Deradicalization and the Defeat of the Feminist Movement: The Case of the Philippines

Abstract / Excerpt:

Past paradigms associate radical politics with waging a revolution that is class-based, armed, thorough-going. In the Philippines this was represented by the communist-led nationalist democratic liberation movement of the previous decades. After the fall of the socialist regimes and the Split of the local leftist movement in the early 1990s, radical politics has become anyone's claim. The national democrats, for instance, are now judged by it's critics as stuck in the past, reduced from vanguard to rear guard of radical politics (Weekly 2001, 259). This viewpoint goes with the current civil society movement that debunks statism and class struggle. On the other hand, staunch proponents of revolutionary change regard civil society engagement as reformist, a cooperation with neo-liberalism.

So much harder to speak on today is feminism. While many women identify with feminist thoughts and live out in their personal lives what could be construed as feminist practice, a greater number are reluctant to be identified with feminism. Others outrightly reject the label. This can be attributed to an absence of a cohesive mass movement that engages the support and interests of a women and an attendant lack of feminist theorizing to inform everyday politics.

So much harder to speak on today is feminism. While many women identify with feminist thoughts and live out in their personal lives what could be construed as feminist practice, a greater number are reluctant to be identified with feminism. Others outrightly reject the label. This can be attributed to an absensce of a cohesive mass movement that engages the support and interests of a women and an attendant lack of feminist theorizing to inform everyday politics.

Full Text

Past paradigms associate radical politics with waging a revolution that is class-based, armed, thorough-going. In the Philippines this was represented by the communist-led nationalist democratic liberation movement of the previous decades. After the fall of the socialist regimes and the split of the local leftist movement in the early 1990s, radical politics has become anyone's claim. The national democrats, for instance, are now judged by its critics as stuck in the past, reduced from vanguard to rear guard of radical politics (Weekley 2001, 259). This viewpoint goes with the current civil society movement that debunks statism and class struggle. On the other hand, staunch proponents of revolutionary change regard civil society engagement as reformist, a cooptation with neo-liberalism.

So much harder to speak on today is feminism. While many women identify with feminist thoughts and live out in their personal lives what could be construed as feminist practice, a greater number are reluctant to be identified with feminism. Others outrightly reject the label. This can be attributed to an absence of a cohesive mass movement that engages the support and interests of women and an attendant lack of feminist theorizing to inform everyday politics.

A difficult question to ask in discussing feminist politics in the Philippines is whether the feminists of the 1980s and early 1990s fought (and were defeated) as feminists or as the women contingent of the national democratic forces. This paper argues for the latter and reiterates that: There is no longer a feminist movement to enlist oneself to in the Philippines today. The feminist and proto-feminist consciousness of the 1980s has been superseded by other competing cultures and ideologies that invaded in the aftermath of the 1990s Upheaval. Those who choose to carry on a radical position stand to be extinguished.

Feminism and the National Democratic Struggle

Women organizing in the national democratic revolution had been the task of the Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan (MAKIBAKA - Independent Movement of New Women). From a Women's Bureau of the Kabataang Makabayan (Patriotic Youth) in 1969, the national democratic organization's women department grew into the MAKIBAKA in 1970, which later became the nationwide organization of women, mostly youth and students. In 1972 it changed its name to Makabayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan (Patriotic Movement of New Women) to emphasize the national democratic intent of the organization. During the Martial Law years MAKIBAKA activists were deployed all over the country to build a basic alliance of women across all sectors of society, specifically the workers, peasants and lower petty bourgeoisie to support the goals of the revolution. MAKIBAKA women became the progenitors of the national democratic feminism that always laid great stress on the need to unify. One of the oldest calls of this tradition is to combat wrong ideas that work against the solid unity of the oppressed class.

