Friday, November 23, 2007

Post Script

Stayed up to watch Iowa primary. Dang, did you see/hear that Obama speech?

Life In The A-List

Holiday and year-end greetings to everyone.

The last month has been difficult, what with the deluge of emails, text and video messages, letters and phone calls, asking how a woman’s organization could contend with closed-doorism threatening the very reason for which 500 women were engaged in political activism. In the midst of this was a discordant note of one, demanding to be part of the national directorate, so surprising in a gathering where women have to be strong-armed into accepting titles, the usual answer being “I’ll just do the work, give the title to someone else,” so surprising that for a moment there, we were non-plus.

Later, in New York, someone explained: “It’s always been the goal; she wants to be in the A-list.”

This past Sunday, Doris and I reached Times Square from Boston at 4 in the morning, on the coldest weekend yet; this wasn't the right place nor the right time for a woman, I can tell you. We had helped open the Greater Boston chapter of Gabriela Network. She had taken the trip out on Friday; I had to leave a day later because of another obligation and thus had to manage 8 hours on the bus out of 24, not a wink of sleep in 48. We lighted a cigarette apiece, debating whether cabs were justified instead of the subway and the long walks home. It wasn't idle debate. In this organization, paying one woman's conference fee can mean another will have to subsist on pizza slices for a week. I was the first to give up; my knees were knocking together and four of five tries the cigarette missed my lips, I was shivering that hard. Bleah! Life on the A-list, indeed.

This demand for promotion came at the end of a sequence of non-sequiturs, during which we tried to clarify or thought we were clarifying concepts/definitions of a proposed new campaign, tried to convey that interpretation was not factual history, that political categories must have objective criteria, that mere assertion of discrimination wasn't fact, that one needed concrete analysis of concrete conditions, and that if one were to ascribe machismo to imperialism, one better be able to show that link clearly, because capital’s tendency was to homogenize all into wage slavery; which meant ferreting out the contradictions that that tendency creates, and how profit maximization links gender and sexuality based oppression to class exploitation; in other words, what were the historical and material roots of the distinct category of oppression the campaign would be addressing.

Sounds complicated but NOT, since domestic workers readily understood this interplay between historical and material causes of gender exploitation. Perhaps it was too abstract when one experienced it academically, because suddenly, in an act of misdirection, the discourse was centered on why someone wasn’t taken to meet certain groups and power persons in the archipelago, who said what and why. At which point, one realized this wasn’t a discourse for clarity; either a homeland security tape recorder was hooked up to a phone line, or a hooded posse bearing rope nooses was at the other end, since an accidental immigrant with a funny accent couldn't presume to discuss political concepts with Americans.

As Roseanne Rossana-Danna would say, “it’s always something. If it’s not a toenail in a hamburger, it’s a piece of toilet paper sticking to a shoe.” Roseanne was Gilda Radner’s journalist character of non-sequiturs in Saturday Night Live; the shoe referenced her utter loss at how to tell a princess about a piece of toilet paper stuck to her heel.

Which was exactly how some of us felt this past month: at utter loss as to how to say that betrayal was the foundation of conspiracies, that already one had been vilified by gossip about some allegedly unpaid plane tickets; and that the demand to discuss things "at a higher level," rather than work on the basics of a campaign, was leading to this wish to join the alleged A-List, the trade-off being abandonment of the very cause for which National was being pilloried.

Actually, it’s easy and simple to be part of the national work team. Many without titles work on national projects as the need arises. The criteria are a steady commitment, a willingness to learn and a spirit generous enough to volunteer time, ability and sometimes, material resources. Those qualities are first displayed within the chapter, which evaluates and recommends to the national, which also evaluates and then finds a suitable task for the recommended. It is not foolproof but it is the procedure. Special project teams come and go. But no one gets to National without chapter recommendation. So if one messes up with one's chapter or if the chapter is walled off like a political harem, then no winnowing process takes place.

Some members value their commitment so much they humble us old-timers; they work without need for validation. Just a month recruited, Khara carried a heavy banner without a single word of recrimination through 50 blocks of marching; Emelyn and Carisma lugged 120 t-shirts across an ocean without a word of recrimination; Catherine, barely 20 years old, overcame extreme nervousness to give a solidarity message at a demonstration in an island she had never visited before; Ollie, last week, had to face down some right-wing Christians by herself; Vivian searches for housing, for legal, psychological and financial help for battered and sex-trafficked Filipinas; Monica does whatever she is asked to do, has done so for 11 years without even the expectation of rubbing elbows with “power women,” though she goes annually to the Philippines.

Actually, Monica is special. As she says in an open letter, she is a Caucasian trans-sexual woman, challenged about her identity by society at every step of the way. “Challenged” is a mild word; last year was a record year for attacks – as in murderous attempts, bodily harm, physical assaults, -- on her person, by men in her neighborhood, by strangers in the subway, by anyone really. Everyday, she teaches us an invaluable lesson about intersectionality, or as I prefer it, the interconnection of phenomena. On the basis of her color, she would seem to be, as the current parlance goes, “privileged;” but coming from an economic underclass deepens all risks inherent in her situation and deprives her of protection. I once rode the subway with her; the other passengers’ reaction to her presence left me badly shaken. Yet, she has never demanded we share her burden though she has always shared ours.

None of these women ever say, “if I don’t get want I want, I am taking my marbles home and kicking your sandbox as well.” Kicking sandboxes is one cause of the periodic crash-and-burn of Filipino organizations over here, a factor in our continuing "invisibility" despite a hundred years plus of activism. It's a lot less work to demolish than to build. Believe me, I know.

There is a common quality to the women who stay in GABNet, and I ascribe it to the fact that this is as well the most palpable quality of the women in the National. Consider the following:

• Annalisa shoved to the floor and cracking her knee in Venezuela to which she had flown to support a Philippine women’s delegation, her knee swollen football size but despite no medical attention, finishing the five-day conference without a word of recrimination;
• Mirk organizing a lawyers' team, lugging 5 CPUs across an ocean, despite being chronically ill, without a word of recrimination;
• Milady making thousands of copies of newsletters, brochures, statements and what-nots, without a word of recrimination;
• Jollene returning to a city again and again, relentless in her goal to see a chapter established, appearing at a meeting the day after her car turned over five times on the freeway, all without a word of recrimination;
• Agnes, chauffeuring everyone around, making sure that appointments were kept, and not wanting to impose, driving herself home from the hospital after a heart attack, again without a word of recrimination;
• Doris doing street theater for five hours during the state of national emergency,, in front of the Philippine consulate, on a Manhattan sidewalk thronged by hundreds of thousands, in the company of only one other member, without a word of recrimination.

One could go on, listing a hundred or more instances; point is, in politics, one meets all kinds, even she-hyenas which, I learned from the Animal Planet channel, make themselves attractive by rolling in their own regurgitation. So one is filled with gratitude for the selfless and quiet courage of the members, old and new, who form the gestalt of this 18-year-old organization.

Me? I think the worst for me was when, because of an impossible schedule, I had to give up Guapo, the little cocker spaniel. That wasn't much, but bursting into tears and embarrassing myself and the friend who had driven us to the animal shelter was.

