Being a Woman in the Philippines

being a woman in the philippines

As the eldest of three girls, I have heard the phrase “kababae mong tao”, a thousand times. When I wanted to roughhouse with boys my age, I would be reprimanded by my grandfather and told to go inside and play with my dolls, or play bahay-bahayan and lutu-lutuan (home-making and cooking roleplay).

Kababae mong tao, laro ka ng laro sa labas,” he’d say. (“You’re a girl yet you play so much outside.”) For all his scolding, I never heard the same being said to any of the boys I knew and because of this, I grew up believing that it must be a happier and freer life to be a boy.

After 23 years and a baby, I still hear similar words from my relatives — mostly males. The latest lecture was given by my uncle, saying that I couldn’t have an alcoholic drink because I was a woman. My face turned beet red with anger.

There’s no straight translation for the phrase “Kababae mong tao,” but I can tell you that I despised being told that “I was a girl” from the first time it was uttered to me. It can be roughly translated as “You’re a girl, yet…” and it is usually followed by an excuse, and more often than not, a senseless justification. Words cannot capture the depth and magnitude of the frustration felt by me and millions of Filipinas when these three simple Filipino words are spoken.

Saying “Kababae mong tao” suggests that you (a Filipina) can’t do something because you’re a woman. It can be likened to invisible handcuffs dedicated for females and signifying that she cannot complete a task because she is not competent or strong enough to do so. This type of thinking and this type of social behavior has been embedded into the consciousness of Filipinos for centuries.

Feminism in a patriarchal society

Long before the Spaniards invaded my country, both male and female indigenous Filipinos enjoyed the same privileges. According to Patriarchy and Women’s Subordination in the Philippines, written by Luz Lopez Rodrigez, research showed that women enjoyed a status equal to men. Male and female offspring also received equal value in treatment, inheritances and liberty.

Decision-making involved both husband and wife and their control over conjugal properties were equally distributed. Women were also allowed to leave their husbands long before there were legal divorce laws. Women shared leadership roles with men in political and religious movements.

The equality changed when the Spaniards invaded the Philippines. The westerners instituted a patricentric ideology while promoting pre-feudal relations. When the Spaniards began the colonization of the Philippines, women’s roles transformed from respected equal into male subordinate.  Spaniards ushered out our Filipino traditions, social norms and roles and replaced them with chauvinistic, male centric ideologies.  This methodology is still evident almost five hundred years later. Even the way we study our country’s history has been influenced by patriarchy.

Historians, who, of course have been mostly male, used their gender blindness to write patricentric perspectives of Philippines’ past. In Roots of Feminist Thoughts in the Philippines written by Lilia Quindoza Santiago, Dr. Luisa Camagay cited the male observations as the culprit for women’s invisibility in history books, as published in her book Women in Philippine History. Hence, generations of Filipinos subconsciously entrenched machismo in their consciousness through great male heroes and leaders.

Filipino feminists in the millennium age

 The Philippines has come a long way despite the deeply rooted influence of male dominance in our culture. Active feminism was trail blazed by Asosacion Feminista Ilonga when its leader, Pura Villanueva Kalaw, became a pioneer lobbyist in drafting the first Philippine women’s suffrage bill in 1906. A century later, this movement birthed thousands of Filipino advocates who continue to raise themselves above inequality.

Unlike the traditional media, social media became a valuable tool in disseminating information regarding feminism in the Philippines. It has served as an avenue, waking up the minds of Filipinos to fight against patriarchy. Because social media has a capability to connect to other people outside the country, learning the rudiments of feminism- an ideology that originated from the west – became easier.

Per Rappler, social media enabled women to speak freely and empowered them. Not only did it change the way Filipinas related to their capabilities, it revolutionized awareness of themselves — physically, emotionally, socially, etc. — and highlighted the definition of feminism.

According to a 2016 survey by PulseAsia, nearly all the Filipinos (96 percent) believed that women are entitled to fight for their rights. The survey included respondents across all socio-economic classes, educational attainments and among both men and women.

The same survey revealed that nearly half of all Filipinos believe that women are equal to their male counterparts. Forty one percent said that women in the Philippines are not disadvantaged; 33 percent said otherwise while 26 percent were unsure between the two options.

Philippine feminism versus the rest of the world

Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, Philippines seemed to be faring well in terms of feminism. In fact, our country ranks 7th in the 1016 Global Gender Gap Index. The tally commissioned by World Economic Forum measures the equality of resources and opportunities between men and women. The data provided shows the Philippines as one of only two nations from East Asia and the Pacific region. Further, the country also leads the entire region despite a decrease in its overall score.

Nearly closed gender gaps in health, education and job opportunities have contributed to the country’s ranking. It’s also note-worthy that the Philippines has a generous number of female government officials, two of which have occupied the highest political position in the land.

