“Look at the world through women’s eyes” admonished the souvenir T-shirts, bags, umbrellas, banners and posters from the NGO Forum on Women. It is an eloquent slogan, poetic and immensely more powerful than the official UN Fourth World Conference’s own “Development, Equality and Peace”.
The struggle for women’s rights must indeed begin with a change in perception: from a view of women as objects to a view of women as persons. This is not as simple as it may sound. The perception of women as property rather than as persons in their own right is deeply entrenched in many cultures, including our own.
One of my brothers, a Catholic priest, recently called my attention to the precise wording of the original Tenth Commandment, which, he says, tells us a lot about the ancient attitude towards women. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him.”
Woman belonged to the category of things to be owned, occupying the same status as a house, a slave, or a donkey. Today many fathers and husbands continue to treat their daughters and wives in very much the same old way: not as persons, but as possessions. Many fathers still hesitate to invest money to educate their daughters because they will become the wives of other men anyway. Many husbands do not expect their wives to have a life of their own, because servants, appliances and cars do not have a life of their own. Worse, they beat them up, the way they abuse their servants or run their cars down.
We may pay lip service to the development and equality of women, but until women and men learn to look at the world through women’s eyes, this will be empty rhetoric. Women’s rights are human rights precisely because at the base of this struggle is the quest for the recognition of women as persons with rights. To start with, the right to equal chance to be born — a right routinely violated by cultural practices like pre-natal preference for males and female infanticide. Then there is the right to education and employment, or freedom from consignment to the status of a slave, a baby machine, or a piece of furniture.
From education and employment proceed all the other rights that traditionally were claimed only by men: the right to form one’s opinion, to vote and be elected to public office, the right to own property, to make decisions within the family, and to opt out of an unhappy and unsatisfactory marriage.
As a modern society, we now take for granted Filipino women’s access to these rights, often citing Cory Aquino’s presidency as a proof of how far women have come in our society. But the truth is that, as in many other Asian societies that have had women heads of state, you can have a woman president without significantly altering the status of the rest of the woman population. The treatment of women as non-persons persists in the many unconscious terrains of our culture. In language, for example.
I could not believe it when I first learned that among many working class Filipino couples, what the westernized among us call love-making is referred to as “paggamit” or use of a woman’s body, as in “gusto akong gamitin kagabi” (he wanted to use me last night). But a recent pathbreaking book, “Luto ng Diyos”, a study of Filipino sexuality, authored by UP Psychology Professor Grace Aguiling-Dalisay, vividly documents this phenomenon and shows that it cuts across social classes and ethno-religious boundaries.
It is obvious that this linguistic convention is very much embedded in a discourse that instrumentalizes the woman in our culture. Therefore, the subjectification (as opposed to the objectification) of women must begin with the recovery of control over their own bodies. Only a person conscious of her own entitlements as an autonomous subject can claim control of her body and the whole of her life, for that matter.
Many Filipino women suffer the brutality and violence of the men in their lives because they are conditioned not to see themselves as persons. They repress their own sexuality because they do not regard this as their entitlement. They retard their own growth because they are made to regard themselves as first and foremost the mothers of their children and the adjuncts of their husbands. They cannot stop having children because they are in no position to actively prevent unwanted pregnancy. Often they cannot even begin to think of the risks posed to their own health by every pregnancy without being reminded of the primacy of the life they are carrying.
To look at the world with women’s eyes is to witness the various forms of depersonalization by which women all over the world have historically been abused. Such a transformation of sensibility is appropriately the first step towards the recovery of all their rights as human beings.
But, as important, to look at the world with women’s eyes is also to approach the problems of this world with an outlook substantially different from the dominant one to which the world’s leaders — preponderantly male — have been accustomed. Men have always been predisposed to war, to the zero-sum resolution of differences. Women, because of the nurturing roles that culture assigned to them, are more inclined to patient deliberation, to cooperation and the peaceful sharing of the earth’s resources. A gender perspective therefore can also show the way to peace in human affairs.
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