Not much, really. As we say in the organization, for liberation, others have given up more. Much, much, much, much, much, much more…

Have a good one, y’all. -- ###

Thursday, November 22, 2007

a watershed

Today, for the first time, someone finally connected the name of this blog to the military term for new US bases "with small footprints" -- the cooperative security location. The concept for a new type of base came out two years ago, when the closure of several bases were being discussed in the US congress.

While I'd received many chuckles over the pun in the name -- it's close to the Tagalog word lilipad, which means "will soar" or "will fly" -- I've been waiting for someone to recognize its actual reference.

So congratulations to R, who made the connection. It is a flag as to the method of "layering" I use in writing. The name has another layer but I'll wait for its discovery.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

need your vote

I was asked to post this, from the women's organization GABNet:

The Philippine television station ABS-CBN is asking people to vote on the 2007 newsmaker of the year. The GABNet 3 has been nominated. In this post-911 era of watchlists, terror lists, blacklists and hold-order lists, it is imperative that we send a strong protest against this form of state terrorism. Remember the McCarthy Blacklists; remember how Code Pink's Medea Benjamin was refused entry into Canada because of a blacklist. The GABNet 3 was in full frontal attack against this method of intimidation and harassment used by the Philippines government, ostensibly as part of the "war on terror." The GABNet 3 were 2 women of Philippine ancestry and one Jewish-American, all activists working for genuine women's equality, rights and liberation; they were suddenly accused, WITHOUT ANY BASIS IN FACT OR FICTION, by the Philippine government of being linked to the fundamentalist Taliban.

So protest the insanity of the Macapagal-Arroyo regime! email the words "GABNET 3 is my newsmaker of the year" to or use your cellphone and text the words "GABNet 3" to 650-766-1557.

Only 15 days left to make a difference. So DO IT NOW.

Thank you.

Davao Triste

A 12-year-old girl hangs herself (allegedly) and suddenly, she is the face of a city, a province, an island, an archipelago, a country. Her death is followed by screams and yowls of denial: she couldn't have killed herself just because she was poor; she had been abused (perhaps), raped (perhaps), depressed (certainly). . . None of the latter precludes the first contention. Though all women, across the class spectrum, suffer gender violence, the risks triple when one is poor, helpless, the family subject to such tremendous economic pressure that it gets to a point members no longer see one another as human. And depression is chronic among the (unwilling) poor.

It brought back those thoughts the first time I went with some friends on an organizing foray into an urban poor area in the city of Manila. There was this girl who looked ten years old but perhaps was 12, like Davao's Mariannet Amper, hunkered down on the slat-floor of a patchwork house built over a black sewage canal, holding her brother swaddled in a blanket thin and gray with use. She looked at me with eyes so dark, so deep, they were unfathomable. It occurred to me then that were I in her position -- no possibility of escape from a poverty that was really beastly -- I would kill myself, rather than go on day after day in absolute misery.

Very strange thoughts for an activist, one could say, but I was young then and an absolutist. Jesus supposedly said: “the poor ye shall always have with you.“ He was, I think, being bitterly ironic. Mariannet, whose name so echoes the word marionette, a thing dangling powerless at the end of a preordained fate, put the lie to his words. She didn't want to be "always with you." So what happens if the poor all killed themselves? Who then will the rich exploit and brutalize? Think of how much of a huge holocaust that would be, turning cities, towns, villages, mountains and seas uninhabitable? Who would bury them? I can see why the rich and powerful are outraged.

Davao City is the largest in the archipelago in land area, a territory with soil so fertile that outside downtown proper and the bedroom communities, the terrain turns so green it brings a pang of angst over the unhappy fate of Laguna, which used to be called the emerald province, now a hodge-podge of subdivisions, choked traffic and an over-fished and polluted lake. The term emerald must now be applied to Davao; from childhood, I had known of this place as Laguna‘s competitor for the source of sweet lanzones, fabulous mangosteen (which remains my favorite), and of course, the incomparable pomelo.. Aboard a jeep traversing first the paved roads, then the dirt roads and then the mud roads, I keep thinking "emerald" as mile after mile of green unfolds, an occasional reddish-brown earth surfacing, like a gash of blood. Deng, one doesn’t see this in New York.

The air was very moist, likely 99% humidity, which explained the 360 degree riot of foliage. The place was so obviously fertile one felt sorry for it, especially at the sight of the banana plantations, sudden monochromes of dark-green, carved out of the brighter chaos of untamed wilderness. The plantations were like a huge army of Nazi soldiers, shoulder-to-shoulder, huddled in assault formation against what was natural in the landscape. I thought: multinational corporations certainly wouldn’t be able to resist destroying the province’s biodiversity, just as the biodiversity of Laguna, Negros and other locations had been destroyed for the sake of export crops. Not couldn’t, I should correct myself; are not, aren't.

Spend a night or two in the marginalized communities of this area and the idea that poverty can inspire suicide does not seem unreasonable. The communities move and move, edged out by the metastasizing banana plantations, mostly owned by internal migrants from Visayan and Tagalog provinces, who cooperate with multinationals at the despoliation of the archipelago's resources, all for just a few dollars more. They are good Christians, of course, making sure that the poor remained with us. Despite this, the residents of the marginalized communities (I won't name them, since the Philippine military tends to pour into areas where people are nice), majority of them Muslim and Moros, are generous. The conflict here is not religious, they assure me, but rather over resources, over property, over a way of life.

Bananas constitute Davao’s principal export, 60-70% going to Japan which also gobbles up 15% of banana chips. Japan has repeatedly pressured the Philippines into signing one treaty of amity, trade, navigation, etc., after another, to position itself as the country's economic overlord, in partnership with the political and military over-lordship exercised by the U.S.; Japan loves Philippine food, with the same intensity as the US love for Philippine women and labor.

You can't go any bigger business than bananas, where seven-figure amounts are mere bribes to corrupt officials. Three multinationals practically own and control the global trade: Chiquita International (formerly United Fruit, formerly United Brands), Dole (formerly Standard Fruit) and Del Monte. Entire countries, especially in Latin America, serve as the backyard gardens and greenhouses of these companies, rendering them susceptible to pressure, threats and manipulations, in accordance with the corporate profit interests. The outrage such multinationals inspire is epic, enough even to fuel great literature, like Pablo Neruda's Canto and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ A Hundred Years of Solitude.

Nothing seems to be able to stop the multinationals, except nature itself, which created the black and yellow sigatoka fungus that often cuts a banana tree’s yield by 50% to 70%. Sigatoka is endemic to banana plantations, largely because as some Indian scientists pointed out, they are “monoclonal” -- i.e., of one variety only, in contrast to the natural state of growth, which is “polyclonal” -- i.e., diverse. To control sigatoka, for instance, banana plantations have to spray as often as 40 times a year; India, which is polyclonal, sprays only four times a year.

Some 26 chemicals are used to kill sigatoka, or at least try to control it. These chemicals belong to such WHO categories as Class 1-A (extremely hazardous), Class 1-B (hazardous) and Class 2 (moderately hazardous). Mancozeb, one of these chemicals, is listed in California’s Prop 65 carcinogenic list and is suspected to be an endocrine disruptor. These data and others are available on the Internet, with some digging, so please don’t email me asking for sources. You should know what's in the food you eat and how it is grown.