Many women writers trace the beginnings of the women's movement in the Philippines to the anti-colonial struggle of 1890 when the revolutionary movement Katipunan produced heroes like Gregoria de Jesus, Teresa Magbanua, Melchora Aquino and Gabriela Silang (Pagaduan 1993, 106). While there had been various movements pushing for the advancement of women's rights since 1891 when the right to vote was first waged by middle-class women, in contemporary time, the women's movement was strongest from the mid-1980s to the beginning of the 1990s. Feminist critic Delia Aguilar (1993, 94) ascribed this to the declining influence of the Left, as well as the macho stance of the revolutionary movement at its height. At the time autonomous2 organizations were sprouting and GABRIELA, then claiming around a 100-member national federation of women-organizations, was leading the mobilizations of grassroots women and making national issues such as the U.S. bases, human rights, foreign debt, IMF-WB, etc. women's issues. GABRIELA held sole claim to pursuing a "Third World feminism" that assigns gender oppression to problems of poverty and underdevelopment. Guided as it was by the national democratic project, GABRIELA sought to bridge head-on the inherently tense relations between women's distinct concerns and pressing national interests (Aguilar 1993, 92).

As a federation of women organizations, GABRIELA has always been criticized as primarily a national democratic formation, rather than a feminist organization. As a movement, it had no autonomous agenda but anchored on the program of the national democrats. That GABRIELA's mass organizations dispersed following the momentary demise of the national democratic agenda in 1993 must lend credence to this. While there were independent women's movements that surfaced in the 1980s, these did not have GABRIELA's number and mass character. These groups were easily dismissed by the national democrats as Western-influenced bourgeois feminist formations.

In the Philippines, women's training in political struggles has always been in support of broader movements for freedom and democracy. The most intensive and extensive training they've had was in the national democratic struggle of the 1970s and 1980s. As enlistees to this cause, their first commitment was for the advancement of the revolution. As Aguilar asserts, "tied as it was to the orthodox Marxism guiding Party praxis," feminism did not find a friendly home in the national democratic revolution (and in MAKIBAKA in particular) (Aguilar 1993, 92). The national democratic strut e of the previous decades always subordinated all other axes of oppression (gender, ethnicity, environment) to class strut: e. If a feminist consciousness did not fully develop in the women's movement a good part of the blame can probably be laid on this continuing alliance with the male-dominated leadership of the national democratic movement (Angeles, cited in Aguilar 1993, 133).

Despite its hostility to feminism, the culture of radicalism fomented by the national democratic revolution brought on tremendous changes in the lives of people who were involved in struggle. Relationships were restructured as the needs of the revolution came first. Comradeship was replacing other bonds based on bourgeois institutions, and the nuclear-patriarchal family, although still regarded even by revolutionists as a site for reproduction (and women seen as bearers of sons who would carry on the struggle) was being complemented by the bigger family - the collective.; A proletarian worldview was being developed, denigrating middle-class values and institutions and condemning bourgeois consumerism and other MNC-friendly tendencies.

Retrenchments in the Camp: From Feminism to Genderism

The "post-revolutionary era" following the defeat of the national democratic program in the 1990s was a period of vigorous search for alternatives to past paradigms. While activists looked for "interstices and spaces within the political system to advance the progressive agenda" (FOPA 1993, 7), the Ramos government was hastening the country's integration into the world market. Development aid poured into the country, a big bulk of which was re-channeled through non-government organizations. Activists were getting "new money" to do development work with and a whole new set of NGO jargon developed along with the new formations and relationships. With the passing into law of the Local Government Code of 1991, non-government organizations and people's organizations were given more power in development policies. Gender projects likewise proliferated, redeploying feminist energies into new programs. This signaled the absorption of feminist-activists into aid agency structures.

With adequate support from funding agencies abroad, the women enterprise branched out into several directions: peace advocacy (gender and peace), eco-feminism (gender and environment), children's rights, women spirituality, gender and micro-enterprise development, VAW (violence against women), and so on. This broadening of perspective worked two ways: it opened up more avenues to coalesce and work with other groups in important social issues; on the other hand, it further diffused if not finished off the unconsolidated feminist agenda.

