Thursday, July 05, 2007

Excising Cinderella, Maria Clara and Inang Maria From Our Minds

Recognising that 'reality' is socially constructed between you and me, and recognising the need for a different approach (i.e. the primacy of ideas over the material), let us turn the question of the Cinderella mentality on its head.

(Re)presentations of women in our culture and the reality of womanhood in our culture seem to be incongruent. I have said previously that we refer to our country in feminine terms. She is our Inang Bayan, used and abused for centuries. In high school, weren't we taught that Maria Clara is Rizal's classic interpretation of the nation? Due to the helplessness of her situation, she must also exhibit Inang Maria's forbearance and faith amidst all that suffering.

From a dominated position, it is perfectly normal to paint the nation in these terms. In fact, it is desirable to do so. From the indignity of occupation and ideological inferiority, dignity is reclaimed from a position of victimisation and oppression. These representations then alternately reinforce helplessness and passivity in face of adversity. But are they necessarily reflective of the events of the past few decades?

Going back to migration, the dominant interpretation of this phenomenon has been usually negative. I am also guilty of this. We see people leaving as a loss of resources - in particular, human capital. While this is true, the trade off is in the augmented income of families with migrant breadwinners.

In migration literature today, migrants have been re-named 'Agents of economic development.' Far from the arguably patronising term "Bagong Bayani," I like this new term much better. It does not connote sacrifice and self-abnegation. It connotes choice and agency. The question now lies in fulfilling the promise of economic development not only through smart investment of remittances, but also through transfer of skills, know-how and values acquired abroad.

An overwhelming majority of migrants today are women. Of contract workers who left in 2005 for example, they comprise 72%. Contrary to Cinderella waiting to be rescued, she has taken the initiative to seek increased income abroad.

Resty O. asks, where do our local girls, specifically those I mentioned husband-hunting on the internet, get their Cinderella mentality? This is an interesting question, given that certain aspects of our pre-colonial notions of gender and sexuality seem to have survived Spanish Christianity's male-female binaries. Let me explain.

I believe the distinction of male and female is reflected in the morphology of Spanish in particular, and Latin-based languages in general. Embedded in the words, and consequently embedded in the ideas, are masculine and feminine things and concepts. Our local languages have no gender and are therefore much more egalitarian. This perhaps reflects the more egalitarian relationship of men and women in pre-colonial times? There is no ello or ella, no he or she, only siya. There is no man or woman, only tao. We are more open to those with different sexual persuasions. While admittedly there is still discrimination, I have yet to hear of homosexuals beaten to death. Because the dividing line between male and female is blurred, we are more open, more tolerant to difference. This is a part of culture we should embrace and be proud of.

In the past decades (if not since forever) our women are much more visible in the public sphere. I reported a few months back that we top the survey on countries with the most number of women in senior managerial positions. The newly elected House of Representative has the highest number of women in history. We have had not one but two female heads of states since we started voting for our executives again. Nobody can dispute GMA has balls, misplaced they may be. That country from which we model our democracy, the United States, has been electing presidents since 1776, and they have yet to choose a woman to lead them.

Let us go back then, to the Specters of Cinderella, Maria Clara and the forbearing Inang Maria haunting our nation. These (re)presentations are a product of a particular context in our history. They are a product of colonial enslavement and ideological inferiority. While those days are long over, these specters persist because they have been embedded deep in our culture. This explains the incongruence of these mentalities with the actual events of recent years. They are remnants of our past which have refused to go away. I say it is time to finally be rid of them. As we transition to a new period in our history let us shine the light where shadows of insecurity linger. Let us not shy away from our weaknesses. Instead let us recognise the reasons for our weaknesses so that we may turn them into strengths. Only then can we banish these outmoded ghosts of the past, as they inhibit the social construction of a mindset that befits our future.

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