The communities which were kind enough to host friends and myself seemed under tremendous economic and social pressure. The madrasahs were little more than sheds -- corrugated iron sheets over naked posts. In-house running water was mostly absent; only darkness spared me from becoming a public spectacle when I simply had to take a bath in the rain. That means, there were no street lights either, and barely enough electricity in houses. This outward crudeness hid an inner sophistication; my first night’s host was a woman who spoke to me in English and Tagalog and Arabic to another guest, all the while swinging back and forth on a cloth hammock, flip-flops on her feet . And under the lambent twilight, a traditional kulintang band played music, the various instruments handled only by women. All spoke knowingly of social, economic and political complexities, and of course, of history, of a past deliberately obscured. They told me the story of 450 hectares of Moro land paid for in tobacco and trinkets and minimal cash, now a sprawling golf course where Koreans and other foreigners play, accompanied by girl caddies. I asked why girl caddies? The women smile.

Davao has a major prostitution and sex trafficking problem, because of the ships that dock, the business people who come, the US troops who appear occasionally, the tourists on predator trips, the Philippine troops who are not adverse to exploiting the women of what supposedly was their own people, etc., etc., and of course, because the poor is always with us, even in this region where a few (very few) are rapidly enriching themselves by selling the Moro patrimony to multinationals.

These villages nestle among bananas, some wild ones, some native ones, unlike the Cavendish single-variety of the plantations. Cavendish only became popular in the 1950s, when it replaced the Gros Michel (fat michael), which was done in the Panama fungus. And just in case you don't know, commercial banana is mutant, sterile and seedless, reproducing only through cuttings. It can be wiped out (as in extinct!) with one infestation, hence the heavy use of pesticides. The communities are in the path of the aerial spraying conducted over the plantations; the communities use ground water likely contaminated with pesticide run-offs. Asthma has become common; there are reports of birth defects as well.

The poverty is palpable and explainable, really not pre-ordained, but stemming from historical and continuing theft. Only 17 cents of every dollar consumers spend on bananas go to producing countries.

Much of the rest -- as in hundreds of billions of dollars -- is used to sustain lifestyles of greed, self-indulgence and power-madness. If you doubt the latter, check out the history of Dole; at one point, this guy "bought" the whole island of Lahaina in Hawaii, as though it were unpopulated.

At any poor community, children are ubiquitous. A teacher from the US had to point this out to me, so used was I to the sight. "Children everywhere, at all hours of the day," she said, "meaning, they are not in school."

In Compostela Valley, Davao, a nine-year-old who WAS going to school was shot dead by the Philippine military, a murder later justified by the canard that she was a "child soldier."

This is one fate for poor children in this land.

Mariannet's response to her fate was to hang herself.

This is one choice for children in this land.

Someone should work to create other fates, other choices. -- ##

Friday, October 05, 2007

Young Man in Travail, Young Woman In Revolt

Alan, 22 years old, writes: “I made a vow to devote my next ten years to political activism. My (ex-) girlfriend was cynical about my decision, saying I would just carry my sexism to politics. Can you give examples of political sexism, so that I can try, at least, to avoid it? Becoming a non-sexist activist seems to me the best way to honor my mother who alone raised me and continues to support me on her earnings as a hotel chambermaid in Chicago.”

Maryanne, 23 years old, writes: “I was very distressed to be told I should ignore your writings and all your works. I wanted to attend your talk here in Boston but was told No, that that would be breaking discipline, that you’re not a proper representative of Filipinas. Since I was 15 years old, I’d been reading about you and wanted to become like you. What is a model activist woman?”

As I read these two pieces of email, I have an ear cocked to news about Anucha Browne Sanders, whose sexual harassment lawsuit against the Madison Square Garden has been resolved in her favor, to the tune of $11.6 million. She said she had engaged in the legal fight “for all working women…” Certain elements would dismiss this as a bourgeois-feminist triumph, ignoring the link between quantitative-qualitative changes in the process of social transformation. My view is that whatever expands democratic rights, especially for the poor and marginalized, for the discriminated, is a good thing.

The case underscores what remains unresolved in the activist world: finding the means and process by which collective political sexism can be addressed. Such individual acts of sexual harassment and discrimination as had been visited on Browne-Sanders are far easier to resolve: here’s the act; there’s the culprit; here’s the victim; here’s the intent; these are the repercussions and here’s the law. But rectifying the collective grievance of womankind would require a massive change in how we look at the world, in our value systems and in our power relationships. So much of political sexism is standard practice it is barely recognized even by the well-intentioned. Rather, women’s struggles for equality within progressive circles are often met with cynicism and a consistent devaluation of the issues with which they have to contend. In contrast, meeting a half-dozen former mail-order-brides with varying experience of domestic violence in Maryanne’s Boston, drove home the truth that when women’s issues are not addressed with immediacy, the outcome is often a dead woman or one crippled for life in one sense or the other.

The most pernicious and the most grievous of political sexism is that which disallows women the right to effect historical signification, which has led, through 7,000 years, to the loss of women’s history and social amnesia regarding women's ability to effect social change. This is part and parcel of the overall social and economic denigration of the value of women’s work, of women’s actions – a requirement in class society which has perpetrated the largest thievery in the whole of human history: the theft from women of the value of labor characterized as “necessary.” Through such necessary labor, for which women go unpaid and unacknowledged, corporations and class societies are ensured the daily and generational replenishment of labor for their profit-making activities. Currently, with capital’s push to transform women into wage laborers, the “nurture” gap, as some refer to it, is made up by the devalued household work of Third World women. Hence, the push as well to deprive women of color of the right to historical signification.

Let us be more concise. In recent discourses about the Philippine government’s black list, watch list and hold-order list, the full-frontal attack against those travesties of human rights launched by three women’s organizations – two in the Philippines and one in the US – has been studiously ignored, for the sole purpose of raising the testosterone profile of certain entities. Cong. Liza Maza’s blistering congressional speech, Atty. Alnie Foja’s legal moves – none of these appear to be of the same value as words emanating from predominantly male, often white quarters. Since the three organizations are comprised largely of women of color, sexism is thus compounded by racism.

This should not be surprising. The “lost” history of women is replete with the “unmentionable” roles they played at moments of historic juncture. The Petrograd uprising of women in 1917 is one; the Chinese women’s role in the May 4th movement is another; the 1984 October women’s march in Manila which triggered end-game convulsions that ousted the Marcos dictatorship… The list would be long and stretch back through time. Even such a datum as women being the original holders of the key to the kaaba in Mecca has been hidden by acts of long-standing historical censorship.

Political sexism is a reflection of class society’s need to keep women suppressed and oppressed, so that they may be alienated from the value of the work that they do. To stop the theft of the value of their labor, including necessary labor, women will have to opt to end society’s stratification into classes. Hence, no matter who does it or from what direction it comes, denying women the right to historical signification is reactionary. It echoes globalization’s treatment of women as a valueless and hence disposable population, as goods to be bought and sold, etc. Alan can tack on what other negative values he might perceive, should he examine the conditions of his mother’s life. What, for instance, happened to his father?