This shift in political practice fell in line along the reform and renewal program being pursued by the broader progressive movement that now encouraged heterogeneity and pluralism (via participatory politics, legislation, community-based self-help projects, micro-enterprises, etc.) in development practice — in lieu of hegemonic social transformation projects. There was adequate financial support coming in this direction as traditional funding agencies were themselves reacting to what they felt to be a mistake they made in the past: backing up organizations that sought to destabilize government while incapable of responding to popular sentiments and not directly serving the socio-economic needs of the poor.

With no overarching national or class struggle to hem them in, women projects expanded, from women studies to socio-economic initiatives. Basic services likewise improved as more health centers, reproductive health clinics, and crisis centers were put up. Women desks, committees and GAD (gender and development)5 focal points were installed in both government and non-government offices - a landmark in the women's struggle welcomed by many, but bothered some. Feminist critic Aguilar (1993, 94) expressed concern saying while it boded well for the women's movement, it could also take an inauspicious turn of creating a (feminist) bureaucracy dependent on dole-outs from foreign sources.

As a strategy in development practice, the gender framework (also called the GAD framework) moves away from a feminist stance that challenges existing social relations (gender inequality, for one) to an accommodationist (gender) approach that tries to live within a given social order. A feminist approach is basically a political demand, while GAD is essentially an economic strategy which seeks to find relevance within the economic-development regime of the neo-liberalist era (1990s onward). In other words, GAD works within the interstices of the dominant capitalist system.

As what has been forwarded earlier, there is no longer a feminist movement in the Philippines. What we have now is a scattering of women's causes and projects that serve women's welfare without really hurting free-market and the neo-liberal regime on one hand, and male hegemony on the other hand. A real bane that many well-funded gender projects do is siphon off the political energies and resources of the women's movement, contributing to a culture of indifference that is so hostile to radical politics.

In the branching out into multifarious gender interests, feminism thus becomes just one of the older twigs one need not hold on to. It is not surprising that not a few women activists now express queasiness over being called a "feminist," others even preferring to call themselves "genderist." Feminism is so associated with the confrontational politics of the 1980s and is seen as "anti-male," ergo, has no place in a supposedly all-inclusive, enlightened, gender-sensitized civil society movement of the 1990s and 2000s.

Getting Rich on the Home Front?

The dismissal of the class struggle of the previous decades following the triumph of elite politics and the rise of the civil society movement in the 1990s likewise brought changes in the lifestyles of erstwhile proletarian practitioners. For one, the collective life withered away, as bourgeois institutions of old (the nuclear family, the conservative church, government) gained new ascendancy in the lives of former rebel-activists. For another, the pouring in of development money likewise created an NGO bureaucracy living under the employ of development aid, producing in turn a "new middle class" composed of activists formerly trained in the proletarian ethic of "simple living and hard struggle." Joining them are young university graduates with varying political persuasions and vague ideas about previous social transformation projects.

The 1990s was also the time when people were trying to live down the upheaval of the previous decade. The anti-fascist struggle that claimed lives of family and friends; the discovery of the mass purges; all the aftermath of a failed revolution gave people a sense of disillusionment and a desire to withdraw from "bloody" political action. Self-transformation projects and spirituality quests, deemed to be what the last transformation project lacked, were drawing a number of ex-activists. There was also a sense among many ex-activists that the "post-conflict" climate (post-adversarial politics) might be their one opportunity to compensate for "lost time" to go back to a forsaken career, or to children and family. Guilt-tripped over past parental or filial neglect, the home gained new importance. Housing plans, educational plans, health insurance plans and car plans became "basics" as family life normalized. Under this arguably more peaceful and more affluent regime, a new (political) attitude has developed: one that attunes to, even embraces, capitalist modernity. Proletarian austerity is thus exiled, superseded by middle-class consumerism.

