Native Filipina Women in the 1980's

Anthropology: The Role of the Pre-Colonial Filipina in the Philippines

Today’s Philippines is supposedly feminism’s golden pot of opportunities. Women taking up powerful positions in politics, gaining commercial success, and so on. Still, even in its “post-colonial” era, Spanish colonization not only lives through our language and culture, but also in the misogyny that Filipina women encounter in such a male-dominated society. Idealogies regarding female inferiority from the colonial period have been passed through Filipino families like heirlooms; difficult to abandon due to their significance. So why have the origins of the pre-colonial Filipina been displaced?

A Babaylan and Native Filipinos in Pre-colonial Philippines
Source: Botong Francisco

Women in the Pre-Colonial Era

The pre-colonial Philippines was nothing short of an Egalitarian society. It was a normal practice in the lives of natives to see one another in equality. Women commonly had important roles in their communities; responsible for decision-making in politics, economics, and more. Sexism was barely a concept due to the values held by native Filipinos, dependent on kinship and respect.

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Source: Gromyko Semper

The Babaylan and Filipino Spirituality

The Babaylan was one of the most notable figures in the early Philippines. They were spiritual leaders with the ability to communicate with the spirit world and acted as mediators between the two environments. Their supernatural abilities were diversified; Babaylan were classified as holy priestesses, healers, and so much more. Most notably, the Babaylan took leadership in divine affairs such as offerings and rituals, as well as aid in safe childbirth. The Babaylan were almost exclusively women, especially elders, but some transvestite men also practiced. Babaylan were equivalent in regard and prestige to Datus (Leaders or Monarchs) and regularly led society in unison, where their powers assisted Datus in combat against enemies. Their contribution to societal functionality is rooted in peace and justice, creating a pleasant balance within their people.

The Pre-Christian beliefs of the Filipinos often revolved around indigenous folk religions that allowed women to lead religious activities. This system believed in the presence of otherworldly beings and possible co-existence of both parties. The Babaylan were amongst the folk healers that came under pre-colonial practices of divinity, connected with nature spirits and deities as a primary source of dependence and worship. 

Pre-Colonial Process of Marriage
Source: Fernando Amorsolo

Courtship and Familial Life

Courtship before the Spaniards display a great contrast from modern Filipino beliefs. Due to the lack of gender roles, women were welcome to instigate courtship. Maiden names were commonly kept, even as Filipinas got married. Sometimes, husbands acquired their wives’ surnames if they were especially distinguished in the community. Taboo topics of today such as divorce were not as demonized and there seemed to be an absence of heavy imposition of purity. Native Filipinos were not pressed on female virginity nor were they intolerable towards premarital sexual relations.

The relationship between husband and wife during the pre-colonial era was true companionship at its core. Instead of one overpowering the other, both parties played significant roles in decisions concerning the family. It was stated that Filipina women had more freedom in their rights in comparison to other East Asian counterparts, inclusive of domestic decisions and formal affairs related to stability. Women of married status were still able to be independent and continued their pre-marital public duties. The husband had no right to interfere in or dominate any of the wife’s property, business, or other individual matters unless given consent to.

A Datu and his companions in the Pre-Spanish Philippines
Source: The Kahimyang Project

Familial Life and Inheritance

Children from the pre-colonial age faced no biased treatment since there was no obvious preference for either a male or female offspring in most regions of the Philippines. The legitimacy of children was a more important factor in comparison to gender. It commonly dictated the portion of inheritance they were permitted to receive. Legitimate children share equal inheritance of property from both maternal and paternal sides, though the quantity of assets set for illegitimate offspring is unclear. 

Families consider each legitimate child equally deserving of education and opportunities, as well as the ability to accumulate wealth. This impartiality is heavily present in Tagalog dialect with gender-neutral terms such as “Anak” (Child) to refer to their children, and other terms such as “Siya” (They) replacing gendered pronouns. 