On the question of models, which Maryanne raises, I can only say that women’s liberation being a work-in-progress, there are no models. Or perhaps there are many models. Occasionally, I’ve heard admiring remarks about women who have “three children but (remain) politically active.” Never have I heard admiration expressed for one who says “I can’t have a child this year because it’s WISAP time; nor next year, because it’s general assembly time.” So which is right and which is wrong? Accommodating one’s self to women’s double or triple burdens or removing one’s self from the dynamics of that “karmic” wheel? I have no answer. Suffice it to say that motherhood, the consecration of it, is part of the arsenal of the right-wing effort to push back women’s freedoms.

Being works-in-progress, liberated women create themselves as they go along, negotiating between duty and vision, forging, out of the old, their new selves. As for discipline, that which arises from a system of punishment and reward is a fear-based one, more religious than political. Discipline in the latter sphere should arise from one’s understanding and acceptance of what needs to be done, in our diverse historic roles, and doing it. Knowing, understanding and comprehending – these are key words to me, creating a sustainable political activism that is consistent and enduring, much better than power-and-punishment words like those used to threaten Maryanne: being iced out, being shunned, being labeled, etc.

Erich Fromm wrote that “freedom from traditional bonds… though giving the individual a new feeling of independence, at the same time made him feel alone and isolated, filled him with doubt and anxiety, and drove him into new submission and into a compulsive and irrational activity.” In other words, when we leave our traditional comfort zone to embark upon a different way of living, the anxiety can be such that some among us will accept even the loss of the freedom to think in order to belong. Or be deemed “to belong” by those who construct models. Understanding this weakness, Alan and Maryanne, may over time help make you model activists. -- ##

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Jose Ma. Sison is now allowed to have warm clothing, newspapers and books. I just hope the latter aren’t in Flemish. His doctor has also been allowed to interface with the prison doctor with regards to his medicine. Public pressure, I presume, made this possible. Before Tuesday, the 10th, the ruling as to whether he will be held for three more months will be made by a panel of three judges. After that – who knows? This Dutch process is kind of strange. It "bends" the fundamental human right to a speedy trial and to bail pending trial.

Some comments on “The Old Man & The Dutch” remind me of how readily some blamed Nicole for a rape committed by a US marine. Some Filipinos are so un-self aware they don’t even notice the eagerness with which they justify ill things done by non-Filipinos to Filipinos, no matter the facts of the case. It seems easy for us to buy into the divide-and-conquer strategy of colonialists.

Reminds me of how more than a decade ago, a Polish writer characterized his immigrant community to me as “crabs in a bucket” – which I transformed into the phrase “crab mentality” in an interview written by Cielo Buenaventura, which appeared in The Philippine News. Neither of us was prepared for the phrase's instant popularity; it seems it was a reflection of a truth about the culture of Pinoys, whether born/raised here or over there.

The Old Man & The Dutch

It’s like what Obi Wan Kenobi said to Darth Vader, at the moment of their final confrontation: “the more you strike me down, the stronger I become.” In this case, the more he is persecuted, the stronger he is.

I refer, of course, to Jose Ma. Sison, chair of the International League of Peoples Struggles and chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front's negotiating panel in peace talks with the Philippine government. He has other accomplishments, among them leading the re-establishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1960s. Before exile in 1987, he had spent nearly a decade imprisoned under the Marcos Dictatorship, in isolation and heavily tortured. When he was elected ILPS chair two years ago, Joma made the side comment that perhaps this would be a last office for him.

The third generation of Filipino activists calls him with affection, in Tagalog, the old man. He will, likely, never forgive me for using the phrase myself. Occasionally, through the years – and lord knows how long I’ve known the man – I’d wondered whether he had had a year, a month, a week even, when he wasn’t under some kind of persecution or threat, whether he had had moments when he could breathe freely, not look over his shoulder as it were, or cease to think of how to respond to a new barrage of verbal and/or possible physical assault on his person. Or even if he had ever wished for such a moment, such an instant.

In the past week, there’s been such a barrage, as enemies, many not even knowing him, gloat over his incarceration. On August 28, 2007, the Dutch police tricked him into going to the police station, ostensibly to discuss an assassination plot against him, and then promptly handcuffed and placed him under arrest, whisked him forthwith to the Scheveningen Penitential Facility. The people of Holland should appreciate the irony; this prison was used by the Nazis to hold and torture Dutch resistance fighters. It kind of boggles the mind how the country of Anne Frank could follow the model of their hated occupiers and keep Joma in isolation, not allowing him his medicine and clothes, nor access to reading materials, radio or television, and incommunicado to family and friends. This, for the Dutch, is “adherence to international standards” of imprisonment.

We tend to think of the Dutch as mild-mannered liberals but the histories of the Dutch East Indies Company and of Dutch colonialism refute that image. The Dutch waged war for 17 years against the natives of Padri, Indonesia; five years against the Javanese; 30 years against the people of Aceh. In Bali, Dutch invasion caused nearly 300 of the royal family and retainers to commit suicide, since Hinduism would not allow them to kill. Then there are the Boers, later Afrikaners, who held South Africa for centuries and perfected the apartheid policy, so they may continue to own diamond mines and other treasures of the country. The Dutch also maintained slave trade hubs in both East Africa and South and Southeast Asia. The Asian slave trade under the Dutch East Indies Company has been overshadowed by the African slave trade, but in 1659-1661 alone, the Company bought and sold between 8,000-10,000 “slaves” from India.

Much of the vaunted Dutch liberalism, it would seem, extends only to money-making decadence. Sure, drugs, liquor and prostitution are open and legal in Holland but try political dissent and activism. Rotterdam has been known these last two decades as a hub of the traffic of women into the sex farms and brothels of Europe. “Illegal” or “undocumented” aliens comprise nearly 70% of women prostituted in Amsterdam. And Holland leads European countries in investments in the Philippines.

Dutch interest in the archipelago is not of recent vintage. The La Naval de Manila religious festival arose from five bloody confrontations in 1646 between Spanish-Philippine forces and Dutch invaders/pirates, who wanted the islands as part of the territory of the Dutch East Indies. Before each of the sea battles, Catholic churches in Manila had the rosary and masses said to a small statue of an Asian Virgin Mary created by a Chinese sculptor, housed in the old Dominican Church near the Pasig River. After the Dutch were defeated, the victory was ascribed to this Virgin’s intercession. For three centuries thereafter, annual processions were held in her honor, which begun the rite of the block rosary, during which a statue of the Virgin was moved from house to house, to the accompaniment of rosary recitals. When they say their prayers, Filipinos should remember that the block rosary was a thank-you to Virgin Mary for keeping the Dutch away from the Philippines.

The old man and the Dutch have had a checkered relationship in the 20 years of his exile in the rather lackluster city of Utrecht. He has fought the Dutch government in one court after another, forcing the Dutch into a conundrum. On the one hand, the Dutch government accepts the validity of his contention of persecution and possible murder in the Philippines; on the other, the Dutch government refuses to grant him refugee status. Recently, the EU court of First Instance in Luxemburg ordered his assets unfrozen, because it found that the Dutch government had violated procedure when Joma was arbitrarily listed as a “terrorist.” In such a manner has the old man been exposing the gap between Holland’s reputation and action, between the image of “democratic” liberality and the reality for peoples of color and activists in The Netherlands.

