(…) On the prime time TV evening news, August 15, 2008, video footage of the twin support rallies of those in favor of, and those opposing, the Bangsamoro Juridical Personality (BJE) proposed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) showed Sister Mary John Mananzan, again. Maybe it was no mere coincidence that August 15 was also the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
At any rate, the image of Sister Mary John Mananzan on TV prompted a quick search for other nuns who figured during martial law. As it turned out, while not all nuns were political radicals, the religious of St. Joseph’s and St. Scholastica’s, the Franciscan nuns, the Assumption nuns and the Good Shepherd nuns were among those particularly active.
Least known to me was that Sister Sol Perpiñan, RGS (Good Shepherd), founded IBON Facts and Figures. (The cockroach-nibbled edges of copies of the first issues of IBON Facts and Figures – these were just bound by one heavy staple wire at the top left of the mimeographed sheaf that constituted an issue — that my parents saved, hoarded or hid since Martial Law times are there at home just waiting to finally disintegrate and be swept into the dustpan of household clean up.)
Little known to me (and, likely, many more Filipinos) is that in 1980, Sister Mary John Mananzan, OSB (a Benedictine nun), founded the feminist organization PILIPINA.
Little known, too, was that Sister Mary John Mananzan once headed GABRIELA (General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action), an umbrella organization that counted as members around 200 women’s groups in the early 1980s.
A little better known to me was that the late Sister Mariani Dimaranan, SFIC headed Task Force Detainees (TFD). The leadership of Sr. Mariani was crucial in TFD’s expansion and organization until the early 90’s.
Well-known, of course, is Sister Christine Tan, RGS. After all the Good Shepherd Sisters Convent in Cebu is a well known stop during Holy Week, not to mention their Angel cookies and the Ube jam of the Good Shepherd Sisters’ convent in Baguio. (Please don’t ask me about these associations between activists, cookies and ube jam. Growing up only after EDSA Uno was a disadvantage in the sense that there were all these oh-so-brave nuns standing up to guns and goons of Martial Law and I had missed witnessing their courage by a generation.)(…)
Nuns, militants and feminists
The complex constellation of causes that nuns took on during martial law cannot be done justice in this brief article. Books are crying out to be written about them as are so many more facets of the martial law period in the Philippines. The major challenge writing about nuns during martial law is that they did not belong to any one organization. They were ‘nuns for others’ in the Ignatian (Jesuit) sense of that ideal. It helps (…) In 1980, Sister Mary John Mananzan, founded the feminist organization PILIPINA. Formally known as Kilusan ng Kababaihang Pilipino, PILIPINA works for women’s full participation in leadership and governance, focusing on public office and social movements. PILIPINA believes that feminist exercise of power and leadership is: people centered, enabling and nurturing and nurturing; consensual, collective; inclusive; and effective, i.e., having one’s say and actualizing one’s will in every significant discourse. While PILIPINA’s mission focuses on women and public power as the key sphere of intervention, it still embraces the entire range of women’s concerns.
Sister Mary John Mananzan, became the president of in 1986, and GABRIELA began to involve itself primarily in women’s issues. The issues of mail-order brides, prostitution, trafficking in women, the comfort women and women migrants overseas, including domestic helpers, were given priority.
In 1985, Sister Mary John Mananzan founded the first Institute of Women’s Studies in the Philippines at St. Scholastica’s College. As the Dean of the College of Arts and Director of the Women’s Studies Institute then, Sister Mary John unpacked feminist ideas to the student body. (Women’s studies subject is compulsory at St. Scholastica’s. No woman can graduate without taking this subject.)
Secretary-General of the Citizen’s Alliance for Consumer Protection from 1978, Sister Mary John Mananzan, taking up the cases of all consumers, defended their rights, protected their interests, spoke on their behalf, and demanded fair prices for essential commodities.
The late Sister Mariani Dimaranan came to symbolize TFD. Witnessing the torture of political prisoners while she herself was under detention inspired Sister Mariani to join the Task Force Detainees. The TFD, was dominated by women – wives, mothers, daughters or sisters of detainees, mostly men. The TFD grew as a contradiction to Marcos’ unequivocal claim that “no one, but no one has been tortured”.
She took over the presidency in April 1975. Prior to that, an American Franciscan priest had been president for a few months, but he relinquished the presidency to her. Sister Sol Perpiñan’s political activism in the martial law years was as founder, editor and writer, of IBON Facts and Figures, a newsletter that produced documentation on Philippine society, economy and politics (including the underground). First published in 1978, IBON Facts and Figures became the only available accurate published reportage on current events and issues in the Philippines. Scholars, journalists and academics, particularly from overseas, relied on IBON for their data on Philippine society and economy.
Sister Sol also founded BALAI — a group interested in environmental issues, which produced its Asian journal.
Sister Christine Tan, among other endeavors, later became a Constitutional Convention delegate in 1987.
The militancy and the feminism
(…) The 1984 feature film Sister Stella L. main character mouthed the activist battle cry: ‘Kung hindi tayo kikilos, sino pa, kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa! [If we do not act, who will, if not now, when else!] ‘ This line became one of the catchphrases of activists toward the end of the 1970s.
The composite and fictionalized story of Sister Stella L. (played by film star Vilma Santos) told of the militant nun’s investiture as a political activist. Exposure to the victims of martial law bade them speak out for political detainees, support labor strikes, report on the abuses of the regime and later stand as human barricades in the front lines against the military.
Nuns were not the only women political activists, of course. “But unlike the nuns, these other women activists women remained marginalized in those groups, were denied leadership positions and in most cases given administrative or caretaking responsibilities, which reinforced traditional gender roles of women as secretaries, writers, nurses, cooks and ‘mothers’ or child minders.”
“The consensus among scholars is that, in the tension between feminism and nationalism, the priority of national liberation downplayed women’s issues and prioritized other issues of social injustice, dictatorship, class struggle, democracy, violence and revolution.”
“In contrast, the militant nuns, though still conforming to traditional gendered images of the woman as moral guardian, realized that they had ‘moral power’. In this sense, they became much more effective than the women in other radical organizations. Not seen as wanting official power, but revered as moral guardians, these militant nuns became a successful pressure group.” (Dr. Mina Roces)
As ambivalent women (wielding power even as they shunned it) gave them moral power and legitimacy as political activists. The experience of martial law made them realize their moral power and eased their evolution into feminists. They became the first women to challenge cultural constructions of the feminine.