Although the pre-colonial Philippines was an Egalitarian community, mothers still strongly influenced familial verdicts. This was especially true when naming their children, often given the exclusive right to do so. Additionally, married Filipina women with a family had the authority to pass their inherited property solely to their children. 

Two Mestiza women in the Hispanic Philippines
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Filipina Women Under Hispanic Philippines

The Philippines under Spanish colonization displayed a loss of indigenous culture and systems. A patriarchal society arose as the Spanish dethroned women of their equal status with men, shaping the long-standing inferiority that is still present today. With the Spanish introducing a hierarchical social system, more Filipinos who wished to elevate or maintain their position in the high class began to disown their native roots.

Filipina Mestiza Woman during Spanish Colonization
Source: Preen PH

The Birth of the Mangkukulam and Maria Clara

When the Spaniards began their conquests in the Philippines, the Babaylan were one of the victims of early Christian conversion. Their once esteemed presence transformed into that of dishonor and danger. From healers and spiritual intermediaries, the Babaylan had become the fearful Mangkukulam, or an evil witch. The colonizers felt the religious practices of the Babaylan threatened the success of their primary goal; spreading the Christian faith across the colonized archipelago. Religious affairs were no longer majorly led by women, as Spanish friars began promoting the presence of priests in churches. At this point, the Babaylan began utilizing Catholic figures for their practices to continue whilst living in a colonized world. 

Simultaneously, another version of the Filipina was beginning to take the frontlines away from the natives. A Filipina birthed from the fear of the colonizers; Maria Clara. The Maria Clara is an archetype studied by Filipinos through the work of Jose Rizal, representative of women that lived throughout the colonial Philippines.

Spanish officials found the strength of pre-colonial women to be fascinating, yet at the same time, alarming. Unlike the Babaylan, Maria Clara presented a new essence for Filipinas to live up to. Become subordinates of their male counterparts, dress according to Catholic standards, and engage in traditional femininity. This stripped women of their previous power in politics, government, stability, and even the significance they played in their own families. Women had taken a fall from being well-respected leaders to simply being wives with domestic duties. Most importantly, Filipina independence was no longer a norm. Where pre-colonial women were permitted to be public figures with their own property, business and affairs, the colonized Filipina was expected to rely on her husband for such “harsh” matters. 

Catholicism and Purity Culture

Native Filipina Women in the 1980's

The spread of Christianity played a large role in the oppression that women faced during this period of time. Spaniards were adamant on spreading their faith, hence the wide scale implementation of Catholic education systems to the native Filipinos. The syllabi of Catholic education imposed patriarchal thinking and distinctly separated the status of men from women. It was evident in the quality of knowledge being received by each gender. Men were able to educate themselves in academia, whereas women were given social lessons to fit into this colonial era.

A newfound emphasis on purity also took over. The Hispanic Philippines was taken under the wing of the Catholic church, where purity, especially that of a woman’s, is crucial. The indifference of natives was discarded and replaced, with female virginity placed on a high pedestal. In fact, the patriarchal nature of the Spanish Catholic regime was blatant when establishing policies that routinely targeted Filipina women as opposed to the less strict impositions towards men. While women were supposed to be pristine and loyal in their romantic life, men were able to engage in more dynamic entanglements without facing much hostility.

An upper-class family in the Hispanic Philippines
Source: National Library of Spain /

Differences between higher and lower class Filipinas

Many of the native practices of Filipinos were abandoned by members of the upper-class. In the colonial Philippines, those with better socioeconomic conditions held wealth in forms of education and property ownership. The working class consisted of those who owned no land and worked as farmers or fishermen, and in between were small estate owners with minor schooling.

The disparities between socioeconomic classes also created a large gap in the mindset of the Filipino people within these brackets. Education during the colonial period was highly Christianized and taught wealthy Filipinos the ways of their colonizers. Some of this knowledge may have seeped through the hierarchy to penetrate the middle class, though the poor seemed to have no access whatsoever, hence retaining a majority of the mythicism attached to the pre-colonial approach.