Joma’s arrest will have long-term impact, not on the revolutionary movement in the Philippines, but on the ability and inclination of Filipinos overseas to self-organize, to work collectively for better job and living conditions, for legalization of their presence and for protection against sexual violence and sexual exploitation. If the Philippine government can buy, with mining and oil exploration licenses, the cooperation of a host counry like Holland in its policy of political repression against political dissent, how then can overseas Filipinos struggle against economic abuse, racism, sexual abuse and gender exploitation? The horrendous impact of this arrest is better understood in the context of the fact that 85% of the Filipino community in Europe is female. -- ###

Saturday, August 25, 2007


So many have called and emailed to ask "wha' happened?" For a more detailed account, please access

Last week, there were some harassing phone calls which stopped when I returned them, thank heavens for caller i.d. I am tempted to publish herein at least one phone number which rung me up about a dozen times in less than half an hour. What do you think? Will you ring the number and give the person hell?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

This Is Called Human Security?

In the ninth decade of her life, my mother had chosen to turn away from the world. Only when I called out –“Mama!” -- did the butterfly of her soul return from its fluttering from memory to memory; she would look out of her eyes and break into a smile, saying “o, ano? (How’s it?)” I would become five years old again, innocent of borderless wars, assassinations, disappearances, women exported into unspeakable conditions, life in another country…

This was what I lost when the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo government of the Philippines chose to harass three women, myself included, under its Human Security Act. The first impact of the HSA upon us was instant insecurity. In the middle of a typhoon, with everything flooded, I burned interview notes, documents and pictures – all moist, the air itself so laden with water matchsticks would not ignite – for fear of endangering those who had spoken to me. Afterwards as we ran through possibilities with GABRIELA Philippines, Gabriela Women’s Party and GABNet members, I was shocked to learn I was in the most vulnerable position. The consensus was I could be detained and/or arrested or assassinated.

Throughout meetings, all I could think of was my mother. Because I couldn’t stay for long periods at her house (it could be watched, could be raided; I could be ambushed), our interaction was reduced to a “hello, mama” upon arrival, “goodbye, mama” a few minutes later as I rushed out, carrying a change of clothes. I had planned to spend time with her, have the house repaired, pretend, as it were, that my fate had been that of a dutiful daughter, even if only for the week following the end of WISAP10, the bi-annual conference sponsored by GABPhil. Alas, it was not to be.

I had only one instance of sustained interaction with her. Still imperious in her wheelchair, she had watched as I drunk coffee and then pointed to the cup. I said no, this was bad for her. She pointed to it again. It’s bitter, I said. She pointed. I took a tablespoon of coffee to her lips. She sipped, made a face and then stuck her tongue out. Bitter, bitter. Thereafter, each time I said bitter, she stuck her tongue out. It didn’t matter that she barely recognized me. It was enough that she was happy even with the stranger I had become.

Bitter, indeed, was this recent trip to the homeland; shocking, indeed, to find it still in the grip of such poverty that tyranny had become a necessary component of the social order. A slow balkanization of the archipelago is underway, as more and more Filipinos leave for work overseas and more and more “foreigners” enter: a hundred thousand Koreans are in the school system; thousands more of Taiwanese; Mindanao has become the land of banana plantations edging out poor communities; educational tourism, medical tourism, sex tourism, military tourism (which is what the Balikatan exercises are), tourism everywhere while Filipinos watch television shows with unfamiliar faces, strange histories and different mindsets, imports from other parts of Asia, imports from the US, with Filipino actors re-cast in local versions of the American Idol, Big Brother, and so on. In the 7,100 islands, the process of dispossession is on-going, slow but certain.

Throughout all this, the Macapagal-Arroyo government's hatred remains directed at those who would affirm that there is such a country as the Philippines, such a people as Filipinos, such women as Filipinas, who are due genuine independence, freedom and rights.

Underpinning it all is the madness of the unjust, the puppetry of the greedy. It would not be far-fetched to think of the Philippines as slowly disappearing, an entire country disappeared, murdered by war and occupation and dispossession. Then, the souls of the millions of us scattered throughout the world will be as butterflies flitting from memory to memory, lovely but easily crushed. -- ##

Monday, June 25, 2007

Stories We Were Told, Stories We Will Tell

The last major battle in Cagayan Valley, Philippines, against Spanish occupation was waged under the leadership of a woman, a babaylan (priestess) of the Itawes tribe, by the name of Ines Carinugan. A friend emails her story to me, apropos of what, I do not know. Ines was also a mandyadyawak (a healer who also conducts rituals and dances, as oppose to the herbolario, who uses concoctions from plants and animals). I wonder now whether a mandyadyawak was ipso facto a babaylan, though the reverse may not hold true. In any case, the Itawes tribe contemplated rebellion on the heels of an uprising led by Magalat in the lowlands. Magalat's mother had convinced him to forego Catholicism and return to tribal ways, making my friend suspect she was a babaylan as well. Magalat's rebellion was so fierce it required treachery to defeat it; he was assassinated by "friends."

Undeterred, Ines led the Itawes into battle. With Spanish troops augmented by local collaborators (which is how Filipinos are, to this time, defeated), Ines and her warriors were captured. She was hanged (likely as a witch, as Gabriela Silang would be, a hundred years later) and all who followed her, executed. To obliterate her memory and all of her teachings/sayings, the Spaniards concocted the story of the Virgin of Piat -- a small brown statue brought by the Dominicans from Mexico to the Philippines in 1604. The statue, they claimed, instantly converted the Itawes (but only after killings and torture). Via this narrative of “superior magic," they obliterated the memory and teachings of Ines, replacing it with what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would call a simulacrum of memory. There is a basilica in place now for the Virgin of Piat.

I had heard of the Virgin of Piat, of course, but knew nothing about Ines. How many constructs had I absorbed through the years and how many more do I still absorb, on a daily basis? When narratives are perverted for purposes beyond truth, or even against truth, how does one distinguish between a simulacrum of reality and reality itself? The eye, after all, doesn't see; the brain does -- and if the latter's processes are perverted, if an automatic mantra rises in the brain that says that one’s thoughts are not sanctified and hence in error, inferior to the infallibility of those who create matrices, even one of smoke and mirrors, what happens then?

If Man were the tool-making species, Woman -- I'd always thought -- must have been the narrative-creating species. The paintings in the Caves of Altamira were likely made by women, as part of the effort to understand and survive nature. The earliest named poet (as oppose to ubiquitous Anonymous) was Ehenduanna (ca. 2300 B.C.E.), high priestess of the moon goddess Innana in that now unfortunate place called Iraq. Narratives, at the dawn of human time, were meant to explain and codify the values/perspectives/practices that enabled humankind to survive. In the hands of women of pre-history, the narrative was both integral to and integrating of communal life, inclusive, not exclusive.

The narrative has become warped, of course, as most things female-invented have in the rise of sexual dominance and private property. The narrative began to serve other purposes. From the earliest slave society to the present, narrative construction evolved into the making of tales (and cultural products) cautionary of rebellion or of questioning the matrix. The Iliad, whose core is an echo of the struggle between women's rights and men's rights (really a vivid illustration of how slave society consolidated itself), teaches the futility of defying the gods, of trying to weave a life outside the construct. Weep and learn, you who read this, is Homer's message; Troy was destroyed because it accepted a woman's right to decide. But our modern construct is that Helen was "the face that launched a thousand ships" (reflective of what we think should be women’s prime quality) rather than Helen, the woman who chose, who defied an arranged marriage.

