pop La Mujer Indigena - The Native Woman

A description of the Filipino Woman during Pre-Spanish Time

Lorna S. Torralba Titgemeyer



When Sr. Mary John Mananzan came to Vienna to give a seminar on the comparative role and status of the Filipino woman in the family and society, past and present, initially I was not so sure of participating, for reasons difficult to explain. Partly because I was confident of my status as woman and wife, or maybe I was afraid that my individualism and self-confidence might be influenced or could cause changes in me. But curiosity got the better of me. The day turned out to be very amusing, very interesting and very informative.

The following is in part a summary of Sr. Mary John´s one-day lecture, reflecting on the status of the pre-Spanish Filipino woman, as this helped me understand why we sometimes have this strange feeling of being different from how we had been brought up...that is, being meek, obedient and humble... in short, a good mujer christiana.

From Catalona or Babaylan, La Mujer Indigena to La Mujer Christiana

The Philippines during the pre-colonial period was not a whole entity, the way it is now. It was made up of loosely related principalities with their own separate social, political and economic systems under their own tribal rulers. Community life and social activities were organized mainly on the basis of kinship, beliefs and economic interest. A group of elders were advisers to the tribal ruler and jointly they acted as judge and lawgiver. In some communities, the Babaylan was highly respected as priestess or religious practitioner, as well as healer, counselor and mediator in the tribe. Although differing in name, every tribe had its own religious practitioners, who were preferred to men. In fact, when a male performed the religious office of a Catalona or Babaylan, he was dressed like a woman.

With this reference, I would like to present the unknown image of pre-Spanish Filipino woman, la mujer indigena totally in contradiction to the prevailing belief that the elevation of the status of women, was one of the benefits brought by Spanish colonization. The matriarchal society which many of us believed we always had in the Philippines is also a false presumption. The falsely taken patriarchal upbringing with its machismo and a touch of misogyny came uplater with the Spanish colonization. In the eraly Philippines there had always been an egalitarian relationship not only between husband and wife, but also in the upbringing of offsprings. The early Filipinos gave equal importance to both male and female offsprings. Inheritance was divided equally among them, distinguishing only primogeniture and legitimacy. Education was an opportunity for both sexes.

Arranged marriage was a custom among pre-Spanish Filipinos. The groom and his family gave dowry to the bride´sparents, an amount agreed upon according to their means. When married the woman did not lose her name. In some Tagalog regions, if the woman was especially distinguished, the husband usually took her name. So it was usual to hear people refered to the husband of Ninay or the husband of Isyang.

The pre-colonial Filipino wife was treated as a companion, not as slave. She enjoyed freedom in making decisions in the family. Her say was not only confined to domestic affairs like having a baby or not. Giving birth many times was disliked by women, especially those who inhabited towns near the sea, saying that in having many children, they are like pigs. For this reason they practiced abortion after having the desired number of children.

What name to give a child was also her prerogative. She enjoyed a key role in the economic stability of the family. Formal contracts were done only in her presence. In fact there were only very few husbands who would dare enter into contracts without the consent or presence of their wives.

It was seldom that a woman did not know how to manage the family landholdings. She had the task of agricultural production once the ground had been prepared by the man. She engaged herself in weaving and pottery-making and usually managed the trading of products and wares.

The role of women in the political field, especially leadership role is a disputable subject for those who say, this was based merely on legends. Remember the legend of Queen Maniwantiwan, the wife of Datu Marikudo whose consent had to be secured before he could sell his lands to the Bornean immigrants led by Datu Puti. Another queen who is reported to have ruled Cotabato in the seventh century was Queen Sima. The practice of primogeniture with regard to inheritance regardless of sex allowed women to succeed their fathers as rulers of tribes. The most famous of the women leaders of pre-Spanish society was Princess Urduja of Pangasinan. She was supposed to be a beautiful Amazon, courageous and intelligent, possessing knowledge of languages and culture of Old Asia.

In Teresita Infante´s documented study, The Woman in Early Philippines and Among Tribal Minorities, there is a description of the role of women among the Kalingas: "Kalinga women are not barred from belonging to the highest rank of society, which entitles them to the privileges equal to those of men in similar rank. Some are recognized as pact holders and as she is the one who owns the pact, only her children or relatives have the right to inherit it." Pact holders were those who held agreement with a prominent citizen of another tribe or community in which each party agreed to give protection and aid to all members of each other´s community while they were in his/her territory. Punishment was imposed if any harm had been done to them by his/her tribe member. This important position of being a pact holder was recognized among women in the pre-Spanish society.

In the event of divorce caused by childlessness, infidelity, failure to fulfill obligations towards family, etc. the dowry had to be returned by the bride´s family if she was at fault. However, if the husband was at fault, he lost any right of its return. The children were divided equally between the two regardless of sex. The conjugally-acquired property was also divided equally. This way, she possessed equal rights with regard to divorce according to law and custom.

To summarize, the pre-Spanish filipino woman, the mujer indigena had an honoured position in the family and society, which was dispensed with by the Spaniards. A new Filipina was formed, a person moulded to the image and likeness of the perfect woman of the Iberian society of her time. She had to follow many rules and regulations on how to lead the life of a good mujer christiana, which meant lesser freedom and rights.

"Viva la Mujer Indigena!"


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created: March 1, 1997
updated: April 15, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger