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New breed of woman rising

The struggle stays the same, but the tactics are getting creative

  • Sophie Lizares Bodegon, Manila
  • Philippines
  • March 8, 2013
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Leading the 50.8 million entries listed by Google under “Asian women” are pages and pages of links to “Stunning and Devoted Thai Women Seek Love,” “Exotic Filipino Beauty,” “Beautiful and Lonely Filipinas,” or “Sexy Asian Babes.” 

Refine the search with “Asian women in news” and you get 39.3 million choices topped by such sites as “Asian Women Reveal Secrets to Keeping a Man Happy” or one advocating that “enlightened European men need to rescue Asian women from their oppression by offering them the chance to join liberated European/Euro-American society as the sex mates of white men.”  

One would think that nothing has changed: women are pleasure commodities to be sold. If there is anything new, it seems that it’s that women are easily more available on order globally and that the algorithms -- the hidden programs -- that run Google are male and racist.

Yet only recently in the news was One Billion Rising, a worldwide dance event protesting over violence against women. Spurred by well publicized and horrific reports on assaults against women, crowds came out in massive demonstrations in the wake of the death of Djoti, the New Delhi physiotherapy student, whose brutal rape drew fresh attention to how caste and corruption interact with sexism. 

The religious and cultural underpinnings of these attacks were illustrated by the Taliban’s failed execution of Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old girl, who promoted education for girls in Pakistan.

The persistence of trafficking of women and girls was a highlight at the Oscars when Anne Hathaway received her award for playing the prostituted woman Fantine in Les Miserables.

Even if they get there, women can be lonely voices in the upper echelons of male-dominated authoritarian societies.

Early this year, Sri Lanka's parliament voted to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, who turned down a bill granting greater financial and political power to the president’s youngest brother, Basil, the economic development minister.

The impeachment has been seen by human rights groups as a step back in terms of judicial independence in a country careening down a path similar to Cambodia’s “Year Zero.”

The biggest victory for Asian women may well be the passage in the Philippines of the Reproductive Health Law after a 14-year battle primarily against the influential Catholic hierarchy.  

The law mandates the Philippine government to provide universal access to reproductive health care services, contraceptives and information, primarily to the poor.  The Church has since refused to back down and so far bishops from six Philippine dioceses have actively campaigned against pro-RH law senators and parties running in national elections due in May.

Religious and cultural barriers however continue to be a hurdle for women. At the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women conference, the Vatican closed ranks with Iran and other religious states to resist efforts to raise global standards to prevent violence against women and girls.

The Vatican is said to oppose references to rape by a woman’s husband or partner, and is seeking to wipe out language in a final statement that says religion, custom or tradition must not be used as an excuse to avoid a government’s obligation to eliminate violence.

The forms of women’s struggle have changed and are shaping women’s imaginations. While strident protests continue, more playful ways such as One Billion Rising are taking place.

To counter mainstream patriarchal culture, women including those in Church circles are reviving the shamanism of organic Asian spiritual traditions, calling each other babaylan (Filipino healer and wise woman), diwata (goddess), and guro (teacher), and stressing self-nurture and communitarian values.

Women’s spread around the world as migrants and refugees has fertilized a “glocal” culture where local and global interactions are interwoven simultaneously, and time is collapsed in the way traditional cosmologies unify time and space.

It is a new breed of women the Catholic Church faces as cardinals meet in the conclave to elect a new pope. They are well connected, articulate, formed by at least 100 years of battle for their rightful place.

They have staunch allies for women's ordination in the ecumenical world in churches that recognize that “women and men are called of God to preach the Gospel, to lead the people in worship, to care for the flock, to share in government and to serve those in need in the world."

And they have men on their side. International Women’s Day is becoming the new Valentine’s Day where “evolved” men write love poetry to their partners in the struggle. Roland Simbulan, a Filipino political scientist, writes:

I love a woman

Who fights for other women

To liberate them from oppression

And gender inequality.

I  love a woman

Who fights for the empowerment

Of the forsaken working people

Who toil on our land and factories.

I love a woman

Whose conviction is

Like a flame in her heart

Of passion and zest for life.

Oh, I love a woman

Who will not just be a mother

But Mother

To the future we are building.

Sophia Lizares Bodegon is a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) and currently works in lay and continuing education

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