Now we have modern constructs, trying to create acceptance of even the most unjust acts and actions, like war and invasion. Jessica Lynch and Kevin Tillman bewail before the US Congress stories imposed upon them: the first, as a supposed "female Rambo;" the second, of the supposed heroic death of brother, Pat. Jessica explains she didn’t even fire her gun; and only doctors and nurses were at the hospital where the US military allegedly mounted a death-defying rescue mission. Kevin Tillman, whose brother was practically a military recruitment poster boy, agonizes over the discovery that Pat had actually been killed by "friendly fire," the whole incident covered up and a construct of bravery substituted. As he himself say, the narrative does not fit reality. The two try to delete these simulacra deliberately metastasized all over the world.

On the reverse side, Yoko Tojo in Japan is trying to change history's and popular judgment on her grandfather, Hideki Tojo, prime minister from 1941-1944, an architect of the carnage unleashed by that country upon its neighbors during WWII. He ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor and was hanged in 1948 by US occupying forces as a war criminal. Ms. Tojo offers a different narrative, with the claim that Japan went to war "in self-defense," since a US oil embargo threatened the country's survival. For the moment, she is a lonely voice, calling for Japan's re-arming, citing the Chinese threat. But who knows how far a "meme" could go, in its insidious assault upon consciousness? The grandfather of the current prime minister had also been a war criminal.

We think of the past as immutable but in the Philippines, some writers of children's textbooks are attempting to change the verdict on Ferdinand E. Marcos and his regime. They make the claim that his intentions were good, that his desire was for the nation's benefit, but he was just unsuccessful. Being a survivor of that unspeakable dictatorship, I suffer extreme angst, wondering whether, in due time, this simulacrum of memory will prevail, and all the dead, the tortured and the dispossessed will be, not just ignored or forgotten, but non-existent.

Hope comes from an unlikely source. Our building super, perched on a ladder in the backyard while fixing a window in my apartment, thrusts his head through the opening and in that delightful accent of a migrant from Trinidad, bawls out: "IS THAT WOMAN WITH THE SHOES STILL ALIVE?"

I had to laugh. Imelda's self-indulgence and lust for self-aggrandizement were just too loom-large; no construct wide enough nor thick enough could suffice to veil it. My super has just taught me that nowadays, one person's narrative is hardly ever solely about him/her; it inevitably encompasses his/her spouse, children, people close to him/her, friends and foes alike, their acts and actions impinging upon the main text of the story, providing unforeseen paths and channels by which reality can either deconstruct or reinforce legends of infallibility; or render myths -- well, less than interesting. It is a lesson both optimistic and cautionary.

In the shadow of the simulacrum that was the Virgin of Piat, the memory of Ines Carinugan was sheltered by a few who, under the lash of Spanish colonialism’s injustice and the arrogance and cruelty of its adjutants, the "black" friars, rejected the Dominicans’ “smoke-and-mirror” tale, choosing to honor Ines instead. Through 500 years, those who remembered dwindled to one, from whom an anthropologist got and wrote the narrative down in a book which itself was reduced by time to a single copy, which was fortuitously found and Ines became the name of a guerrilla squad operating in the area, both book and squad eventually lost in the turmoil of the post-Marcos era, but the story was remembered, jumping the ocean decades later, to this continent and, now, is sent to me who lives so far from the Valley. First, one mind held the narrative of Ines, then two; three now with me in the tally, and when you finish reading this...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Very Weird Day

Bambi was really frayed at the seams; it was time to replace her. Bambi was this deerskin shoulder bag bought in a little store in Banff a decade ago, for C$70 (US$35 at the time). The name came about because of the mock-horrified exclamations received each time I said it was made of deerskin: “what? You killed Bambi?” The bag had not been replaced because a) I liked it; b) a friend who had promised to take me to Banff again courtesy of an erstwhile knight in shining armor got into a tiff with him, and c) I feel guilty after shopping, berating myself for wasting resources which could’ve gone to yet another pamphlet or to food for empty plates somewhere in the world.

But Bambi definitely had to be replaced -- a sudden realization in the middle of Manhattan’s 34th street, between one appointment and the next. There was this seemingly apt revolving door into which I ducked before my mind could decide otherwise and presto, I was in a department store.

Wrong choice. This was Macy’s, which before Wal-Mart was the biggest store in the universe. Wrong time. This was three days before Mother’s Day, which started out as an anti-war day and was now the busiest business day in the universe. Wrong section. The revolving door gave into the perfume chapel where I was instantly bathed by moist air redolent of flowers, spices, and musk, accosted by tall-handsome men and women offering cardboard strips and perfume bottles, asking in seductive tones: “would you like to try it on your skin?“

They wouldn’t let me go, seeing the LSR stamped on my forehead (low sales resistance). At moments like this, my brain goes into dual processing mode. One half went “oooh, that is soooo nice! Honeysuckle, is it?“ while the other half began accessing my mental encyclopedia: “there are only four cosmetic companies in the world, they own/control every other brand; so each time a woman squirts herself with scented water, she likely adds a few dollars more to the income of that guy -- what’s his name, check database -- whose funky divorce from Ellen B (what’s B’s newest film, check database) was the talk of the town, he ran for mayor here and outspent everyone, though those millions didn‘t even come to one per cent of his income…“

Swear to god, this is how my leftsideofthebrain speaks when I lose control of it, a cascade of associations and data, clicking merrily away, drowning me as much as the scents wafting my way… Prada, Dolce & Cabbana, Lauren, all promising with one squirt to transform me into an odalisque in a garden of lilies. One woman spotted my increasing vulnerability and moved in for the kill, aiming a bottle at me and saying, “this is our newest.“

Rightsideofthebrain was inspired to come to the rescue, turning me supercivilized and making me say that that was really nice but I was looking for my favorite, the only perfume I use, had been using since I was 15. She arched an eyebrow. Coldly: “And what is that, ma’am?“ And I named the greatest perfume ever made, currently difficult to find: Joy by Jean Patou. “Ah,” she was impressed. “Where are you from, ma’am?” Rightsideofbrain spoke up: “France.” I had no idea why I answered that way. She did a double-take. I looked Asian, certainly. But then, I could be French Vietnamese.

She switched to French, saying no, they did not carry Joy. Now, I understand French but can barely speak it. Rightsideofbrain made what seemed to be a proper French gesture of regret: back of right hand to the brow. “But Lord & Taylor does.” Good. That was ten blocks away. Escape. I turned toward the revolving door. “Ma’am, better to go that way.” She pointed to the interior of the store. I said “merci,” aspirating my “r” the way my French teacher used to, breathing out “Mme, Rhoshca.”

I was congratulating myself as I walked past display cases, loads of merchandise, inching my way between men and women who were, I swear, salivating over goods when boing! I was in the bag section. Oh, good. Let’s look for Bambi’s replacement. Now, I like my bags pure and simple, geometric, more vertical than horizontal, preferably with a front panel into which I can stick plane tickets, passport, ID cards, Metrocards, a green tea chocolate bar, etc. Surely I could find a plain and simple one among what looked like a million bags. NOT. All the bags had straps, chains, buckles, studs, so much metal they barely kept from sprouting steering wheels and zooming away. Not a single plain and simple one; each seemingly inspired by an upscale bikers gang. One hour searching and I couldn’t find one.

