April 18, 2011


By Rosa C. Mercado; Diliman Review; l986; p. 60-62

Over the past three years or so, feminists of various persuasions have expressed a high degree of interest over MAKIBAKA (Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan).  It seemed from their various writings that Makibaka has become a springboard to drive home their ideological and political ideas on the women question.  Perhaps it fires their imagination to think that Makibaka has  taken the cudgels in this attempt to draw a feminist line despite the odds it encountered.  Makibaka has become more of a symbol, so to speak, for women activists to crystallize their crying need for acceptance and recognition.

Whoever coined the word Makibaka would never have known that such an audacious name would go down in history as the forerunner of the women’s liberation movement in the Philippines.  It shudders me now to think that such a relatively small band of women could represent an idea far larger than itself, could become more than what it really was, although we did try in our own way to live up to the image of the name.

Credit  perhaps should go to the dramatic flair that marked its entry into the national scene.  Makibaka was launched during the Bb. Pilipinas Beauty Contest in l970.  At that time, beauty contests were enjoying a high degree of popularity and even prestige because Gloria Diaz had just romped off with the Miss Universe crown a year before.  From the ideal Maria Clara image of demure beauty and quiet submission, our Filipino women  traded off their kimono and saya for the flimsy bathing suit and competed with their legs and faces in a bid to carve a name in a male dominated world.  Beauty contests were supposed to be the ideal venue to affirm their womanhood and to rise to national glory and prominence.

Taking cue from the stormy women’s lib in the United States, we picketed the beauty contest and for that novel act, we landed in the front pages of the national dailies not because the press realized the seriousness of our purpose but because we were another form of amusement itself.  Here were a bunch of girls taking a potshot at a national pastime, trying to rub the amused crowd the other way.  Some members of the press even chafed us saying we were sour graping because we didn’t have the three m’s (maganda, matangkad, mayaman) like the beauty contestants.  Nevertheless, we outshouted them with “Down with the commercialization of sex,” “Stop treating women as sex objects.”  “Away with the degradation of women” and other jolting slogans.

Joining the picket was for some of us  a “thrilling” experience, a kind of “explosion” where all hell broke loose and we  felt suddenly transformed.  Here we all were, weighed down by years and years of constant drilling from all sources of authority that distorted our perceptions of our real selves.  Makibaka unleashed the pent-up energies that were bottled up inside us.  It became a rallying point to break away from the traditional cultural mold of a cloying, passive, suffering Filipina and from society-induced crutches like the need to look up to a man or to prepare one’s self mainly in the art of raising a home and family.

After the initial euphoria of self-revelation, we braced ourselves for the enormous tasks ahead.  The explosive issues of those times pushed us into frenetic activism that called for solid and real organizing and propaganda work.  In a way, we were laboring under the presumptions of too militant a name, MAKIBAKA, an acronym that is synonymous with struggle.  Most of us were hardly prepared for the job.  We were all so young and somewhat foolish, some were freshly plucked from high school and many were middle-class and convent-bred who didn’t even know how to wash dishes.  While it was a greatly accelerated period for learning, knowing, feeling and reading, it was also a stressful time for resolving inner conflicts that squared with our quest for the answers to our growing feminism.

One of the by-products of the political activism in the 70's was  that you practically lived and grew together in the headquarters.  Living and growing together  said more for us and about us than all our theories on the women question put together.  By leading a collective life to pursue political work, we discovered in ourselves those parts which we used to deny or didn’t even know existed because they didn’t fit into the usual stereo-typed image of women.  We slept on the pavement of strike areas, went to unheard of places to integrate with people, braved gun-wielding policemen in scab-infested factories, dodged pill boxes at violence marred rallies and were hauled off to police stations in the middle of the night while painting slogans on the street walls.  The more we exerted ourselves in the struggle, the more we realized how narrowly circumscribed our lives had been.  And to think that we were forbidden before to come home at unholy hours!  A lot of the girls had to engage in minor skirmishes  and crying sessions with distressed mothers who were always close at heels trying to reclaim their stowaway daughters.  Stowing away may appear insignificant, but for some of us, it was a breakthrough in declaring self-independence.

Living together 24 hours under one roof also meant that we had to divide house and office chores equally among ourselves.  Fine, but it also meant getting into each other’s nerves because the lazy bones in us were hungry for food but nobody wanted to cook.  Or who was going to throw the garbage or tidy up the bathroom?  The haggling brought us at the brink of quarrels but also made us aware that nobody could be relegated to kitchen work all the time or no job could be so menial as to be perennially assigned to one.  It taught us that we were co-equal in everything, from the “drudgery” of dish washing to the “importance” of mimeographing. 

Makibaka rode on the crest of student activism where mainstream politics meant exposing the three evils of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism that plague the country.  Like other activist groups, we were heatedly engaged in exposing the bases of our national oppression and exploitation.  No marches and rallies on big issues spared us, and our organizing work among women in various schools were annexed to building a strong base of women who toed the national democratic line. 

