What ‘sisterhood’ is like in a Filipino sorority

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Despite reports of violence and corruption hounding sororities, a familial culture helps sustain their growth. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — After I passed Ateneo’s law school exams sometime in late 2009, I received a text message inviting me to a dinner with some of its female students. I went, and was greeted by a group of women who were part of the sorority called The Women of Aleitheia.

For the next four years, the sorority — an independent organization founded in 2006 — was where I met law students I otherwise would not have mingled with. They helped me with my studies and provided moral support when I needed it, all in the name of sisterhood. Within the sorority, I had a ninang and subsequently, an inaanak. Along with the daily law school grind and late-night drills for moot court competitions, my membership in the sorority significantly affected my experience as a lawyer-in-training.

Sororities and fraternities are a visible presence in a legal community marked by its affiliations. They are a distinct feature of law schools, even though they also exist in universities and other post-graduate schools (such as medicine). While those who join fraternities or sororities generally remain in the minority, many of their members have made an undeniable impact in Philippine society.

The older sororities and fraternities include in their membership powerful government officials (House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez is a member of the Fraternal Order of Utopia when he studied law in Ateneo; Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is an alumnae of Portia Sorority) or leaders of private institutions (Aegis Juris member Nilo Divina is dean of the University of Sto. Tomas and managing partner of a top law firm). Some become policy makers who must juggle a complex set of interests when making decisions that influence the lives of many.

Within these organizations is a culture of its own kind: not quite friendship nor the bond between orgmates, but something more familial. Despite reports of violence and corruption hounding fraternities and sororities, it is this familial culture that helps sustain their growth.

 

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“I had no intention to join a sorority. Like any typical student, I would just like to focus on my studies and hopefully pass my subjects,” says Regine Callueng, a second year student from Ateneo Law School, and a member of Regina Iustitiae, the oldest existing sorority in the university, established in 2005. “The thing that really compelled me was more than just getting assistance in academics. It's an avenue for me to socialize, and it creates an environment for me to improve. It’s personal growth. Another thing is, more than just the sisterhood, I felt like I'm in a family.”

Sororities7.jpg Members of Regina Iustitiae Sorority. From left: Nami Salud, Regine Callueng, Bianca Soriano, and Frances Siapno. Photo by CZAR KRISTOFF

Regina Iustitiae aspires “to forward women empowerment in the law school and to create an avenue for women advocates to achieve their full potential.” Every year, the sorority holds an anniversary event, bazaars, and culminates the year through its Bar operations, where it provides comprehensive assistance to its bar candidates during the grueling Bar exams.

Callueng sits in a coffee shop with her other sisters, most of whom wear their sorority jackets lined with purple (one of its official colors), displaying their official emblem: a shield adorned with a crown and a balance. Regina Iustitiae translates to “queen of justice.”

“I guess what depicts women empowerment to us is being an independent sorority,” says Callueng. “We make our own decisions. We make our own call with regard to these activities. Kami rin ‘yung bahala  to raise funds for that event. We don’t depend on any organizations giving us funds,” she says.

Regina Iustitiae and The Women of Aleitheia are sororities whose members are mostly students of Ateneo Law School — though not recognized by the institution. Two independent fraternities also exist in the same status: Aquila Legis Fraternity and the Fraternal Order of Utopia. In San Beda College, sororities and fraternities are likewise not recognized, but exist: examples include Sororitas Reginae Juris, Lex Leonum Fraternitas, and Lex Talionis Fraternitas (President Rodrigo Duterte is affiliated with the latter).

Sororities6.jpg Regine Callueng, when she joined Regina Iustitiae, asked permission from her parents. “I was open naman to [my parents], and Regina naman assured me that there's no violence involved,” she says. Photo by CZAR KRISTOFF

On the other hand, in the University of the Philippines (UP) — where some of the largest and arguably most influential fraternities and sororities were born — these organizations are registered under the university system. Among others, they differ in terms of membership. The Portia Sorority describes itself as the “only duly-recognized law-based sorority in the UP College of Law.” The UP Delta Lambda Sigma Sorority, on the other hand, is a university-wide sorority, recognized by UP’s Office of Student Affairs, and whose members include undergraduates from different courses.

In many ways, these Greek letter organizations are akin to typical organizations. They recruit members, have a hierarchy of leadership, and organize events. “One of the kinds of activities close to our heart is the community-based activities, social programs,” says Trixie Peralta, a third year law student at UP, and member of UP Delta Lambda Sigma Sorority. An example is “Big Sis for a Day,” where sorority members help out with orphanages and similar groups. In “Manggagawa for a Day,” sisters “take over the job of ates and kuyas sa kiosks, they get a day off but they still get their keep,” adds Peralta.

“Violence doesn’t happen just in fraternities or sororities, there is also violence in organizations. For the longest time, there have been many victims of FRVs [fraternity-related violence] or ORVs [organization-related violence]." — Magnolia del Rosario

 

UP Delta Lambda Sigma Sorority was established in 1946, after World War II. “It was a time when women weren’t accorded the same rights we enjoy today. It's something we still value up until now,” says Marie Catherine Alcantara, a fifth year UP Law student, and the sorority’s Grand Archon.

Alcantara sits with her five other sisters, all dressed in white, in a lounge in the third floor of UP’s Bocobo Hall. The sorority where she belongs celebrates its 72nd year this year. “The founders thought they needed to create an organization of women who would create change in the nation, kasi the country was just picking up from the ruins of war during that time,” says Alcantara. “That's how we also still view the sorority.”