So away; forget about it, look elsewhere. And there it was, inside a glass case, in a section remarkably bereft of shoppers, right near the front door. Voila! “Can I see that, please?” The saleslady took it out. I inspected the thing, opened it, removed paper stuffed inside, turned it upside down, rapped it with my knuckles, was pleased with it, said: “A little shiny, but won’t it crack?” “No, ma’am, it’s patent leather.” “It looks okay, how much is it?” “$799.95.” Anak ng tinapa! which translates to child of smoked fish! No wonder no one was shopping here. “It’s Louis Vuitton, ma’am. It’s a classic.” I was looking for something a little more practical, I said. “What kind of bag, ma’am?” “British,” rightsideofthebrain replied. “We Britons make sturdy bags, unlike the French.” I had acquired a British accent.

Having done shopping in the last five years on the fly, mostly at airport malls, I could hardly believe that people periodically go through days like this, days rendered weird by commodity fetishism. Oich veh! Sorry, Bambi, but I’m coming for your sister. ###

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Visible Invisibility

Flying from San Diego to Los Angeles to Honolulu to New York to Boston is both exhilarating and exhausting. At each stop, there were young men and women beginning both life and involvement, more women than men, it seemed – which gave me a tweak of irony, as I was re-reading Rosa Luxemburg, trying to puzzle out as to why such a brilliant woman said nothing about the state of womankind. Neither do many of these young women who greet me at every airport; they can discourse with great aplomb on anti-war, anti-globalization, anti-imperialism, anti-racism topics but turn coy when it comes to sexism.

I wondered if this was a case of “exceptionalism,” -- the same that afflicted Ms. Luxemburg and which seems to afflict women when they rise to positions of power over mixed gender institutions and organizations. I wondered whether Ms. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo considered herself an exception as well, not subject to the vagaries of sexual discrimination that women in general are subject to on a day-to-day basis. In her case, more likely than not, her class status overwhelms whatever slim thread of solidarity she might feel with other women, enough for her to consent to the virtual release of a convicted rapist from jail.

A grad student presenting a paper on “black-face” minstrels -- “having the black body present without the black body" – made me think that, to some extent, a parallel development had evolved with the women's case. There are women with power, women of leadership, without the consciousness of womanhood. I wonder whether this is caused by pride: “I have risen and therefore, I am not like them.“ Not like the exported woman, not like the prostituted woman, not like the woman with five children trying to eke out a livelihood from selling small bags of peanuts on the sidewalk; not like the bruised and battered being who emerges from the darkness of domestic violence. .

Every woman, at some point in her life, must have encountered a sexual innuendo, a degrading remark. The worst I’d heard were “she needs a spanking” and “she needs to get pregnant,” both said in the midst of a political debate. Many women have assured me that this is not unusual and worse have been said to girls and young women. A GABNet recruit said that the school guidance counselor advised her not to try hard for her SATS, as she would just get married and pregnant.

Class and male dominance were from the same source, the rise of private property, which continues to divide humankind to this day. One would expect that, in this era where corporations hold sway, their heavily male hierarchies owning and controlling practically everything, women would be most aggressive in their advocacy for and defense of their rights and just due. This is not the case. Perhaps the winnowing process of leadership selection is so geared toward enabling men to attain power that when the "exceptional" woman manages to maneuver to leadership, she emerges degenderized -- i.e., alienated from a social reality that forms such an important aspect of her life and being (shades of "unsex me here"), becoming emblematic of something akin to the revisionist concept of "a whole people." To chance upon someone like Parvati of Nepal is therefore a pleasant surprise.

In the course of the past 20-day lecture tour, I was asked several times whether Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, erstwhile president of the Philippines, was a feminist. Well, no. A feminist holds the rights and welfare of the majority of womankind to be paramount in her thoughts and work; she works for an equal share, for womankind, not only of political power but of social wealth. The last is important, as women own/control less than one per cent of the world's resources while doing three-fourths of the work to keep the species alive. Unfortunately, feminist has been made to mean everything most men find unpleasant in women; hence, the use of the word with neither thought nor analysis.

So not all women who wield power do so even partially on behalf of their sisters and the current political scene is replete with this irony: that despite so many women active and engaged in a welter of political activities -- from grassroots organizing to teach-ins to managing organizations -- women's issues remain at the back burner and continue to be "secondary." The phenomenon has made women metaphorically invisible by their very visibility.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Divorce & the Imps of Feudalism

It was a delightful surprise when a thousand Filipinas signed up for a workshop on divorce – one offered by a women’s organization in North America. A thousand! This was shortly after the Honorable Liza L. Maza, congressional representative of the Gabriela Women’s Party, filed a divorce bill before the Philippine Congress. Had the bill gone well, the Philippines would’ve shaken off its dubious reputation as one of only two countries without a divorce law. The Republic of Malta is the other country without divorce. Malta is composed of seven islands in the Mediterranean and got its independence only in 1964. What Malta and the Philippines share is Roman Catholicism, one handy excuse for doing women in.

The response to the Divorce Bill was near- instantaneous, both within and outside the archipelago. For many overseas Filipinas, it was a sliver of hope. Many had had to tolerate sustaining, in addition to their own children and relatives, secondary families established by husbands too impatient to wait out their wives’ servitude abroad. Women who had managed to stabilize their residency overseas were faced with the dilemma of placing their family relationships on a rational basis. “I’d like to bring my children over,” said one domestic worker, “but Philippine laws will not allow that, if my husband does not give consent. He won’t give consent, unless I bring him over. I don’t want to bring him over. I will have to support him”

In Manila, however, placards created by religious fundamentalists bloomed overnight calling Rep. Maza “bride of Satan” and GABRIELA, “wives of Satan.” It seemed that the feudal imps worked overnight, driven to laughable frenzy by the word “divorce.” One never sees them denouncing the rich, the powerful and the well-known who do dissolve marriages – through overseas divorces, mutual agreement, church annulment and so-on. The feudalists grant the privilege of marital dissolution only to members of the ruling class and to hetaeras (women who make a living through entertainment, whatever that may comprise). There was hardly a peep when the daughter of former president Corazon C. Aquino took up with “separated” man and later, dumped him for someone else.

So it’s not simply religion but on a class and gender basis that divorce is denied to women of the Philippines. Men simply walk away (occasionally, women do but that’s rare). The working woman is not allowed the right to place her private relationship on a reasonable basis. Of the 5-plus million Filipinas working/residing overseas, a sizeable number have not seen husbands/children for five years. More, they know full well that their husbands have taken up with other women but are unable to make other, practical arrangements for their children. At the crux of this refusal to let the children go is the endless remittance.

I had to force a friend to take a day-off from her work as a domestic and to come visit me this February. She had worked non-stop for over two months (10-15 hours seven days a week), made almost $12,000 but had only $2,000 left. The rest was sent home. Even on this one day-off, the buzzing of her cell phone every 30 minutes would not allow her to relax on the sofa. It was a virtual inundation of text messages from Manila asking for money, more and more and more and more money. Threats of retaliation if the money wasn’t sent; stories of terrible crises, impending disasters, typhoons, tsunamis, meteor strikes, the moon crashing down… My poor friend looked so wan and so unhappy I had to sit on my hands so as not to yank the phone away and throw it into the snow outside.

