Friday, January 5, 2007

‘Babaylan’ crossings

You have tampered with the women/ You have struck a rock/ You have dislodged a boulder/ You will be crushed. – from an Afrikaan freedom song

That is a line from an Afrikaan freedom song sung at the historic women’s freedom march in 1956 in South Africa. The minister of education recalled those lines during the 2002 ground breaking of the Opra Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Soweto. The academy opened as 2007 was being ushered in and was ready to take in its first batch of girls.

That school was Oprah’s promise to the revered former South African Pres. Nelson Mandela when she visited in 2002. Her initial promise of $10,000 became $40,000. Oprah’s choice of place was Soweto. Her choice of students were girls from underprivileged background whom she herself had interviewed and handpicked.

Now the academy has opened. Many girl children who will go there will be trained to be future leaders and achievers in their chosen fields, compassionate, strong, giving. And beautiful, of course, inside and out.

In an article, a girl who was interviewed recounted the “phenomenal few minutes” with Oprah: “(She) asked me three questions. What I want to become. Why? And what good advice I’ve given anyone.”

Oprah has shown a great example to the rich, famous and influential. This bright and influential woman of US television and one of the world’s richest came from a difficult childhood (she was black, poor and abused) has moved on to great heights and expanded her embrace.

I hope I’d be able to see something like the Oprah school rising in these islands. But we are not wanting in schools for girls, only most if not all of them are “exclusive” for girls who are mostly already privileged. Many of them do not really have big, urgent dreams to be something for humanity.

Yes, I know there are schools for girls that have made big strides in educating their students to be strong women of character but so many other concerns—financial, among them—get in the way.

Oprah is indeed a priestess, a modern babaylan.

The book “Centennial Crossings: Readings on Babaylan Feminism in the Philippines” may be a year late—one year after the centennial of the feminist movement in the Philippines—but it sure came out at a time when women’s issues were (and are) very much in the forefront. There was the recent conviction of a Filipina woman’s rapist, a US serviceman, and the consequent debate over the latter’s custody pending the decision of a higher court. Then there was his “midnight crossing” or transfer to the custody of the US embassy, the Philippine government’s way of acquiescing to the US, or else…

Before feminism there was the so-called babaylanism, the book says. This was a form of women’s collective consciousness indigenous to the Philippines. A babaylan is a woman priest, healer and visionary. Alas, little is said of her in history books. This is not because there are few historical data on her. This is because women, in historical accounts by men, were almost always portrayed as and reduced to being mere passive spectators, not active participants in the unfolding of history.

The babaylan spirit did not die because it was kept alive by cultural traditions and practices, it stayed on despite being marginalized because of foreign colonization and neglect in the pages of history.

Now women are not only making it come alive again, they are making sure that it is kept alive not just in practice but also in the written word.

“Centennial Crossings” (edited by Fe B. Mangahas and Jenny R. Llaguno) is a collection of women’s writings that show that the babaylan spirit has not died. The modern babaylans are making sure the spirit does not ever die, that more women find and identify that spirit in them.

The book features both personal reflections and academic analyses. The spiritual and cerebral intertwine. Women from different disciplines and background discover the babaylan in them and in their creative process. A dancer, a writer, an academic, a religious, an activist. Each one has discovered the name of the in-dwelt babaylan. She has a name, a face, a voice.

Mangahas puts the babaylan in historico-cultural context. Agnes Miclat Cacayan discovers the babaylan dancing in wholeness. Arche L. Ligo searched for her among women on a mystical mountain. Sr. Rosario Battung, RGS found her among the women healers of the north.

And then there are those who have found the babaylan alive in themselves, making them dance, sing, create, pray, teach, reach out.

Mangahas writes: “Even among feminists in the Philippines today few realize that feminism as it refers to women’s political consciousness is a borrowed concept. The word feminism was first used in this country by Concepcion Felix et al., with the founding of Asociacion Feminista Filipina (in 1905). Antedating this usage, the word feminista and even the earlier Spanish word femenina, there was the word babaylanismo—a form of women’s consciousness indigenous to the Philippines.”

Mangahas adds that although babaylanism was long and evolution and yet rooted in Philippine culture, it remains an esoteric topic, if not a dead relic of the past.
“Centennial Crossings” proves that babaylanism is not a thing of the past. It is a great read, I promise you. And I discovered something about myself too. I think there is a babaylan in me. You’ll find her there too, if you look closer, deeper.