Thursday, July 27, 2006

To Be a Non-Person

The burkha made it to my neighborhood, hanging from a hook, innocent among the goods brought over by globalization, in a store that also sold shirts from Guatemala, baskets from China, wool from Romania, bangles from India… It called the eye, being black among the rainbow colors of the store’s wares. I made light of my shock, telling myself that likely, it was being sold for Halloween. Then because I am that kind of weird, I went in, bought the thing and dropped it over my head.

Instantly, the world narrowed to a little square space, that net-covered hole before my eyes. Sound became muffled. The odors of the cuisines of Korea, Argentina, India and Mexico disappeared. Neither wind nor sun touched my skin. I couldn’t look anyone in the eyes. Instead, passers-by gave me sidelong glances.

This is how it is not to exist, I said to myself. I was shuffling on the sidewalk, hugging building walls. The anonymity was complete. I felt both helpless and sinister; I could do anything since I was nothing; and conversely, anything could be done to me because I was nothing. After three blocks, the claustrophobia became overwhelming; I tore the thing off my body.

A squeal of brakes: a car nearly hitting a teenage couple. A male face loomed out of the passenger side window and screamed: “You moron, I’m going to take your dray and f-k her so her eyeballs pop!” Dray? In the wind of male rage, she teetered on four-inch heels. She wore a half halter top, butt-crack and pudenda peeping over low-rise jeans. She reached a hand out, stepped back to the sidewalk and clutched my arm. As threats charged the air, many promises of disaster to the female, we huddled closer to the building flanking the sidewalk, me half-shrouded, her half-naked. I wasn’t sure which the worse non-personhood was: to be exclusive property or common property.

It is disgustingly easy to render women non-persons; sometimes even a word suffices. It took GABNet a decade, for instance, to move the issue of mail-order brides from the private domain to the public. By simply calling such women “wives,” the sellers of women were able to move the issue to the private domain; it became a matter of “consenting adults.”

The Philippine government manages to hide its traffic of women by simply classifying all exported labor as “overseas contract workers.” Even though nearly 30% of the women exported end up in the sex trade (under the category technical skills), there has been general tolerance for this “development” tactic of the Philippine government supported by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

GABNet itself has been accused (quietly) of having an “incorrect political line,” in campaigns designed to turn it into a pariah, because it refuses to abandon opposition to patriarchy and sexism. As a organization of women, it has consistently considered such opposition as integral to the advancement of women’s liberation, integral to the struggle against imperialism and certainly, considering that women are among the poorest of the poor in the archipelago, integral to its support for the just struggle of the Filipino people for national independence and democracy.

Unfortunately, the mis-judgment persists (or is deliberately fostered) that being opposed to the exploitation and oppression of women detracts from a comprehensive progressive political position. How this is explained with any modicum of logic, I have no idea. Never mind that women do live in a climate of sexism and “patriarchialism” (a mindset based on the male dominance and hence, the marginalization and devaluation of women and the resulting devaluation and alienation of their labor).

Just as the conflict over land forms the stuff of the peasant’s daily struggle, or the high cost of education and poor job prospects form the stuff of the youth’s daily struggle, gender-based discrimination and exploitation permeate the lives of women, exacerbating and in many cases, molding the specifics of contradictions involving their sector. But many persistently deny that women have a specific sectoral reality, thereby withholding from them the right to expect non-sexist policies and practices from everyone.

Nevertheless, to paraphrase Galileo, like it or not, the world of women turns on this axis. The across-the-board devaluation of domestic work, for instance, in all 168 countries to which the Philippines export women, stems from the history of women as the first truly private property (in contrast to slaves who were tribally owned), hence from a historic devaluation of women, a historic devaluation of their work and skills, and hence, from the social perspective and economic view that household work creates no surplus value, requires no skills and is therefore subject to underpayment.

Women’s oppression and the apartheid against women are intensifying; the US-led so-called war on terror has steadily shrunk public space for women. Hopefully, women will not simply surrender to this trend but will commensurately increase their political engagement and activism, if only to relieve the claustrophobia of these times.


Anonymous said...

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Dax said...

I wasn’t sure which the worse non-personhood was: to be exclusive property or common property.

WOW. I should send you a letter I wrote to a local newspaper about the whole hijab debate here in my city. I have the same sentiment. In the end, its about controlling women's dress...controlling women's morality as they have been made the (unwilling) guardians of morality so that the economic world could excuse itself and bypass questions of ethics. Bravo.