However, controversy hounded Makibaka from the day it was born.  Women’s liberation was thought of as a western conception that drove a divisive wedge among the activist ranks.  Makibaka was besieged by many self-appointed ideologues who outrightly questioned the basis of its existence.  They pointed out that women’s issues were not “priorities,” that these were “deflective” and “distractive” and had to be “subsumed,” “sublimated” or made “secondary” to the “official line.”  These words were bandied around and were dropped glumly mostly by leading male comrades who were seriously toying with the idea of abolishing Makibaka without even consulting its members.

In a way, all the talk pushed us in the defensive and drove us at our wit’s end. We were definitely not going to hand it to them even if we were groping for our rebuttal statements.  The neophytes in us grappled for ready-made answers.  We tried to learn fast by wading through a wide array of reading materials that came from foreign sources.  Our knowledge of the women question was initially something we had to articulate straight from the books but which we could not as yet connect with our lives and experiences.

The mimeographed materials that circulated around were mostly of two divergent kind.  On the one end were the thick maze of feminist literature from the United States.  On the other end were the revolutionary Chinese and Vietnamese models.  We straddled between a too feminist or a too revolutionary orientation.  The feminist excesses of our western counterparts even made its way through our language.  We would accuse our male comrades of “male chauvinism” at the slightest provocation while they would bounce back by chiding us of being “anti-male.”  We floated automatic slogans for the voice that should have come from the depths of our authentic experience.  Also, there was a definite juvenile exuberance in the way we dropped jargons that were the “in” thing as in the way we would hang around sporting the masa look.  The masa look  is  where you tried to appear unkempt and disheveled, wore oversized polo shirts or ran holes in your maong pants or rubber shoes.

There were, of course, Engel’s Origin of the Family and Lenin’s Women Question
which were standard discussion fare.  Much as these two interesting pieces of writings gave us a lot of strength and solid theoretical base for formulating our own ideas, they were too far removed from the present context to really make a dent.  As for the Chinese and Vietnamese women fighters, their heroism were the stuff our dreams were hitched on but not everyone had the fibers to push their feminism to such extremes.  Our most beloved and highly esteemed Lorena Barros (and the likes of her) still remains a shining example of an ideal woman who continues to haunt us and rock the ground from under our feet.

Looking at it another way, our early brand of feminism had banked too much on the premise that there is something wrong when one tries to dichotomize between women’s issues and national issues as if this is the way one must proceed, if at all.  As if it were a choice between two extremes of thought and one ought to lay down the line as to which should take precedence over what.  People often speak of “issues” when they talk of feminism like prostitution, abortion, the right to vote and the like.  No wonder discussions often bogged down or stood still because the distinction should not be posited at all.

Being an all-women’s group was undoubtedly a unique experience that made more dent in our consciousness than everything that were said.  The fact that women could make decisions by themselves, could decide on courses of action without male intervention were never driven home to us till then.  Here we all were, in the middle of the great issues and we had to sharpen our tools in political analysis if we were to be effective.   There was no room for trivial, small talk nor for skirting the issues with petty discussions on peripheral issues because the situation would not warrant such.  It was often said that women are too embroiled in their emotions and they lack the faculty for relentless, objective and rigorous analyzing that men possess by virtue of the unbridled freedom that early training and upbringing had instilled in them.

Now you may not agree with that but joining Makibaka had tapped the dormant powers in us.  We were reconciled to the analytical, intellectual, and active side of us which would not have surfaced as starkly had there been males to do the thinking and deciding for us.  It was indeed the politics of the times that pulled us out of our shells but it was our unique position of being an all-women group that made us profoundly aware of the need to transcend our weaknesses and limitations if we were to apply ourselves to the demands of the struggle.

Being together had bound us in ways that went beyond politicking.  We had always felt this visceral unity where you share the same resentments against the impositions on the use of your body and brain, you felt the same growing up pain from awkward adolescence to the verge of womanhood, the same ambivalence towards “emotions” and “needs” and “relationships.”  Women’s sensibilities and range of experiences are quite different from men and one could never do away with them under the cloak of political expediency.  They are there, imbedded in us, whether we wish to speak about them or not.  The layers of cultural subjugation, are a difficult thing to erase, one that needed a constancy of effort, a sustained, consistent everyday self-searching and renewal until you could chip away inch by inch, block by block the feelings of inferiorities and insufficiencies drilled through a lifetime.

Actually, the realization that we were already engaged in a living application of the women question only occurred to us many years later after we had left Makibaka.  At that time, because of the many national issues that assailed us and kept us on our toes every minute of the day we were sort of prevented from really confronting our problems as women. Or perhaps we deliberately kept them under wraps, tucked under our HQ beds because we were not supposed to be bothered by them.