The Hegemony of the Family and Feminist Politics

In the Philippines, the family is decidedly a very powerful institution. The family is also the Catholic Right's strongest argument against feminist politics. In its fight against Free Choice, for instance, it portrays the recently passed House Bill 4110 (Reproductive Health Care Act, which legalizes all forms of contraception, including post-abortion care) as the gravest threat in present time to the "sanctity of the Filipino family." While "Third World feminism" has been always concerned with family welfare, reproductive rights and sexuality remain a thorny area that directly put it in direct collision course with the Church. The Catholic Right, in particular, shows great aversion to what it calls the "sexual revolution" ushered in by the invasion of Western products and information base via advances in telecommunications technology.

In the past, the Catholic Church had ironically been GABRIELAs moral ally, particularly in campaigns that had to do with sexual exploitation of women. Though each employed a different language,' both the women groups and the Catholic Church are for the elimination of prostitution. The present dominance of the Catholic Right and the conservative view that looks at feminism or the idea of female independence as a toxic substance from the West has so much to do with present-day retreats and disavowals in the women's front: There is no longer a coherent and strong voice — and a mass movement— to challenge misogyny and patriarchy. Besides, the broadening civil society movement draws forces from the multiplicity of voices from various social classes (that includes the religious and the middle-class based and conservative civic groups) that if one wanted to productively pursue advancement of equally worthy causes (e.g., anti-corporate, anti-globalization, peace, environmental protection, etc.), she has to be careful in treading the alliance ground. Feminism being a less attractive fight (since it also fights at home and fights men and bishops), some dissemblance and a little compliance had to be resorted to by practicing women advocates.

Conclusion

In the Philippines, a flowering of people's initiatives and independent formations occurred following the crumbling of the once solid Left (due to strategic and tactical mistakes) that used to control and define the social transformation project. Abetted by a series of political reforms on the side of governments, e.g., decentralization with the enactment of the Local Government Code, and a system of representation that accommodated in Congress erstwhile state opponents and critics; the absorption of Left personalities in the Cabinet and strategic government agencies; and the pouring in of money in official development aid that has transferred billions of development money into the hands of non-government organizations; all combined to change the face of dissent, what is now called deradicalization. The defeat of adversarial radical politics in favor of an accommodationist, even cooptative, reformist politics. Taking place in an expanding job market and a flow of cheaper consumer goods (thanks both to trade liberalization), not to mention a climate of peace and greater "political freedom" (barring class politics) a better life seems to be "on sale." The erstwhile activists (a good number of them, anyway), having left class politics and the trenches and having now joined the ranks of the middle class are inevitably trapped into reproducing a way of life that maintains middle-classness. Needless to say, they contribute to the creation of a neoconservative political climate.

For the feminist movement that always rallied behind the once national democratic cause, the defeat of the once Solid Left in the 1990s led to political disarticulation, disorganized the women forces, and demobilized them for a while. With the loss of the Left hegemony and with the emergence of pluralist politics (as encouraged by the State and adequately funded by Churches and governments abroad eager to sponsor political democratization and economic development in the country), new opportunities have been opened for their specific agenda to be heard. However, the sponsorship of gender by development organizations (and the concomitant resources allotted it), and its adoption by government (and the policies and laws enacted to support it) while helping to boost the women's chances to be accommodated in the male structures of development discourse and processes, also co-opted them. Feminist dissent has been reined in - chastened and placated into complacency and compliance by the laws and institutions that are responsible for their subordination, in the first place. So that even as these women formations struggle to advance their gender interests, their own (feminist) energies get diffused in supposedly more encompassing projects: in the anti-corporate and anti-globalization movement; and in more "compassionate" projects (read as not anti-male): in the peace movement, in the gender and environment movement, in children's rights, in welfare projects and socio-economic endeavors that do not carry a specifically feminist agenda. All these to reconcile women with, rather than question and challenge, traditional roles that spell their oppression. As feminist causes get institutionalized and the women's movement relocated to the academe, government offices and other such safe places, adversarial politics and the equality project it seeks to install are demolished. For anyone who insists to stand by this oppositional politics, she stands to lose.

Info
Source JournalTambara
Journal VolumeTambara Vol. 19
AuthorsSheilfa B. Alojamiento
Page Count2
Place of PublicationDavao City
Original Publication DateDecember 1, 2002
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