How Catholic nuns fostered the feminist movement in the Philippines

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The feminist nuns remain as icons of Philippine feminism and revolt, best known for fighting alongside the marginalized. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2008, Filipino-American author and University of New South Wales professor Mina Roces wrote an article which discussed how Filipino Catholic nuns greatly contributed to the feminist movement during the 1970s. The article, titled as “The Filipino Catholic as a Transnational Feminist,” first appeared in an issue of Women’s History Review, which was published by United Kingdom-based company Taylor & Francis. The study focused on a group of select Filipino Catholic nuns — Virginia Fabella, Mary John Mananzan, Amelia Vasquez, Soledad Perpiñan, Emelina Villegas, and Rosario Battung.

Roces introduced the research with a reality check: “The idea of Catholic nuns as feminists is largely neglected in women’s studies,” she said. Functioning under a religious dogma that can be generally viewed as patriarchal, there is a sense of dissonance when discussing feminism in the context of religiosity. This makes Roces’ findings all the more interesting: how exactly did women of the Church play formidable roles in advancing socialist feminism in the Philippines? Three key events during the 1970s were instrumental to the emergence of the feminist nuns.

Filipino nuns began to live with the poor and witnessed their plight firsthand.

Throughout the tenure of the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II from 1962 to 1965, the Catholic Church sought to position itself as “the church of the poor.” As a result, religious individuals and affiliates of the Church, especially those in the Third World, were encouraged to live among the poor. This integration to the masses informed select nuns about the plight of the marginalized and the growing socioeconomic divide among Filipinos, an experience that other middle-class, non-religious activists at the time were unable to accomplish.

Three nuns were based in Cavite and focused their efforts in the province. Villegas worked with local sales girls and women workers in export processing factories. Fabella helped women of the urban poor in Cavite. While Battung worked with labor unions in Cavite, she also reached out to the urban poor in Tondo. On the other hand, Vasquez immersed in a small community in Montalban, Rizal. Perpiñan was in contact with sex workers from Metro Manila and provincial areas. Mananzan, then serving as the Chairperson of GABRIELA, worked alongside the urban poor, peasants, and indigenous women.

“Contact with grassroots women enabled them to see women’s victimisation and women’s oppression firsthand. Listening to women’s stories introduced them to the world of Filipino machismo, and patriarchy in everyday Filipino culture, while their own marginalisation in the Church hierarchy was a constant reminder of the patriarchy of the Catholic Church,” Roces wrote in a New Naratif adaptation of the research.

Nuns received feminist education overseas, which equipped them with theory to back up their advocacy.

Nuns were also required to go overseas in completion of their formation training through mission work. A certain percentage of these nuns pursued higher academic qualifications, although barred from ordination. This opportunity, alongside their membership to international religious congregations in touch with global networks, granted them the privilege of becoming transnational citizens and provided them with a feminist education that emphasized on Western feminist theology and Third World theology.

Both events laid the groundwork for what Roces called the “evolution” of the Filipino nuns, introducing them to the practice of socialist feminism. According to the author, their choice and capacity to live with the poor distinguished them from other middle-class activists and “earned them the credentials to speak for [lower-class] Filipinas,” while the feminist education and networks from overseas offered them a means to be heard. “In sum, their shifting subject positions were what made them effective political activists,” Roces noted.

This academic background in grassroots feminism and theology also allowed them to openly critique and deconstruct what Mananzan has termed “the religious roots of women’s oppression,” which Roces refers to as the nuns’ major contribution to feminist theorising of the Filipina. The nuns understand how Christianity’s definition of the “feminine” serves as a crucial cause for women’s inclination to “embrace victimhood.”

“Nuns who were continuously approached by lower-class women as ‘advisers’ heard many stories of women embracing victimisation because it meant that like Jesus Christ, they were given a cross which they had to carry all the way to Calvary. Suffering then became a metaphor for one’s experience of Calvary; a prerequisite for winning redemption in the next life,” Roces wrote.

The feminist nuns made it a mission to “demythologise suffering” and destroy the “martyr complex” by introducing socialist feminism to Filipina women and “reinventing” them as militant activists.

The martial law period during Marcos’ term called for political activism, prompting the nuns to take action.

The political crisis brought about by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law in 1972 and the numerous human rights violations it entailed, gave the select Catholic feminist nuns to put their theories into action. Roces called the martial law period a “baptism of fire” for the religious political activists, as they bore witness to the “victimisation of the disempowered class under the brutal force of the military.”

The nuns stood with laborers in barricade striking, although illegal, as they demanded for better wages, fought alongside indigenous peoples for ancestral lands, and defended the urban poor in the face of threats to demolish their makeshift homes. They documented the struggle of political prisoners and agitated for the release of detainees through Task Force Detainees. They conducted “conscientisation” seminars that informed religious individuals of the experiences of martial law victims. The nuns also had active participation in the People Power Revolution, where they sought to protect civilians “with rosaries and their ‘moral power’” from the armed soldiers attacking the public.

“The most visible metaphor of the nun who moved through spaces was the practice of wearing the habit. While a number of feminist nuns no longer wore the habit, there were a number who lived life in and out of the habit,” Roces wrote, noting that the nuns interviewed for her study all fall under the latter type. Typically, habits should be worn whenever nuns need to present the collective identity of the Catholic Church. However, considering the country’s high regard for religious personalities, the nuns claimed that the habit provided them with a “symbolic capital,” and served as proof to their “moral power” as women of the Church. They capitalized on this during public demonstrations with the masses by wearing the habits as “costumes” show their advantage against Marcos and “credibility as defenders of social justice.”

When the martial law was put to an end in 1986, restoring democratic institutions in the country, the nuns continued to forward socialist feminism by founding grassroots women’s organizations and facilitating women’s studies and “gender sensitizing” courses.

Soon after the People Power Revolution, Mananzan co-founded GABRIELA, the transnational alliance of grassroots women’s groups across the country, alongside other women activists and served as the National Chairperson for 18 years. Mananzan also worked in the educational sector and had integrated women’s studies into the curriculum of the Institute of Women’s Studies in 1985. The Institute, also called Nursia, also ran a three-day seminar for grassroots women six times in a year. It is also the first institution to ever design a syllabus on women’s studies in the Philippine context, and the first to publish a collection of essays on “the woman question” — a term often used by Mananzan to refer to women’s issues. Nursia went on to hold conferences and run a radio program that sought to demystify the taboos surrounding women’s welfare and rights.

Perpiñan continued to manage the Third World Movement Against the Exploitation of Women, which she founded six years prior and was initially created to call out military prostitution and Japanese sex tourism in the Philippines, later branching out to Nairobi and Bangkok. The organization provided counseling and training for alternative employment to sex workers through “drop-in centers” called “Belens,” based in Quezon City, Pasay, Subic, Cebu, Batangas, General Santos, and Angeles City.

While barred from ordination, Roces wrote that the nuns would not have chosen to be ordained should they have been given the opportunity. They believe that their current position in the Catholic Church, although in “unequal standing” with priests, allowed them the freedom to keep on pursuing their advocacy. Today, these feminist nuns remain as icons of Philippine feminism and revolt, best known for fighting alongside the marginalized.