By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City — Everything that the petite and feisty Ninotchka Rosca said at the Montclair State University in New Jersey was subversive. Her lecture titled ‘The Colonial Roots of Violence Against Women’ was like an ultra violent movie, it had to issue a warning that it was not meant for the faint hearted.
Rosca, an international novelist and transnational feminist, lectured at the George Segal Gallery, where the Triumph of Philippine Art exhibit is ran until December 15, 2013 and curated by M. Teresa Lapid Rodriguez, the Gallery’s director.
She began with the painful reality that Filipino women are the main export of the Philippines. The $30 billion in remittances to the country every year was predominantly courtesy of the Filipino woman, who choses to leave her family to earn in a much better quantitative manner in a foreign land.
The odds are all against the woman, who could no longer take part in raising her children and providing them emotional support, while being exposed to the risks of being a faceless entity in a foreign land’s labor force.
This reality may well be considered a violence against the well-being of women. But in absolute terms, violence against women has to be defined as the total deprivation of their economic and political rights, she said.
An award-winning novelist based in New York, Rosca was a political activist at the time of Philippine dictator Pres. Marcos. She sought political asylum in the US in the early 1980s. Since then, Rosca has devoted her time to writing and organizing women in the US.
Her group, called the AF3IRM, is relentless in its organizing work and developing and popularizing a feminist theory to guide contemporary women’s movements.
Rosca’s lecture is a substantial element in the reawakening of the theory based on ancient feminist practices.
She divided her lecture into three parts: the era of the babaylan (priestess) which characterized the indigenous society prior to the Spanish colonialism, the era of dominion and hegemony which describes the Spanish and American colonial rule, and finally, the killing of the Adarna Bird which figuratively calls to end Philippine diaspora.
Veering away from the traditional structure of looking at Philippine history on the periodic manner, Rosca used a lens that is especially feminine, to tell a story of a people that has yet to come to terms with suppressed realities and truths that have been forcibly erased from their common memory several hundred years ago.
The Era of the Babaylan
In the ancient days, when there was no Philippines to speak of, there were only thousands of tribes scattered in the archipelago, each having their distinction and commonality as indigenous peoples.
Describing the Bagobo tribes, Rosca pointed out that the ancient societies ascribed to the goddess Mebuya (or Maibuan, Mebyan, and Mona in other ethnic groups) and their lives were predominantly guided by the babaylan (priestesses).
Mebuya was the goddess of many breasts and a hundred names. She brought forth children, and milk, a symbol of power of women. In Greek mythology, she was the goddess Artemis.
The babaylan and the women in the ancient times held the knowledge of seeds, plants, and herbs. They led in rituals and rites exclusively, such as the pounding of rice, while the men had to pound the gongs.
The babaylan was the spiritual leader of the community, the only one entitled to communicate to the spirits. There were instances when men were spiritual leaders, but they were required to wear women’s clothes to communicate to the spirits.
The women were the key individuals in the death and birth of members of their community. They were also responsible for their oral stories, through poems and songs, said to the children towards the end part of the day.
Rosca said that at the time of babaylan, the societies were less oppressive and more egalitarian. The crimes noted were offense and insult such as when you offend or insult women.
Virginity was not a requirement and adultery was not a big issue and was paid off with a certain amount to the spouse.
In ancient times, a major rule was to never have debts. It was honorable to never owe anything to anyone.
The era of the babaylan was prevalent in indigenous societies of Asia prior to the conquest of western world.
Dominionism and Hegemony
The absolute subversion of the mindset of the babaylan took place when Spain colonized the islands and named it Philippines, after its king, Philip II.
The “idea of the perfect” was brought into the islands and it takes the face of a foreigner and its center was religion.
“We were taught of the God, the father, God, the son, and God, the holy ghost. Somebody turned the woman into a ghost,” said Rosca.
It was impossible for the foreigner to destroy the feminist view, noted Rosca, that they had to convert Juana (native name unknown), the wife of the tribal chief of Cebu, Humabon, into Christianity.
Christianity indoctrinated the natives that life is painful and full of misery and systematically took away the rights of women.
This was expressed in the change of the clothing of women. “The women were literally imprisoned in their clothes,” remarked Rosca.
The encomienda system outrightly replaced the leadership of women in the farms. Women were relegated to the homes, to give birth as much as they can for labor supply.
This perfect subversion of the rights of women led to babaylan revolts all over the archipelago. The babaylan was persecuted and banished. For more than 300 years, the perfection of the foreign intruder was best expressed in recreating the psyche of a subservient woman and forgetting the spiritual leadership of the babaylan.
Killing the Adarna Bird
Rosca brings her lecture to full circle using the myth of the Ibong Adarna (ibon means bird). But unlike how the popular legend, written in poetry by the famous Francisco Baltazar, imparts hope and solution that the bird brings (it has to be captured by the three princes and a feather be brought to cure their ailing father), Rosca pleads her audience to kill the Adarna myth.
The journey of the three princes to foreign lands in search of the Ibong Adarna, is so much like the Filipino diaspora, she said. Jose Rizal went to study in Europe to bring in fresh ideas to the revolution of the Philippines, Filipinos must seek greener pastures abroad to give bright future to the children. But that is not the answer, postulates Rosca.
“We go around the world, trying to look for solutions to our problems in the country. But the answer is right there, all the time. We only need to learn the story of our past and revive the feminism of the babaylan.”