Per an opinion piece published in Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Philippines also has a competitive set of laws that protect women. Magna Carta Law of Women is just one of the laws that seek to protect Filipinas from discrimination and it was signed by female president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Steps backward in feminist progress

While there are Filipinos trying to fight against patriarchal beliefs, it’s still a struggle because the inequality continues to exist in our day-to-day lives.  It’s so rampant that women’s rights and discrimination issues have been a common subject in newscasts from both digital and traditional media.

Most recent came from Senator Tito Sotto in an infamous gaffe when he poked fun at DSWD Sec. Judy Taguiwalo’s single parenthood. The former comedian referred to the secretary in a formal hearing as someone who is “na-ano lang,” or to put it in perspective, as someone who has just been accidentally knocked up.

The remark was made in a contemptuous context in attempt to lighten the tension in the room but what was said was indeed, offensive. Sen. Sotto’s statement is an offshoot of the “stud and bitch” mentality. As men are revered to be very manly in fathering children from different mothers, women are often labeled as a disgrace from being impregnated out of wedlock.

It was not the first time that Sen. Sotto was grilled by Filipinos for his off color remarks. Last year, he was bashed on social media users after he blamed a woman for being molested because she wore shorts and for drinking with male friends. Hearing this, opened my eyes to discrimination.

Women using contraceptive pills are worried after the Supreme Court denied to lift a temporary restraining order (TRO) that prohibits Food and Drug Authority to issue certification and recertification of reproductive products. According to CNN, three contraceptive pill brands certification have expired, leaving Filipino women with only 23 available choices on the market.

If the TRO remains as is, 14 other brands are expected to be off the market by the end of the year and 14 more by next year. This will leave Filipinas susceptible to unplanned pregnancy and other health risks, since contraceptive pills aren’t only consumed for family planning purposes.

A few months ago, Sen. Risa Hontiveros’ bill, seeking to extend maternity leave, was passed in the Senate. I was extremely happy hearing this, not for me, but for Filipinas who would now be able to spend more time taking care of their newborns without compromising their careers. When I shared the news in a Facebook post, I was chastised by many for believing that this bill was ground-breaking.

Dahil dyan, hindi na iha-hire ang mga babae. Or i-hire man, dapat baog o walang matres. Sure yan,” one male commenter said (“Because of that, no woman will be hired. Or if they will, they’ll hire a barren woman or a lady without uterus, that’s for sure.”)

“And next that [will] happen will be a DECLINE of women employment…good luck,” another user complained. One said the bill will just make more women pregnant, and another even called the bill “more trash.”

Filipino feminists continue to fight

This year’s March 8 was extremely different from previous International Women’s Day that I’ve encountered. On that day, my social media feeds were spammed by contents related to International Women’s Day. It was a particularly momentous day and it was the only time in memory that a lot of Filipinos — men, women and LGBQT — celebrated the importance and power of women, so, thanks to social media.

Hashtags such as #IWD2017, #BeBoldForChange and greetings such as Happy International Woman’s Day ubiquitously invaded virtual spaces.  I consider this as a special feat for the Philippines as it signified that people are aware of women’s value in society.  However, it’s not enough to prove that we are incorporating equality into our daily lives.

If you ask me if the present is the best time to be a woman, I would reply, not yet. The Philippines is ripe for a discrimination-free culture among all genders, but it will take more time to see this dream realized.

Unless our government creates decisions that relentlessly consider both sexes; unless the government is free of politicians who speak without thinking of repercussions; unless we are not deprived of our right to our choices in health or in choosing our family’s path and, most importantly, unless we live in a home where fathers and brothers do not limit wives and sisters into doing something that is against gender norms and roles, we cannot progress.

Remembering that exact moment when I was told not to drink, I wanted to scream and explain to my Uncle why the choice wasn’t his to make or even remark upon. I don’t care about drinking, I only care that I should be allowed to do anything he is permitted to do.

I believe that equality begins in the home. Unknowingly, we feed patriarchy ideologies in the most miniscule ways. When our fathers returned from work, we witnessed our mothers still following orders despite a day-long of house chores, or ten hour of office work.  Truth be told, most Filipinos grew up in this home scenario.

But it’s not too late to reset our history.  It’s not impossible to return to the years when all Filipinos had equal status.  Our history tells us that a patriarchal society is not who we are.  Our rich culture practiced reverence and trust to both men and women and it is time to return to our roots.

And for my part? As I start a budding family, I swear to never utter the words “Kababae mong tao” to my children. Hopefully, this will have a lasting impact on them as well as empower them and teach them genderless respect. In turn, I hope they will pass it on for posterity.

Written by Mikaela Joyce L. Sarthou


  1. this is my mom’s favorite line. drives me nuts

  2. Hi Mikee, nabasa ko ang article mo. Online subscriber ako ng ‘Medium’ at reader din ako ng ‘Think Progress’.


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