The Upper Elites

Prominent patriarchal influence was mostly present within the higher class. This may be due to their access to Spanish Catholic education, as well as their proximity to the workings of colonization. The conversion to Spanish perspectives was also imperative for individuals to elevate their societal status. 

Upper-class Filipina women no longer initiated courtships, instead men were to take the upper-hand. In a similar fashion, husbands were now allowed to meddle in the wife’s private ventures, such as acquiring or disowning her property. Pre-colonial women could pass inheritance to their children with no stake for her husband, but the colonial Filipina was powerless to that will in Hispanic Philippines. Additionally, male preference for an offspring began to arise. This caused inequality in treatment between a son and a daughter; the latter having sparse access to familial wealth. Paternal jurisdiction in the family held the most weight, if not all. Women and their daughters had become subjects instead of partners, despite all the domesticity expected of her.  

The Working Class

At the other end of the spectrum, members of the lower-class continued to consider women as partners or equals of men. Despite the previous glory of the Philippine egalitarian society being dismantled in elite urban areas, men and women of the working class preserved the native path. Concerns of the family regarding economic prosperity and domestic welfare were shouldered both by the man and woman. Fragments of a matriarchal arrangement were also found in relationships between men and women. 

During the colonial age, Filipina women were distinctly trade-savvy, even more so than their male counterparts. Their diligence allowed them to support their families through active participation in trade and business. Men were able to provide for immediate necessities, though it was typically women who insinuated profitable tactics towards enriching the social and economic standing of their family.

Modern Filipina Women Art
Source: Gab Gutierrez

The Filipina of Today and Tomorrow

The American colonization claimed to have brought upon liberalism and paved a path for Filipina women to access freedom and equal opportunity. In contrast to the conservative Spaniards, this may have been a saving grace. However, the pre-colonial Filipinas were centuries more advanced in all aspects of life. The American colonial period merely brought a small handful of native rights towards the surface, awakening the prominent figures Filipinas once were in Philippine society. Industrialization and the establishment of a nationwide education system also aided in propelling women to the field of work, alongside men. 

Today, the Maria Clara trope no longer captures the entire essence of being a modern Filipina. Simply because women are not constricted to a singular archetype which encompasses coinciding traits. Instead, women are multifaceted, especially today’s Filipina women. They are resilient, taking their diverse roles across family to work and their personal passions with vigour. They are gentle yet ardent. The birth of a new Filipina will no longer be dependent on choosing between being a powerful leader or a reserved partner; two extremes that can meet in the middle and naturally co-exist. Imposing one over the other defeats the purpose of freedom and a woman’s choice. 

Filipina women have created spaces to thrive in the post-colonial Philippines; business, politics, entertainment and so forth. Even so, patriarchal beliefs still live among us, even in contemporary times. The space for Filipinas to work and to live as their own public figures still comes at a cost — longstanding antagonism. Perhaps today’s progressive movements will begin to inch closer to the lives of native Philippine women, though humanity will have much to unlearn.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

With the roots of anthropology stemming from the European colonization regime, the study and comparison of the native Filipina and the Filipina known in history books today is particularly relevant. The study of colonialism and its aftermath on previously colonized people has a wide range within the realm of cultural anthropology. In colonial times, the anthropologist played a critical role. Acting like an outlander alongside colonizers with an objective outlook on the life of constrained citizens in a new age. Even from an impersonal perspective, many works of literature refer to the relationship between colonialism, imperialism and anthropology as tight-knit, with anthropology being “complicit”.

Studies on the pre-colonial Filipinas, alongside the women in the Spanish Philippines, can act as references when analyzing modern-day functions of the contemporary Philippines. Anthropologists will find a new role, perhaps disintegrating from their subservient one in historical times. Furthermore, modern scholars are able to create awareness of a highly neglected topic. By highlighting the relationship between the state of the present-day Philippines and the previous actions of colonizers, other sectors of study can be thoroughly revised.


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