

Whereas now the Philippines is the only country left in the world where divorce is still illegal due to the pervasive Catholic Church’s control in politics, in precolonial times divorce was not only legal, but there were many laws that protected women. In the event of divorce caused by childlessness, infidelity, failure to fulfill obligations towards family, etc. the dowry had to be returned by the bride’s family if she was at fault. However, if the husband was at fault, he lost any right of its return. The children were divided equally between the two regardless of sex, as was any property acquired during the marriage. This way, she possessed equal rights with regard to divorce according to law and custom. Today, secular annulment is the only legally binding way to end a marriage in the Philippines, but it’s super expensive and nearly impossible to obtain. Neither infidelity nor physical abuse are grounds for annulment. Annulment generally requires a finding that one partner was “psychologically incapacitated” from the outset of the marriage — a standard so stringent that petitioners often pay psychologists or psychiatrists, lawyers and judges to manufacture the needed diagnoses. This torturous, often farcical, process can take several years and can cost more than $4,000, well beyond the reach of most people.

In precolonial times, abortion was also not a moral issue. In fact, especially among coastal-dwelling tribes, having too many children was perceived as being like pigs giving birth to huge litters of young, and once a couple reached their agreed-upon amount of children, they practiced abortion. Also, as wealth was divided equally among children, they didn’t want to leave their offspring impoverished if there were too many. In modern times, the Church in the Philippines has long opposed what it calls the “D.E.A.T.H.” bills — laws proposing to allow divorce, euthanasia, abortion, total population control and homosexual marriage — calling them “anti-family and anti-life.” In 1991, the Philippines delegated responsibility for “people’s health and safety” to the local level. In exercise of this power, an Executive Order 003 was issued in Manila in 2000, which declared that the city would take an “affirmative stand on pro-life issues”. In response to a joint submission from NGOs in 2008, the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Committee) conducted an inquiry into alleged human rights violations resulting from the enforcement of EO 003. The Committee found that EO 003, in practice, resulted in a systematic denial of affordable access to modern methods of contraception and related information and services. This, in turn, led to unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions, unnecessary and preventable maternal deaths and increased exposure of women to HIV/AIDS. The Committee observed that the lives and health of thousands of women were put at risk and that the impact of the order particularly harmed disadvantaged groups of women, including poor women and adolescent girls, as well as women in abusive relationships. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Reproductive Health Law, which eases access to condoms and birth-control pills, was passed – and it still hasn’t really made these available to the impoverished women who need these desperately.

In short, our ancestors clearly knew what the f was up. The indigenous Pilipina had an honored position in the family and society, which was obliterated with the arrival of Spaniards and Catholicism. A new Pilipina was formed, a “good Christian woman” who had to follow hella rules and adhere to strict standards of conduct and who had way less freedoms and rights. In the 1930’s, Rafael Palma and other sufragettes often cited the precolonial status of women as an argument for campaigning for the womens right to vote: “woman was endowed by God with an intellect, a will and a heart hers to cultivate and perfect in order that she may be not the servant of man, but his companion, not the subject of the king, but the queen enthroned by his side, not only in the intimacy of the home, but also in the wide arena of public life.”

I’m not a dalagang pilipina, never was, never will be. This is how I honor my ancestors, how I walk in their footsteps. Living without shame, the shame that was imposed on us by outsiders, a deep burden we carry in our bones and need to work collectively to heal and walk away from. Walang hiya.

Stephanie Gancayco (she/her/hers) is a NYC-based, Bay Area-raised womenswear designer with a personal mission of championing Pilipina and Indigenous culture and voices. Stephanie is the founder and editor-in-chief of Hella Pinay, a digital media platform for conversations on Pilipina identity. She also collaborates with Indigenous women artisans in the Philippines on a contemporary womenswear collection to empower Indigenous Pilipinx communities to preserve and promote their cultural traditions while earning a sustainable living. Stephanie is a member of GABRIELA New York, a mass-based militant women’s organization connecting the Pilipinx diaspora to the women’s struggle in the Philippines; and Kinding Sindaw Melayu Heritage, a non-profit dance group that aims to assert, reclaim, preserve, and re-create Pilipinx legends, epics, myths and oral history. Instagram | Facebook | Tumblr | Website


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