The sexism of traditional courtship

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Despite the evolution of modern romance, courtship still exists today, oftentimes retaining dated and sexist attitudes of the past. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On Valentine’s Day, amid the throngs of people holding flowers, chocolates, and heart-shaped balloons is the manliligaw, armed with his own set of carefully chosen gifts to be given to the girl he is wooing. Sometimes he carries an extra gift for her parents too. Outside of the holiday, the manliligaw pursues similar efforts, all in the hope of “getting the girl.”

The tradition of panliligaw or courtship dates back to colonial times, when casual dating was virtually non-existent, and relationships were had for the sole purpose of getting married and starting a family; back then, most people had no other option.

Ligawan would happen in stages. First, the proposal, where the man asks the woman for permission to court her. Next, the man showers her with gifts and acts of service, like fetching her from work or school. Somewhere along the way, the man must court the woman’s family as well, bring them pasalubong whenever he visits. An old saying goes, “To court a woman is to court her family.” If the woman’s parents refused to give their blessing, it was a sign to move on.

Curiously, despite the evolution of modern romance, courtship still exists today, oftentimes retaining dated and sexist attitudes of the past.

Most Filipino teens’ first forays into love begin with courtship, often starting out with panunukso or teasing from friends and classmates. When you’re a teenage boy maneuvering through the murkiness of self-discovery, figuring out how to express your affections can be confusing and terrifying. The rules of ligawan provided a clear structure to operate within. But for girls, the rules didn’t provide many options, for the expectations were always that the role of the manliligaw belonged to the man, while the nililigawan belonged to the woman.

The dalagang Pilipina was not to express her affections, as to do so was to cast herself as malandi or flirty, she had to play pakipot and exercise restraint — ideas that don’t just minimize options for women, but shame them for taking control of their bodies and sexuality.

This dates back to the Spanish era, when modesty and conservatism, a result of patriarchal Catholic rule, were the norm. Women were told to be mahinhin (shy, well-mannered) in order to be respectable enough to garner the interest of men. The dalagang Pilipina was not to express her affections, as to do so was to cast herself as malandi or flirty, a trait considered undesirable in women, and even as the woman was being pursued, she had to play pakipot (hard to get) and exercise restraint — ideas that don’t just minimize options for women, but shame them for taking control of their bodies and sexuality.

The opposite was to be expected of men, who were commended for confidence, assertiveness, and persistence. To be labeled as torpe was something of a disgrace, and to finally get the girl was akin to winning a prize of sorts. But celebrating this attitude blurs the fine line between persistence and harassment, and teaches boys not to take “no” for an answer. As the #MeToo movement has shown us, the prevalence of harassment and sexual assault today is overwhelming. In fact, in the Philippines, a survey shows that three in five women have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lives.

The concept of having to court the woman’s family, with pasalubongs and acts of service, is also revealing of how women were, and continue to be, perceived — as property owned by the family that can be exchanged for goods, as a prize to be won.

At its core, ligawan requires an adherence to gender-specific roles and expectations. To go against them in the days of conservatism was taboo. But today, as we continue to challenge these roles and expectations and strive for equal treatment, is there any merit left to abiding by the rules of courtship?