The Philippine culture supports gender neutrality – from the precolonial era to the use of pronouns to matriarchy.
The International Women’s Day 2023 campaign theme is #EmbraceEquity. In the Philippines, while several aspects of society still need to embrace equity (e.g. classism), I am happy to note that the culture is gender neutral. Here are three examples.
In the precolonial era (well before the 1500s), women were entitled to property, engage in a trade and could exercise their right to divorce her husband. They could also become village chiefs. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, Filipino women could also achieve status as medicine women or high-priestesses and astrologers.
Baybayin, the Philippine script that was used prior to and during the 16th and 17th centuries before being replaced by the Latin alphabet during the period of Spanish colonization. It is said that during this time, the Philippines has 100% literacy rate – including women knew how to read, write and teach.
Language is an expression of culture. Man (and woman) will come up with words as needed. What IS will always find an expression in the spoken or written form. In most Asian countries, rice is abundant. So, while people from other continents call it rice, in Asia, there are actually 40,000 ways to express it. Anyway, before we start feeling hungry, let’s go back to gender.
Our pronouns do not categorize gender. Here are Filipino pronouns and translations.
Singular: Ako/ko (me), ikaw/mo/ka (you), siya (refers to he/she, gender neutral).
Plural: Kami (we, us), sila (they, them), tayo (we), kayo (you, plural form).
I think our fore parents did not see the need to distinguish man from woman in this way because it was not material, to an extent still is not. When asked about what pronoun I use, I am always tempted to say that my pronouns are they/them given this historical, cultural and linguistic context. But then, even my name is gender neutral, it is both masculine and feminine, just like my cultural roots (thank you, mama and papa for my name!).
In the Homestead
While patriarchy is strong, so is matriarchy. From precolonial period to present time, this bilateral kinship system accorded Philippine women enormous power within a clan. We know this to be true until today and I do not see this changing anytime soon. Not with the worldwide campaign for gender equity and neutrality.