Maria Lorena Barros, founding leader of MAKIBAKA gave her life in combat March 24th 1976-Signalfire
By Rosa C. Mercado; Diliman Review; l986; p. 60-62
Over the past three years or so, feminists of various persuasions have expressed a high degree of interest over MAKIBAKA (Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan). It seemed from their various writings that Makibaka has become a springboard to drive home their ideological and political ideas on the women question. Perhaps it fires their imagination to think that Makibaka has taken the cudgels in this attempt to draw a feminist line despite the odds it encountered. Makibaka has become more of a symbol, so to speak, for women activists to crystallize their crying need for acceptance and recognition.
Whoever coined the word Makibaka would never have known that such an audacious name would go down in history as the forerunner of the women’s liberation movement in the Philippines. It shudders me now to think that such a relatively small band of women could represent an idea far larger than itself, could become more than what it really was, although we did try in our own way to live up to the image of the name.
Credit perhaps should go to the dramatic flair that marked its entry into the national scene. Makibaka was launched during the Bb. Pilipinas Beauty Contest in l970. At that time, beauty contests were enjoying a high degree of popularity and even prestige because Gloria Diaz had just romped off with the Miss Universe crown a year before. From the ideal Maria Clara image of demure beauty and quiet submission, our Filipino women traded off their kimono and saya for the flimsy bathing suit and competed with their legs and faces in a bid to carve a name in a male dominated world. Beauty contests were supposed to be the ideal venue to affirm their womanhood and to rise to national glory and prominence.
Taking cue from the stormy women’s lib in the United States, we picketed the beauty contest and for that novel act, we landed in the front pages of the national dailies not because the press realized the seriousness of our purpose but because we were another form of amusement itself. Here were a bunch of girls taking a potshot at a national pastime, trying to rub the amused crowd the other way. Some members of the press even chafed us saying we were sour graping because we didn’t have the three m’s (maganda, matangkad, mayaman) like the beauty contestants. Nevertheless, we outshouted them with “Down with the commercialization of sex,” “Stop treating women as sex objects.” “Away with the degradation of women” and other jolting slogans.
Joining the picket was for some of us a “thrilling” experience, a kind of “explosion” where all hell broke loose and we felt suddenly transformed. Here we all were, weighed down by years and years of constant drilling from all sources of authority that distorted our perceptions of our real selves. Makibaka unleashed the pent-up energies that were bottled up inside us. It became a rallying point to break away from the traditional cultural mold of a cloying, passive, suffering Filipina and from society-induced crutches like the need to look up to a man or to prepare one’s self mainly in the art of raising a home and family.
After the initial euphoria of self-revelation, we braced ourselves for the enormous tasks ahead. The explosive issues of those times pushed us into frenetic activism that called for solid and real organizing and propaganda work. In a way, we were laboring under the presumptions of too militant a name, MAKIBAKA, an acronym that is synonymous with struggle. Most of us were hardly prepared for the job. We were all so young and somewhat foolish, some were freshly plucked from high school and many were middle-class and convent-bred who didn’t even know how to wash dishes. While it was a greatly accelerated period for learning, knowing, feeling and reading, it was also a stressful time for resolving inner conflicts that squared with our quest for the answers to our growing feminism.
One of the by-products of the political activism in the 70’s was that you practically lived and grew together in the headquarters. Living and growing together said more for us and about us than all our theories on the women question put together. By leading a collective life to pursue political work, we discovered in ourselves those parts which we used to deny or didn’t even know existed because they didn’t fit into the usual stereo-typed image of women. We slept on the pavement of strike areas, went to unheard of places to integrate with people, braved gun-wielding policemen in scab-infested factories, dodged pill boxes at violence marred rallies and were hauled off to police stations in the middle of the night while painting slogans on the street walls. The more we exerted ourselves in the struggle, the more we realized how narrowly circumscribed our lives had been. And to think that we were forbidden before to come home at unholy hours! A lot of the girls had to engage in minor skirmishes and crying sessions with distressed mothers who were always close at heels trying to reclaim their stowaway daughters. Stowing away may appear insignificant, but for some of us, it was a breakthrough in declaring self-independence.
Living together 24 hours under one roof also meant that we had to divide house and office chores equally among ourselves. Fine, but it also meant getting into each other’s nerves because the lazy bones in us were hungry for food but nobody wanted to cook. Or who was going to throw the garbage or tidy up the bathroom? The haggling brought us at the brink of quarrels but also made us aware that nobody could be relegated to kitchen work all the time or no job could be so menial as to be perennially assigned to one. It taught us that we were co-equal in everything, from the “drudgery” of dish washing to the “importance” of mimeographing.
Makibaka rode on the crest of student activism where mainstream politics meant exposing the three evils of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism that plague the country. Like other activist groups, we were heatedly engaged in exposing the bases of our national oppression and exploitation. No marches and rallies on big issues spared us, and our organizing work among women in various schools were annexed to building a strong base of women who toed the national democratic line.
However, controversy hounded Makibaka from the day it was born. Women’s liberation was thought of as a western conception that drove a divisive wedge among the activist ranks. Makibaka was besieged by many self-appointed ideologues who outrightly questioned the basis of its existence. They pointed out that women’s issues were not “priorities,” that these were “deflective” and “distractive” and had to be “subsumed,” “sublimated” or made “secondary” to the “official line.” These words were bandied around and were dropped glumly mostly by leading male comrades who were seriously toying with the idea of abolishing Makibaka without even consulting its members.