Blame it perhaps on our youth and inexperience, but always and always, relationships or to put it bluntly, heart affairs assaulted us and rocked the political equilibrium that we tried so hard to maintain.  It gripped the very center of our being and diffused the abundant energy which we tried so hard to harness for others.  We were saddled by them because we were always trying  to balance relationships, trying to put them in the proper perspective.  Emotions, however, had no place in the political scheme of things and one was always reminded that too many people in Tondo or Sapang Palay were dying of hunger so how dare were we to become so narrowly focused in our personal problems.

One leading feminist once said that if emotional lives are shared collectively then they become a cultural experience.  If this is true, then perhaps women should not find excuses for their feelings but work at them towards mastery.  They are barriers to our liberation and one must confront rather than evade them.  To strike hard at them would be to increase the weapons of self-discovery and self-understanding that we need for tackling the larger political issues that should be our foremost concern.

With this note, the Makibaka experience could be vindicated after all.

by Salome Ronquillo
May-August l984, Diliman Review, pp. 51-53

The emergence of several women’s organizations after the Aquino assassination makes me reminisce proudly, yet sadly, over MAKIBAKA (Malayang Kilusan Ng Bagong Kababaihan).  The new organizations of women can learn a few lessons from the experiences of Makibaka, said to be the pioneer in the women’s liberation movement or feminist movement in the Philippines.  Makibaka was, indeed, the first Philippine organization to raise the issue of women’s liberation, creating a stir in the media and among the male population of the country.  The organization earned a good mileage of publicity because of its novelty, though not all of it was good.  Sometimes the organization was derided and chided not only by the Establishment but also by so-called comrades in the national democratic movement where it chose to belong.

Singular honor, however, goes to Makibaka for putting the issue of women’s liberation in the “proper context” - that is, by linking the issue to the people’s struggle against the three “isms.”  Makibaka  proclaimed that the semi-feudal character of Philippine society subjugated the women to the men, moulded the women into the shy and conservative Maria Clara, and defined her function primarily as child-bearers and housekeepers; while the semi-colonial nature of the society gave rise to the commercialization of sex and made women the playthings of men.  Ergo, women can only liberate themselves by joining the struggle for nationalism and democracy.  It was a credible though much simple theory which basically answered the question of how to involve women in the people’s struggle and the proper place of a women’s movement in the history that is being made.  Further tinkering on the theory led to assertions by ideologues that women are neither a class like the workers, peasants, etc., not a sector like the students or be referred to as a special group like the cultural minorities.   With this we did not argue, as long as women oppression  and exploitation are recognized as existing .  Women cut through classes and sectors so there are women landlords as there are women peasants, women capitalists as there are women workers (note:  care should be taken not to base a woman’s class status on the class membership of the husband alone.)  But as members of the female sex they have special problems and those belonging to the exploited class suffer double exploitation as members of their  class and of their sex.

As the women’s movement became accepted, more studies and discussions were conducted on the Woman Question.   Research, mostly informal and undertaken by concerned individuals and not by groups and institutions, tried to dig deeper into the problem.  Engels’ works particularly on the origin of the family and state began to be cited as this brought the roots of women exploitation and oppression farther into history, tracing it to the period when private property evolved.  One writer-researcher even went farther, tracing the problem to the difference between the male and the female.  This thinking was obviously influenced by the western press which propagated the wrong notion that women working for their liberation want to be superior to or be the clones of the male specie.  (Albeit there is a small, radical group in the West which rejects all female roles including childbearing.)

These attempts to clarify the women question led to a more beclouded understanding of the issue, although discussions which they triggered were invigorating.   For one, they forced the Makibaka  members to fortify their stand with concrete examples drawn from their experiences in working with women in different classes.  Articles by Makibaka  members including those in the magazine the organization published contained these summing up.

Since the women’s movement in the Philippines was still very young and data on earlier women’s groups were wanting in the kind of information needed, attention was turned to the experience of women in the revolutionary struggle in China and Vietnam.  But Makibaka  did not undertake an organized research on the women’s movement in the two countries, preferring instead to draw inspiration from the bravery of women in those struggles.  (This was also good since the Makibaka  members developed the attitude that if those women could do it, they also could).  Perhaps, after all Makibaka was not the proper organization to conduct such a study since it was deep into organizational and political work.

Makibaka  involved its members in militant mass actions and mobilized politicized women students, workers and professionals.  Its members were at the forefront of all MDP (Movement for a Democratic Philippines) sponsored activities - rallies everywhere, strikes at every corner, community work, etc.  There activities tempered the Makibaka  activists and created “models” for Filipino women in the struggle. Makibaka  contributed the likes of Maria Lorena Barros who fought for and gave her life to the cause she believed in.

