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The A/P/A FEMINIST LEGACY

[Full Text of Presentation at the "Sisters In Solidarity" hosted by the NYU Asian Pacific American Coalition at the Asian/Pacific/America Institute of New York University, “Sisters In Solidarity”, March 28, 2017]

This is a difficult topic, Asia being huge and very varied;  Pacific being equally huge and varied;  and the Americas just as huge and varied.  So I will lay down some generalizations, about our legacy on this continent and, if there’s time, proceed to laying down some specificities.

We speak of this legacy as hyphenated or with slash lines – demarcating the dialectics of the evolution of our feminism, the unity and struggle of its diverse parts and the contradictions it contains.  Our feminism birthed itself not only from our current social and material existence but also within the social and subjective existence of the cultures of our ancestors – which are markedly different from  European culture.

This is one of the reasons why we in AF3IRM NYC speak of a Five Continents Feminism or a Five Culture Feminism.  We understand that we have more than one history and more than veltanschauung, as we interact, confront and deal with existence in this place called the United States so replete with divisions.

It is this which renders distinct the A/P/A legacy:  that it draws and integrates, combat and affirms aspects of thousand-year civilizations, as opposed to the history of Caucasians which broke the model of European feudal tradition in a matter of a couple of hundred years.  We deal with the legacy of millennia-old civilizations.  It is also what makes pushing forward our feminism slightly more difficult – because embedded in that evolution is the question of determining what in our inherited traditions give us strength and what become weaknesses in the contemporary context.

One issue which bedevils our activism is that of leadership.  We are aware of the many historical events in which women wielded decisive leadership – politically, economically, organizationally – and we have been placed in a situation where female leadership is deemed problematic, as the last elections showed.  For quite a long time, the women’s struggle for liberation was subsumed within the general struggle of our communities for dignity, respect and equal treatment, and for a long time, our sisters suffered in silence gender inequality within our own neighborhoods, and allowed the leadership of our social justice movements to be male-dominated.

In the specific instance of the culture I was heir to – a multi-layered, non-syncretized combination of the indigenous and the colonial – leadership was and remains a complicated issue.  On the one hand, historically females were entitled to hold any power they were capable of wielding:  political, economic, social, even military.  Spirituality was almost the exclusive preserve of females and if a male had a spiritual calling, he/she was required to wear women’s clothing.  On the other hand, Spanish colonialism brought in a heavy-handed macho tradition that stripped women of the archipelago of power, rights and social entitlements – not surprising since a number of the continuing resistance to Spanish power was led by the babaylan (priestess), who likely foresaw the long-term disaster that new gender relations would bring.  On top of that layer is the American influence, which admitted to certain women’s rights – but only if they struggled for them.  In other words, only one of these cultural layers, the bedrock culture, accepted as normal gender equality, even as it accepted the existence of five genders.

The first Filipina to migrate to the US came as a war bride --  and that set the tone for the social perception of women of the Philippines:  family, relationship, service to preserve the continuity of US society.  This was far from the rebel start of the Manila men in Louisiana who jumped ship off a Spanish galleon and established a village by intermarrying with the local women of color.  For the women, immigration was not an act of rebellion nor an act of self-fulfillment but was framed within the family paradigm.  By the 1970s, nurses started to enter the US on temporary work visas;  by the 1980s, the mail order bride system came into full bloom, their catalogs of available women being roughly 70% Filipinas.  “The best wives” became a label for the women of the Philippines.  It wasn’t until the late 1980s that we began the long road to women’s emancipation in our communities.

Partly because of the extreme pressure brought by racism to our communities, many of our activists felt duty-bound to support and protect our male leadership without question.  I remember being in a round table discussion with female Asian American activists and hearing, “we have to support our brothers no matter what…”  It took us several years to formulate a response to that one, “we are sisters to him who is a brother to us;  sisters to her who is a sister to us” – thus demarcating the difference between those who would exploit our womanhood and those who would be our allies in our aipac2 aipac5fight for our emancipation.

The second particular aspect of A/P/A legacy in the feminist movement is simply its continuing solidarity with the ancestral land, many of which were being ravaged by imperialism – US, British, French, Dutch, etc.  This had its benefits and its liabilities, since the continued onslaught by imperialism on the homeland was often partly justified by alleged “barbaric” treatment of women and girls.  We saw this in the Afghanistan invasion.  This call to the defense of the homeland against the death and destruction, as well as pillage, from the imperialist war machine served as a locus of organizing for many A/P/A sisters, even as it precluded critique of the many practices which we are now duty bound to address:  the caste system, the prostitution of poor women, arranged marriages, honor killings, deprivation of education for women, girl brides and so on.

There are these two remarkable things of the A/P/A feminist legacy:  it was intersectional and transnational, from the get up and go.  Our legacy may be diverse, multi-layered, trans-ethnic – but we do know from our history that these two qualities have been with us from the beginning of our gaze upon the landscape of the A/P/A womankind.

Thank you and I hope this presentation contributes to our continuing discourse of what the women’s liberation movement is, should be and will be.  -- #

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