Gendered Experiences in Ifugao
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Gender is a historically and culturally constructed concept by a community. Specific meanings that people attribute to gender reflect their own historical, cultural, political and economic processes in daily life. Social roles are viewed by Ifugao people as always in relation with their family. They work cooperatively to provide for the needs of their families. In turn, work activities have culturally designated gender codes. These codes are regularly broken in circumstances wherein women take on male designated tasks out of necessity. Single mothers, wives of migrant workers, widows, or those with ill spouses are cases that have become culturally accepted over time. However, men who fail in fulfilling their culturally prescribed duties get mocked or perceived to diminish in masculinity. Gender relations are also greatly affected by social class positions with reference to age, wealth ranking, educational level, ethnicity and religion. Men and women interact accordingly with culturally specified gender categories in relation to bigger social ties with their families and the community.
Recent studies have shown that indigenous communities in the Cordillera, including the Ifugao people, are mainly egalitarian and thus women have a ‘relatively high status’ in the community as compared to other countries. Casambre noted that there is “little evidence of systemic oppression of (Cordillera) women either by socialization or through social institutions associated with agriculture.” This notion dismisses the feminist argument that all women in the Philippines are oppressed. Additionally, Atkinson and Errington explain that this ‘high status’ for women is expressed in “enjoying economic opportunities, suffering few legal restrictions or damning stereotypes, and participating in cultures where sexes are construed in terms of complementarity and balance rather than different worth in comparison to men.” This type of ‘complementarity’, as Errington defines, is an ideology of difference in which the opposite sexes complement rather than compete against each other.
The Ifugao society gives more value to the quality of a woman’s work over her beauty. This ‘cultural ethos of hard work’ is seen as the desirable attitude expected from an Ifugao woman. Although roles such as child care and household chores are commonly designated to women, mothers continue to work outside of the home. Their involvement in various activities such as agricultural labor, farming, professional practices and business only proves how hard a woman works both inside and outside the domestic context. Since women are effective in carrying out simultaneous productive and reproductive tasks, their contributions to society are highly regarded and their worth is not seen any less than that of men.
In terms of gender relations however, there are still certain norms and traditions that perceive women as the ‘weaker sex.’ Men maintain privilege over women in getting cash paying labor. In agricultural labor, for example, women’s labor was not valued as equally with men’s labor. Despite the same amount of working hours spent, women get only one-half of the men’s daily wage. Employers would justify this differential pay since the type of work done by women (i.e. planting, weeding, harvesting) is not as physically demanding as those tasks assigned to men (i.e. building rice paddies and carrying heavy loads). However, men’s tasks are varied and seasonal while women never stop working even when they get home. They experience the “double burden” of great physical and emotional strains because of many repetitious domestic tasks done on a daily basis.
Their number one problem, according to Ifugao women, is that majority of the population is poor. Despite the fact that both men and women work very hard to earn money and secure food supply through agricultural means, their incomes remain insufficient. They have limited access to basic social services such as health care and education. As farmers, Contrary to the scholar who gave credit to the high status of women in the Philippines, the author believes that the place of Ifugao women in society was “socially constructed in many important areas of their lives as being lower than men’s, yet higher than men’s position in some other areas of their lives.” This twofold take on gender gives significance to the extent of degraded positions of women in their communities and how it creates an impact on women and their children’s nutritional status, overall health and well-being.
The article gears away from the early feminist standpoint that all women in the Philippines are oppressed. This assumption is rather problematic as one might ponder: what does oppression mean for different people and how does one qualify to be exempted from oppression? In my view social oppression in general still exist in most societies up to this day. Gender oppression is but one dimension and it cannot be isolated to exist as a result of how ideas on gender were erroneously conceived in one culture. As Charlton defines, “oppression occurs when individuals are systematically subjected to political, economic, cultural, or social degradation because they belong to a social group…results from structures of domination and subordination and, correspondingly, ideologies of superiority and inferiority” (Charlton, 1998).
While reading this article, I started to analyze in terms of three dimensions of social oppression: national oppression (based on their ethnic minority status as citizens), class oppression (based on socio-economic classes), and gender oppression (based on culturally designated categories between the sexes). In the case of the Ifugao people, class oppression appears to be minimal. The upper class (kadangyan and bacnang) depend on the lower class (nawotwot) for their services. In turn, people from lower class get paid in cash or in kind. This interdependent relationship highlights the interdependency of people in the community without any element of forced labor. National oppression, on the other hand, seems to have the most negative impact among the three dimensions. Although there might have been projects implemented in the past (i.e. medicines in the Marcos era) which brought some success, the national government remains to be distant in delivering public services to most areas in Ifugao. Majority of the population depend on farming as subsistence, not for income. Problems like malnutrition and inadequate health care are still rampant in most areas. Also, government efforts are badly lacking to respond to pressing needs such as preparation for natural disasters and introduction to more sustainable measures in farming and food production.
Ifugao women are still faced with the challenge of gender oppression, it may come in subtle degrees within different contexts. Continuous efforts should be made for women to realize their strengths, capabilities, and their willingness to generate societal change. I hope that in the future more Ifugao women would come to embrace a high regard for education as this could drastically help to alleviate poverty.
It is quite common and disheartening at the same time whenever we hear government officials who claim that they don’t have enough resources to finance development projects. It becomes even more disappointing to admit a common knowledge that most these officials have a record of corruption, slacking off from work and keeping all the beans in the sack. This pessimistic view is shared by many, not because they choose to be negative, but because a lot of people have already lost their faith in the system. While good governance remains a dire issue, we could still draw an inspiration from some people who chose to make a stand towards a better society.
Wangari Maathai is an African woman who founded the Green Belt movement in Kenya in 1977. This program mobilized women from the villages to plant more than 10 million trees. This has contributed greatly in preventing soil erosion, water pollution, and alleviating deforestation. In turn, the women reaped the benefits of their efforts by having a source of firewood, better farming practices since the soil did not run off, and more abundant food supply. Through planting trees they were able to protect their environment and ensure a better future for their children.
If women from other countries were able to do this much to change their situation, don’t we just wish that we could have been equally successful? Considering the values that women have for their work and their love of family, it is very plausible to implement similar projects that persuade community participation and civic awareness.