• Former Philippine President Corazon Aquino. (Getty Images )
Filipinos grow up in matriarchal networks, where women make decisions about most things including money.
By
Fatima Measham

18 Apr 2019 - 8:44 AM  UPDATED 18 Apr 2019 - 1:13 PM

There’s one image that I always remember from primary school. Gabriela Silang on a horse, holding up a large blade or bolo.

It was in a school textbook and a standard representation of the first woman who led an armed struggle against Spanish colonisers in the Philippines in 1763. I can still call to mind how she looked on the page: dark hair loose, face fierce, her magnificent horse rearing up. I must have been no more than 10 years old.

Gabriela offered another way of being to other women from Filipino culture. She was in charge in a different way to Melchora Aquino, an elder who hid rebels and provided them with supplies.

She had grit unlike the mythical diwata (forest nymph) Maria Makiling, who vanished after putting a curse on two men who had killed her chosen suitor. She sacrificed in a different sense to Maria Clara, the tragic maiden in Noli Me Tangere, the 1887 Filipino novel that shed light on colonial abuses.

Filipino girls are conditioned not only to be ambitious but to excel. 

I'm not sure what a schoolgirl was supposed to make of all these women. But it kept me from thinking that there was one way to be a woman, or one way to be strong. It rings true in my own life, and in the accounts of friends.

Filipinos grow up in matriarchal networks, where women make decisions about most things including money. In the traditional Filipino Catholic wedding ceremony, the groom gives the bride 13 coins known as arras, which symbolise his promise to provide for her and their family. In reality, it is better interpreted as ceding control.

According to a community worker friend in the southern island of Mindanao, it is not unusual for husbands to happily 'surrender' their ATM cards or cash wage to their wives. Neither is it unusual for husbands to share in cooking or childcare. My dad was more likely than my mum to pick up a mop, head to the markets or take us to school. He fussed over us when we were sick.

Things like housework are seldom delineated along gender. In parts of Philippine society that cannot afford to pay for domestic help, everyone simply pitches in. I've seen this dynamic in public schools in the provinces as well, where students are expected to help clean the rooms and grounds. You wouldn't be able to tell 'boy' tasks from 'girl' tasks. There is no difference.

One of them, a guy working in tech in Australia was unsettled by how common male managers are, after having being used to women in senior positions. 

Even in school-based military reserve training (which was dropped from high school and made optional at university, is now being revived as mandatory, to some criticism), girls were as likely to become officers as boys. Most of the commissioned officers when I was at school were girls – some of whom were also part of our beloved dance troupe.

I became first-sergeant, making up for being barely 150 cm tall by having a spectacular voice in the field. I would have made Gabriela proud. 

Filipino girls are conditioned not only to be ambitious but to excel. The school I attended was founded by a woman who ran it for many years. My paediatrician was also woman, and so intimidating that when she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said 'doctor'.

Even the president at the time was a woman. Corazon Aquino not only helped unseat the man who had ruled for more than two decades, she outlasted several coup-attempts while president, ensured a democratic succession of power, then retired from politics.

The prevailing sense among Filipino female friends was that we were allowed to pursue whatever we wanted, and that we achieved much on merit. This is we expectation we carry when we move overseas, which means that we tend to struggle with customs and structures that hold women back.

The prevailing sense among Filipino female friends was that we were allowed to pursue whatever we wanted, and that we achieved much on merit. 

Friends tell me that they only learned about the gender pay gap after they migrated from the Philippines. One of them, a guy working in tech in Australia was unsettled by how common male managers are, after having being used to women in senior positions. 

In recent years, our cultural conditioning is being severely tested closer to home. The crude machismo of President Rodrigo Duterte is not only a matter of style; under his government, women who dissent have been detained, removed from office, and charged with tax offences.

Yes there are challenges for gender equality. The latest Global Gender Gap report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Philippines ranks 8 overall among 149 countries. Australia is at 46.

On gender-equal education the Philippines ranks 1 with 23 other countries, including Australia, but it pulls ahead on the rest. On economic participation, remuneration and advancement: Philippines – 14, Australia – 46. On life expectancy and sex-at-birth ratios: Philippines – 42, Australia – 103. On gender ratios in parliamentary positions and ministerial office: Philippines – 13, Australia – 49.

What it means is that Australians of Filipino background have a lot to contribute to conversation and decisions about gender equality. In my culture it has always been possible for women to nurture, lead, excel and be independent all at once.

I'm not sure what exactly makes this work but it gives me hope.

Now to find me a horse.

Fatima Measham is a Melbourne writer. You can follow Fatima on Twitter @foomeister.

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