 

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While women empowerment seems to be the common impetus compelling members to join and be part of sororities, talks of violence in initiation rites — often taboo topics in the communities where these organizations exist — remain a source of legitimate concern. Fraternities and sororities have been heavily criticized, their existence questioned, for allowing violence and fostering a culture of patronage.

Most recently, the sorority Regina Legis et Juris has been implicated in the death of Horacio Castillo III, a freshman law student at the University of Sto. Tomas (UST). What was supposed to be a ‘welcoming party’ by the Aegis Juris Fraternity for Castillo turned out to be a hazing rite. Regina Legis et Juris is the sister organization of Aegis Juris, and both are based in UST.

Those who join sororities are mindful of the sordid history of these organizations. “When I was oriented, two things na sinabi ko na 'di ako papayag pumasok sa sorority if there will be, some of it in the process, is ‘yung physicals [i.e. violence], and second is public humiliation,” says Magnolia del Rosario, a fifth year college student and member of UP Delta Lambda Sigma Sorority. “I heard with other sororities may physicals and public humiliation … But then they guaranteed me na wala dun sa process.”

“We make it a point, when we orient invites to join, na part of it is having a parent's orientation,” adds Alcantara. “It’s our way of showing that if you do decide to let your daughter join the sorority, how she is when you gave her to us, ganun din namin siya ibabalik sa parents. So it's an assurance na wala kaming ginagawang anything against the law.”

 

Callueng, when she joined Regina Iustitiae, asked permission from her parents. “I was open naman to [my parents], and Regina naman assured me that there's no violence involved,” she says. As a current member, she addresses potential members by saying “if your parents want to ask us questions, we can answer them.”

“I'd like to believe that generally, violence doesn’t occur in sororities, simply because women are the ones who are part of these sororities,” says Alcantara. “When you compare it to fraternities, they have this culture of machismo embedded, where they have to display some sort of strength and power to be able to identify themselves, kung nasaan sila within society.”

IMG_0378.JPG Members of the UP Delta Lambda Sigma Sorority. From left: Trini Santiago, Rica Gamboa, Cathy Alcantara, Trixie Peralta, and Magnolia del Rosario. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

But strength and power need not come in the form of violence or currying favor, for which fraternities and its like-minded organizations have been known for. “It's time we divert our interpretation of what strength and power is in this society,” says Alcantara. “For women for example, you find strength in a mother who just gave birth and is raising the child on her own. You find strength in a sister who is the breadwinner of a family and she also pursues the career path she chose for herself.”

With regard to any undue advantage supposedly provided by being in a sorority, Callueng says merit still takes priority over sisterhood. “It's always about individual performance of the person … I cannot deny naman that it's really rampant in the government ... corruption, the system,” she says. “But then, kunwari ako ‘yung sis, tapos ire-recruit lang kita kasi sis kita, pero hindi ka naman magaling or fit sa trabaho, siguro mahihiya rin ako.”

“It's time we divert our interpretation of what strength and power is in this society." — Cathy Alcantara

“Inevitable na may connections since the sorority has been there for 72 years,” says Alcantara of UP Delta Lambda Sigma. “Ang dami nang Deltans talaga. For me it's just a perk, an added perk. I don't see it as something na hinanap ko when I joined the sorority.”

 

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I joined my sorority, The Women of Aleitheia, largely because the idea of belonging to one appealed to me. But the idea of using membership as leverage or advantage in the future was the last thing on my mind. In retrospect, one need not join a sorority or fraternity to succeed in law school or in any other endeavor.

In fact, Callueng says joining a sorority is not necessary. Joining ultimately depends on a person’s preferences. “As for me, parang law school is hard enough. Sabi ko na, I think I need a support system, kahit ‘di man siya school related, meron akong go-to person where I could share my problems.”

“Most people have the misconception that you need to join a sorority or fraternity to survive or pass law school, but I don't think that's the value of joining a sorority,” says Peralta. “It's not so you can make it, or you can survive, it's for you to enhance your experience in law school.”

IMG_0452.JPG “I'd like to believe that generally, violence doesn’t occur in sororities, simply because women are the ones who are part of these sororities,” says Cathy Alcantara, Grand Archon of UP Delta Lambda Sigma Sorority. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Every year, the Office of the Bar Confidant accepts thousands of applications for aspiring lawyers, which means a constant flow of students making their way to law schools. Sororities and fraternities, along with other organizations, search for new faces to welcome to their fold. Some of them — those who choose not to tread the path of violence and corrupt traditions —  fight a battle against public perception.

“It's a public perception talaga, na once you say it's a fraternity, ‘yung counterpart niya agad ‘yung sorority,” says Alcantara. “It's supposed to be incumbent upon the sororities to make that distinction na hindi, wala talaga siyang violence, we don't engage in such barbaric acts within the society.”

Peralta sees it as an opportunity to prove that sororities have value beyond what public perception dictates, through their activities and community involvement. “It's a challenge not just to [us] but to sororities and fraternities, to show our relevance and place in society,” she says. “Not through violence, but through our contributions to the university and country.”

Del Rosario, who plans to go to law school after graduating, calls for institutions to be more rigid in imposing standards for sororities and fraternities. “Violence doesn’t happen just in fraternities or sororities, there is also violence in organizations. For the longest time, there have been many victims of FRVs [fraternity-related violence]s or ORVs [organization-related violence],” she says.

Dapat sana, last na si Horacio.”