Terms of survival

Her husband, a taxi driver, was missing for more than a week.  They had been arguing the night before he disappeared, and she recalls having said something that might have hurt him, something about the family earnings no longer being enough for their needs.  Previous to this, he had also been feeling bad about having used his fist on one of the children.  He thought that his little son was beginning to show disrespect for him.

When he failed to come home, she understood that to mean he was just cooling off.  On the second day, however, she began to feel upset and angry.  Later, she was already seething.  Then, she started to worry, wondering whether something tragic had happened to him.  As the days passed, worry gave way to guilt.  She began to cry.  That was when she set out to look for him.

She came to me to ask for help with the police and the media.  I asked for a recent picture, and some addresses and telephone numbers that the police might need to begin the search for her missing husband. That was 3 days ago.  Now she came back with an embarrassed smile, and requested me to call off the search: “I’m very sorry to have bothered you too,” she said with a mix of exasperation and relief, “but my husband is in Batangas and he wants me to fetch him.”

Fetch him? Is he ill or something, I asked.  “No,” she quickly added, “he is all right, but maybe he has no money for the bus fare.  I will fetch him tomorrow.”

I do not think she is going to Batangas to fetch a husband, the master of the house.  More accurately, from her perspective, she is fetching a confused little boy, one of her offspring.  Thus do most Filipino women “negotiate” the terms of their subjection within the family.  They realize that the world is unfair: it has conferred upon men the right to be the rulers of their families.  But even when their husbands show themselves to be unfit to rule, they somehow feel obliged to maintain the fiction of their men’s supremacy, while they take on the daily functions of providing for, managing, and keeping the family together.

The concept of the family as a “negotiated order” figures prominently in the recently concluded study of reproductive rights by Woman Health Philippines.  The conventional view of Filipino women as passive victims of family regimes ruled by domineering and tyrannical husbands is dismissed as being too simplistic to be believable.  It misrepresents the true functioning of power by which unequal relations are reproduced in the family.

The concept of negotiation of gender roles does not mean to imply, however, that the domain to be negotiated has no boundaries, that everything is negotiable.  On the contrary, the study precisely begins with the recognition that the husband-wife relationship is, from the start, stamped with political asymmetry.  But instead of viewing power as a fixed structure, the researchers see it as an open cluster of relations, constantly shifting and often ill-coordinated, by which both husband and wife, man and woman, dominator and dominated are continually constituted.

Our culture prescribes our entitlements as men and women within the larger society and especially within the family.  Crucial among these entitlements are the so-called sexual and reproductive rights: those, for example, that pertain to marriage (when and whom to marry), children (when to have them and how many), sex (can a wife refuse and is she entitled to expect pleasure), work (paid employment), child care (whose responsibility), etc.

The women studied by Woman Health were aware of their right to make decisions on these issues.  But they expressed this awareness mostly as a wish (“sana”) than as an imperative (“dapat”).  The point of women’s advocacy is how to translate the “sana” into a “dapat”.

That is the long-term goal.  But it is just as important, the study says, to recognize and understand how, in the short-term, even in the most oppressive circumstances, women actually manage to “strategically accommodate traditional practices or expectations they find demeaning in order to secure reproductive, familial, or economic needs.”  In order to protect themselves against the constant threat of domestic violence, marital breakup, and public shame, Filipino women often engage in “subterfuge, trade-off, and accommodation … in a context of domination, subordination, and limited power and resources.”

The priority given to the welfare of the children keeps recurring as a value premise for Filipino women.  In what may seem like a political economy of sex in the family, mothers unabashedly report granting sexual favors to their husbands as a conscious tool to secure benefits for their children.  At the recent presentation of Woman Health’s research findings, some of the informants present spoke of the most inventive strategies I have ever heard by which they negotiate the terms of their victimization.  They spoke of the countless ways by which they refuse sex, without inviting violence from their husbands or alienating their affection.

Someone in the audience disagreed with the phrase “terms of victimization”, and offered “terms of survival” instead.  I now think that is the more appropriate term.  Like our taxi driver’s wife at the beginning of this article, the women in this study are not preoccupied with changing the terms of our culture and the institutional framework of their subjection.  And though their everyday accommodations may ironically perpetuate these realities, there is never any doubt in their minds what they must do, pending social change, to ensure their survival as persons, as mothers, and as stewards of their families.


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