In a way, all the talk pushed us in the defensive and drove us at our wit’s end. We were definitely not going to hand it to them even if we were groping for our rebuttal statements. The neophytes in us grappled for ready-made answers. We tried to learn fast by wading through a wide array of reading materials that came from foreign sources. Our knowledge of the women question was initially something we had to articulate straight from the books but which we could not as yet connect with our lives and experiences.
The mimeographed materials that circulated around were mostly of two divergent kind. On the one end were the thick maze of feminist literature from the United States. On the other end were the revolutionary Chinese and Vietnamese models. We straddled between a too feminist or a too revolutionary orientation. The feminist excesses of our western counterparts even made its way through our language. We would accuse our male comrades of “male chauvinism” at the slightest provocation while they would bounce back by chiding us of being “anti-male.” We floated automatic slogans for the voice that should have come from the depths of our authentic experience. Also, there was a definite juvenile exuberance in the way we dropped jargons that were the “in” thing as in the way we would hang around sporting the masa look. The masa look is where you tried to appear unkempt and disheveled, wore oversized polo shirts or ran holes in your maong pants or rubber shoes.
There were, of course, Engel’s Origin of the Family and Lenin’s Women Question which were standard discussion fare. Much as these two interesting pieces of writings gave us a lot of strength and solid theoretical base for formulating our own ideas, they were too far removed from the present context to really make a dent. As for the Chinese and Vietnamese women fighters, their heroism were the stuff our dreams were hitched on but not everyone had the fibers to push their feminism to such extremes. Our most beloved and highly esteemed Lorena Barros (and the likes of her) still remains a shining example of an ideal woman who continues to haunt us and rock the ground from under our feet.
Looking at it another way, our early brand of feminism had banked too much on the premise that there is something wrong when one tries to dichotomize between women’s issues and national issues as if this is the way one must proceed, if at all. As if it were a choice between two extremes of thought and one ought to lay down the line as to which should take precedence over what. People often speak of “issues” when they talk of feminism like prostitution, abortion, the right to vote and the like. No wonder discussions often bogged down or stood still because the distinction should not be posited at all.
Being an all-women’s group was undoubtedly a unique experience that made more dent in our consciousness than everything that were said. The fact that women could make decisions by themselves, could decide on courses of action without male intervention were never driven home to us till then. Here we all were, in the middle of the great issues and we had to sharpen our tools in political analysis if we were to be effective. There was no room for trivial, small talk nor for skirting the issues with petty discussions on peripheral issues because the situation would not warrant such. It was often said that women are too embroiled in their emotions and they lack the faculty for relentless, objective and rigorous analyzing that men possess by virtue of the unbridled freedom that early training and upbringing had instilled in them.
Now you may not agree with that but joining Makibaka had tapped the dormant powers in us. We were reconciled to the analytical, intellectual, and active side of us which would not have surfaced as starkly had there been males to do the thinking and deciding for us. It was indeed the politics of the times that pulled us out of our shells but it was our unique position of being an all-women group that made us profoundly aware of the need to transcend our weaknesses and limitations if we were to apply ourselves to the demands of the struggle.
Being together had bound us in ways that went beyond politicking. We had always felt this visceral unity where you share the same resentments against the impositions on the use of your body and brain, you felt the same growing up pain from awkward adolescence to the verge of womanhood, the same ambivalence towards “emotions” and “needs” and “relationships.” Women’s sensibilities and range of experiences are quite different from men and one could never do away with them under the cloak of political expediency. They are there, imbedded in us, whether we wish to speak about them or not. The layers of cultural subjugation, are a difficult thing to erase, one that needed a constancy of effort, a sustained, consistent everyday self-searching and renewal until you could chip away inch by inch, block by block the feelings of inferiorities and insufficiencies drilled through a lifetime.
Actually, the realization that we were already engaged in a living application of the women question only occurred to us many years later after we had left Makibaka. At that time, because of the many national issues that assailed us and kept us on our toes every minute of the day we were sort of prevented from really confronting our problems as women. Or perhaps we deliberately kept them under wraps, tucked under our HQ beds because we were not supposed to be bothered by them.
Blame it perhaps on our youth and inexperience, but always and always, relationships or to put it bluntly, heart affairs assaulted us and rocked the political equilibrium that we tried so hard to maintain. It gripped the very center of our being and diffused the abundant energy which we tried so hard to harness for others. We were saddled by them because we were always trying to balance relationships, trying to put them in the proper perspective. Emotions, however, had no place in the political scheme of things and one was always reminded that too many people in Tondo or Sapang Palay were dying of hunger so how dare were we to become so narrowly focused in our personal problems.
One leading feminist once said that if emotional lives are shared collectively then they become a cultural experience. If this is true, then perhaps women should not find excuses for their feelings but work at them towards mastery. They are barriers to our liberation and one must confront rather than evade them. To strike hard at them would be to increase the weapons of self-discovery and self-understanding that we need for tackling the larger political issues that should be our foremost concern.
With this note, the Makibaka experience could be vindicated after all.