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.