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.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

April is the cruelest month, especially way back in 1973, the 4th of the month to be precise, when Liliosa Hilao was murdered in the makeshift detention quarters of the (Philippine) Constabulary Anti-Narcotics Unit (CANU). In the wake of Presidential Proclamation 1081, which imposed martial rule on the Philippines, CANU had abruptly given dope dealers, dope pushers and narcotics traffickers a unilateral truce, electing instead to go after activists, “leftists,” dissenters and a vast array of people who did not want Mr. Marcos to change the Constitution so he, his clan and cronies could rule forever.

Liliosa was 23 years old, a scholar at the City University of Manila and editor of Hasik, the school’s student newspaper. Later testimonies revealed she had been tortured, gang-raped, injected with truth serum. Then, because she wouldn’t be cowed and vowed to go after her brutalizers, they poured muriatic acid down her throat and killed her. Hers was the first death in the urban detention centers of the Marcos regime.

When her family tried to obtain justice, the military used all manner of harassment and threats, including raids, beatings and detention, to discourage her parents, her brothers and her sisters.

I never met her but she remains vivid to my mind. She was killed the night before my release and whenever April comes, I hear the whisper of a co-detainee, talking about her murder. “She was killed there,” my co-detainee said, in a hushed voice, pointing to the building across the street from where we were being held inside Camp Crame. My eyes slid away from the building, kept sliding away from it, as my mind repeatedly said, “it didn’t happen here; it happened in another city, in another province, in another island, in another country far, far away.”

Liliosa’s murder came at the end of a week of severe diarrhea and gastroenteritis in our own detention quarters. For two weeks in March, water had disappeared from our quarters (such a nice neutral word); eventually, despite our efforts, the place began to stink and we were ripe as well. One morning, the military parked a fire truck outside, stuck a hose through a window and poured water into a gasoline drum in the bathroom. Our relief was short-lived; the water was contaminated, probably deliberately to punish the women for complaining.

Water and Liliosa would be linked in my mind forever, a presage of murderous things to come, perverting Aquarius’s symbolism so much that to this day, I barely drink water. In the mid-1970s, when so many women (and men, though hardly anyone talks about this) were being sexually assaulted in military detention camps, I voiced my worries to a friend. His reply: “if you were picked up again, rape would be the least of your worries.” I understood. Liliosa was the tidewater mark. After her, everyone and anyone “picked up” was tortured, some murdered, because the military establishment got away with the first. This was how we learned the word “impunity” – from Liliosa’s fate and her family’s experience.

And now there’s PP 1017 by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, so low a number among presidential proclamations. Marcos at least waited until he got to 1081, being a superstitious nitwit who embedded in the number the year he would “lift” martial -- but not his -- rule, 1981. Does this mean Gloria will step down in 2017? As Charlie Brown would say, aaargh!

But then again, there is this so-called people’s initiative (who are these people?) to change the current Constitution. Then there are all these women and men charged with rebellion, five of them congress people who’ve had to accept congressional protective custody to avoid being arrested without warrants. And US troops are debasing Filipinas again, protected by government itself. Then there are the 556 assassinated activists, leaders and critics, the body count inching upwards to the 14 killed per day in the last years of Marcos’s rule.

Time seems to have looped upon itself, things devolving, the descent into darkness accompanied by the gloating chortles of fundamentalists, military men, warlords and landlords, corporate men and a host of women glorying in their own abjectness. Time has loop and is eating itself up.

I hear myself responding over and over again, to questions trite and significant, that I don’t have time; there is no time; no time at all, because the cloud in the crystal ball has cleared and forever is visible and there is no time left.

Another generation will drop out of school; take to the hills and risk life and liberty to make democracy more than just a word. Physicists, engineers, poets, young peasants, the tribal braves, workers, women, men and even children will forgo the amiable pleasures of an ordinary life to do something which shouldn’t be extraordinary but is – assert people’s rights and freedoms.

Another generation will leave their parents’ homes and take to the hills and risk life and liberty to make democracy more than just a word. Abandoning all that is familiar, they will learn the unfamiliar heart of poverty among 70% of the population and by so doing, become themselves ordinary, usual and familiar, transformed, as the village folks used to say, into nice people around.

Sometime in the future, a woman grown old in this never-ending enterprise to create a true nation will look at the sky with horror-stricken eyes and think: “a third of my generation was killed young; a third went to prison, went to the hills or both, and a third is scattered the world over in exile.”

And remember again, the words of a woman who joined the Tupamaros of Uruguay at the age of 15, spent two years in prison where the military destroyed her right arm, and the rest of her life in exile in Sweden: “there are things I regret having done, but never being there, at the moment of historic juncture, when everyone was engaged in a magnificent undertaking.”

It is said that the poet, Pablo Neruda died of a broken heart when the Allende government was destroyed by a CIA-supported military coup and replaced with a military dictatorship. But one remembers a childhood fairytale, where an honorable man looped iron bands around his heart, to stop its shattering at injustice, thus enabling himself to act.

Go and do likewise. There is no time anymore.