Women in the Precolonial Philippines

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Three Filipina in white short-sleeved blouses and long skirt, beaded head ornaments and neck pieces, and armbands.

Philippine history is replete with stories of great men who have shown heroism and excelled in various fields of knowledge. Likewise, the country is also endowed with great women who proved to the world that they have made a difference. This fact holds true even during precolonial times.

Women enjoyed relative freedom in precolonial society. They had rights, held property, conducted business, and had a public life. Colonialism stripped Filipino women of their position. They were expected to remain within the home and only concern themselves with housework and raising children. The ideal woman was a "Maria Clara" in the mold of Jose Rizal's tragic heroine from Noli Me Tangere -- meek and self-effacing. But despite this, many women showed the strong will and determination that would allow them to go beyond social constraints and move on equal footing with men.

Contents

Rights and privileges

A typical Batalan (washing area) where women and their children take a bath.

Philippine precolonial society was egalitarian in many aspects, with women enjoying the same privileges, rights, and opportunities as did men.

Family life

Unlike in some other cultures where the birth of a girl was seen as less auspicious if not downright undesirable, a baby girl was as welcome as a boy. When she was of marrying age, a dowry would be given to her family by the groom as compensation for her family's loss –- an amount agreed upon according to their means. The groom would give presents for the bride's family, and would even do some services (called paninilbihan) for a given period. The bride did not lose her name after marriage. Among the Tagalogs, if a woman was from a distinguished family, her husband usually took her name. For instance, the man would be referred to as, “the husband of Trining” or “the husband of Nita.”

Divorce was allowed and was usually due to infertility, infidelity, failure to fulfill familial obligations, and the like. In the event of divorce, if the wife was at fault, her family was obliged to return the dowry; but if the husband was at fault, he lost his rights to the dowry. The couple would get equal custody of their children.

Sexuality and virginity

Virginity was of little value, and women were not overly protected. Filipino wives enjoyed freedom in making decisions for the family, and as such were not confined solely to domestic affairs like having a baby. Precolonial women, especially those settled along the shore, did not like to give birth many times; they perceived it as being like pigs giving birth to huge litters of young. Because of this, they practiced abortion whenever the couple reached their desired number of children, as there was no concept of birth control then.

Labor and property

Three Filipina farmers, clothed in simple farming attire with large round traditional hats, are standing and sitting on a mound of their produce in sacks.

Labor and inheritance were divided equally among legitimate female and male children, and unwed mothers still had a chance of getting a good marriage. Wives were not slaves, and there was no concept of conjugal property, thus, properties brought to marriage remained his or her own. In the case of divorce, landholdings and properties acquired after marriage were divided equally, and the guilty party was even asked to pay fines.

In most cases, women were the chiefs of their families' livelihood. In fact, formal contracts were done in the presence of a woman -– a woman's signature was enough to make a transaction valid. Precolonial Filipinas were not merely watching over their clans' economy, but were the ones who were actually improving their finances. They even engaged in agriculture and trade with Chinese merchants, and engaged in weaving and pottery-making.

Politics and governance

Precolonial women were not barred from acquiring high ranks in society, specifically in political affairs. Even in popular legends –- which have basis in historical fact –- women were regarded highly. Notable precolonial women in this field were the legendary Lubluban, known as the first lawgiver who effectively addressed concerns in ritual practices, inheritance and properties; Princess Urduja of Pangasinan, who, according to legend, knew Asian culture and languages, and led an army of skilled women; and Queen Sima who was believed to be one of the rulers of Cotabato in the 17th century and who maintained peace and prosperity in the region.

Gender was not an issue in terms of leadership succession. When the tribal chief died, the first child would automatically assume leadership. Women could even hold pacts, act as representatives to agreements, and punish their tribal members. These were the same responsibilities as male tribal chiefs.

Religious activities

In the role of a babaylan, women were active participants in important events in society – birth, wedding, death, planting, harvesting, and the like. They acted as healers, midwives or religious practitioners who had contact with the spirit world. In cases where the role of a babaylan was assumed by a male, he was dressed like a woman, showing that women were indeed highly respected.

References

Citation

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