Understand that this situation is a deliberate construct. The working woman has to content herself with wages calculated on her worth as an individual. But she is obligated to sustain a very complex feudal kin system. The Filipina overseas, on the average, maintain about 10 other men, women and children – relatives to the nth degree of consanguinity. The irrational marital laws of the country are central to this feudal bondage. Where women cannot place on a rational basis their most basic relationship, then there’s no way they can have either the will or the means to escape the rest of their feudal bondage.

The Divorce Bill was so “hot,” even some progressives were hesitant about lending support. Divorce is a knifepoint aimed at the knot holding working women in thrall to the semi-feudal component of Philippine society. And since women remit nearly $7 billion of the annual $12 billion remittance to the Philippines, the compulsion to keep her enthralled is tremendous. After all, government profits from the women’s feudal slavery, as do banks, shopping malls, corporations… etc., etc., etc. In other words, everybody, except the woman herself.

Monday, February 05, 2007

35 Is Too Old!

So wryly said the eight women gathered around a table, eyes intent, mouths grim. No, this had nothing to do with romance. Rather, this was the age limit, set by multinationals and contractors, for job hiring and job retention, in the burgeoning paradise for globalization that is the Philippines. These women had worked for decades, starting as child workers, sewing, cutting and ironing garments which litter the markets of the world. They had fudged their birthdates, starting jobs at age 15, because the family needed money. Now, they had aged out of the job market. They were members of Magkaisa (Unite), an organization of women workers, and we were meeting at the Gabriela Silang Displaced Women Workers Center in Alabang, Philippines.

Magkaisa battles globalization and its contract/sub-contract system which, through a systematic ladder of exploitation, ensure that those who work the hardest get the least reward, the least pay. These women sew high-end and bargain bras, panties, pajamas, nightgowns, bathing suits, few of which they themselves had had the means or the occasion to wear. Certainly, they do not cavort on the beaches of Boracay or in tourist-exclusive Mactan, Cebu where the ASEAN Summit was held. Perhaps some ministers or their wives at the Summit had on underwear or swimsuits sewn by women disposable at age 35.

“You get fired on your birthday. Early retirement without pension, without benefits.” So what does one do? “Starve to death. Find a way to leave the country; be a servant. Or mag-puta.” The reply crackled like gunfire. Their voices were both sardonic and sad. We spoke in Tagalog, the country’s lingua franca.

In the factories, they were “specialized.” One sewed bra straps. Just bra straps over and over again, at 50-75 centavos per bra strap. So how many bra straps to make a decent wage? “A thousand,” she said. “1000 bra straps per day.” To earn $15.00 max. I can see it: the woman sitting, spine curved over the sewing machine, arms practically hugging it, nose almost to the needle, foot on the pedal and sewing one bra strap after another. As fast as she can, one after another.

Now she was jobless. To find another job, however, meant spending money. “Before the interview by management, you have to have a medical exam. You pay for the exam. Or what we call hubad, tuwad, buka (strip, bend over, spread ‘em). I got through all the steps to the interview and then they saw how old I was. Patay na! (I was a goner.)” She was in her 40s. “Check out the classified ads; the age limit is there. Eighteen to thirty-five.”

Was this general for both men and women? Not really. Men, they said, couldn’t get a first job, because skills and experience were required. But women, no matter how young, were deemed “intrinsically skilled” – they could sew, embroider or had fingers tiny enough for the delicate work of assembling electronics.

There was nothing here to cushion capital’s drive to transform women into wage laborers for the sake of profits. The poor was an inexhaustible supply, drawn from the feudal, basically agrarian countryside, saddled with kinship obligations alien to the concept of “free labor,” body itself often assaulted by capital in that crude and rude form of capital accumulation called prostitution. And because the intricate system of profit extraction was highly developed, imposed from advanced capitalist countries, not organic to the local society, neither the labor movement nor the women’s movement had had time enough to fend off even the harshest manner of exploitation.

In this interface of class and gender, one finds the grim face of a hybrid society like the Philippines. The irony lies in how little we understand the pivotal nature of that interface to social transformation, and how readily we accept the view that women’s issues are “soft” rather than key to the resolution of contradictions within a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. -- ###

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Letter to Nicole

Just a short note, by way of reminding all that at the center of all the legal, diplomatic and political verbiage on the Subic rape case, is a young woman, not only sexually assaulted and humiliated, but betrayed so thoroughly by those with the power and the responsibility to protect her and lend her justice.

I read about all the issues swirling around you, Nicole, in the various newspapers and Internet news services, and wish we could know you in all your fortitude. I wish we could say "we feel your pain" but we can't really, only imagine it.

I am tempted to say you have already made history; that at least, you got one convicted, at least you got a trial, at least you precipitated a crisis, at least… But that is a cop-out. Filipinos have been trained to live on the “at-least” level. I hear it all the time, from exported Filipinas: at least, you have a job; at least, you’re in the US; at least, you can send money home; at least, your amo (master) is kind; at least… It’s become our prime and only virtue: survival by whatever means, under whatever conditions. I hear it often from women who work 18/7 to enable parents, siblings and various relations to continue to exist in an archipelago so wealthy it’s globalization’s paradise.

There are no words of comfort to make up for this travesty, to you and to millions of Filipinas living lives of quiet desperation. The Philippines ranks fifth in the world in the number of women working. The first four are all Western developed nations, like Sweden, Denmark, etc. It is a painful irony that a country dependent on women’s labor does not have the political will to defend, protect and assert one woman’s right to redress of grievance.

What the US and the Philippine government have connived to teach you is imperialism’s most insidious lesson: that whatever you do is an exercise in futility, because you are a citizen of a client state, because your country is a claptrap Third World country without power, because your government is a failed government, because your country is not independent, because you are part of a “colored” race, and because there are among you people who prefer survival to dignity and honor.

This is the first lesson of slavery, of course: that sense of futility and helplessness, of powerlessness; of being always in the wrong and the master always in the right. Hence, the contemptible spectacle of some Filipinas lighting candles for a convicted rapist and the equally contemptible spectacle of a priest who had lived parasitically almost his entire life on the Church contributions of the poor of the Philippines denying the veracity of a court trial to defend a member of the master race. What makes this race a master is the equally contemptible willingness of the country’s so-called rulers to be enslaved, thereby dragging the whole nation into enslavement.

Do not accept this. Do not abide by this lesson in powerlessness. Do not internalize powerlessness. That is the first step to slavery.

The only thing we can offer, those of us who also work 18/7 scampering to correct each sliver of injustice, each instance of exploitation, each whiplash of racism in this country, are the words we live by: to the degree that you struggle against suppression, to that degree are you already free; to the degree that you resist imperialism, to that degree are you already liberated.

And if it’s any comfort, know that you were done in, not by the US marines whom you bested, but by a cabal of four-letter men and one five-letter woman masquerading as Filipinos.

So, go for it, girl, ignore the “at-leasts” and keep on truckin’ to victory, if not by way of the courts, then some other way.

Surrender is not an option.