Members of Makibaka  believed that they realized their full potential in a purely women organization.  They learned to handle jobs traditionally reserved for men like marshaling  during demonstrations, nailing placards, painting streamers, operating the mimeograph machine, operation dikit, and many more.  They also experienced one time or another, speaking before a rally or symposium, writing a manifesto or managing a chapter.  They felt their contribution to the organization  and were proud of it. 

It was not therefore unexpected that Makibaka  members would come to the rescue of their organization whenever it was threatened by not-so-serious male chauvinists who simply loved to taunt them and the more serious chauvinists who wanted to dissolve the organization (their slogan was “there is no need for a separate women’s organization, much more, movement”).  The charge of “feminism” (for wanting to have a women’s movement and for raising women issues) was a plague which the members feared.  Their leaders walked on a tightrope, forever balancing women issues and national issues, fearful of falling  to the ground.

The plague made Makibaka  neglect important issues and organizational work.  There was not much to differentiate the work of Makibaka  from the work of student/youth organizations, causing some observers to think that Makibaka  was the women’s arm of a youth organization.  For one thing, Makibaka  concentrated  its mobilization and organizational efforts in schools and communities where the youth organizations moved and as a result drew only young women into the organization.  Housewives and mothers,  particularly the wives of workers and the women in urban poor communities who comprise the majority of women population in the cities, should have been the targets of Makibaka.  They were not attracted to the organization either because they felt that it did not meet their needs or they did not fit it.  A Mothers Corps, composed of mothers of Makibaka members and mothers of other activists, was organized within Makibaka but they were not fully integrated into the organization and the corps became mere support group.  The value of the help extended by the Mother’s Corps only shows the untapped potential of housewives and mothers.

Makibaka was aware of the obstacles (housework and male authority) preventing housewives and mothers from joining or getting involved in community and national affairs.  It attempted to set up day care centers in urban poor communities to ease the constraints and managed to actually set up two.  The first one, in Leveriza, was opened in l971 and Makibaka was not prepared for it.  (It was sponsored by a Concon candidate whose wife became an honorary member.  The opportunity was there so Makibaka grabbed it.)  The experience, however, provided many lessons and gave Makibaka the correct orientation for such projects, so that when it opened the second one in Tondo, Makibaka already knew that the community should be involved in the project and in the responsibility of taking care of the children.  In Tondo, the parents helped in the construction of the classroom and the maintenance and operation of the center. 

Another activity which benefitted mothers in urban poor communities was the mother’s class conducted together with a nurses’ group, the MASANA (Makabayang Samahan ng mga Narses).  The mothers’ class taught the mothers modern and scientific child care practices.  The class could also have been effective in promoting breast-feeding and the use of acupuncture and herbal medicines.

Among the issues Makibaka raised as a women’s organization were the irrelevance of beauty contests, the commercialization of sex, and the irrelevance of the ten best dressed women’s list.  It issued statements on the pill and family planning, prostitution and high prices.  But the activity  which landed Makibaka in the newspapers’ front page was the picket against the Binibining Pilipinas coronation night at the Araneta Coliseum.  It was the first time that event was picketed.  The event was again picketed in l972 with formes Miss International Gemma Cruz Araneta leading the picketers.  This time, three international beauty queens had joined the activist movement turning their backs on the world of glamor.  On the other hand, a photo taken at the picket of the ten best-dressed women proclamation night won the Panorama photographer the photojounalism award for that year.

These were just some of the possible activities that could be undertaken and some of the issues that could be raised by a women’s organizations.  Makibaka initiated the moves towards this direction but because of the fear of being criticized as a feminist, the organization relegated such to “more pressing” and broader issues and activities.

The pronouncement that women issues should only be secondary to national issues weakened and eventually killed the growing women’s movement in the Philippines.  Makibaka could have expanded the movement through alliance work with other women’s organizations and sectoral groups.  It could have propagated women issues more widely.  It could have catered to the immediate needs of women to enable them to participate in affairs outside the confines of the home.

In the early ‘70s, Makibaka was the women’s movement and the women’s movement was Makibaka.  So that when martial law was declared and Makibaka was disbanded, a vacuum was created.  There was no organization that was left to speak for women’s liberation.   And although there were women groups created, there was no movement which worked for the liberation of women.  Those were critical years and women issues were very low in priorities.

Fortunately, individual women who were personally committed to the cause began to fill in the vacuum Makibaka left.  The church workers carried the crusade.  After many years of working with women, they have realized the need for a genuine women’s movement that will encompass all progressive classes and sectors.

The task now is to unite existing women’s organizations behind certain principles and on women issues and to rally as many women as possible behind the alliance. 

The Makibaka experience can serve as the starting point of the revitalized women’s movement.  Let us turn nostalgia into an intelligent assessment of the experience and deepen Makibaka’s contribution to the women’s movement in the Philippines.

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