TANDAG, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews / 01 April) — Last week, I was perturbed when a pregnant Lumad teen, Tuyet, asked me what to do after she was asked accordingly by the military to go to their camp for an interrogation. All I could muster was to coach her to get legal counsel before agreeing to an interview. And she simply said, “Okay.”
On hindsight, I was so embarrassed within, thinking that my ready-made answer was not at all practical and that leaving everything alone would be appropriate to the many problems she is facing now. Tuyet was so young when I met her six years ago during my fieldwork (2017) in Andap Valley. She is the youngest daughter of Mariko, a Lumad leader known for her firm stand in support of her organization’s thrust for self-determination. Since the pandemic, Tuyet has been separated from Mariko due to the latter’s trumped-up charges.
Mariko, together with her husband, opted to run and hide in the mountains rather than surrender to the fake charges. After the second Lianga massacre (2021) that displaced their Lumad community, Tuyet joined the witnesses at the sanctuary provided by the local church. During this time, her sister, a civilian, was killed in an ambush while her other sister remained in hiding.
Without tight monitoring at the sanctuary, she met a guy through social media who provided her with a much-needed sense of security and joy. Such an affair ended after she realized she was pregnant already. I can imagine how she was so perplexed about where to go then. She had to leave the sanctuary out of shame for having lied about her ‘escapades’. She had to face the wrath of her parents, who by any Lumad standard would have disowned her already. She had to bear the consequences of her pregnancy with bleak help from her kin. And yet, she decided to bear all these things, including the child within her, and face whatever life has brought her. Tuyet is an epitome of the inner strength of the Lumad women that I know. She exuded a power from within that could not be touched by any form of oppression or threat.
Most often, the ‘bagani’ (warrior) tradition of the Lumad is attributed to the males who took upon themselves the obligation to protect the tribe. Lumad men prided themselves on being hunters who provided subsistence to their respective families and communities. Typically, Lumad women are sidelined into minor community roles such as cooks, housekeepers, assistants to the ‘datu’, etc. Yet, Lumad women are always respected for their invaluable contribution to the community. Apart from an important task of ‘baylan’ (priestess), Lumad women provided the necessary maternal nourishment to their children and, metaphorically, to their community. Every Lumad believes that the natural environment is as nourishing as Lumad mothers.
In the often patriarchal society they are in, Lumad women do not come far behind the men. In fact, they are as capable leaders as their male counterparts.
In 2017, during fieldwork, I noticed that Lumad women are as capable as the men in the community. Lumad women are not subordinates but rather complementary to the men. In terms of leadership, recently, Lumad women are not confined anymore to the kitchen. It was the first time that the Lumad social movement that I studied had a female leadership. It was so because potential male leaders refused to accept leadership roles after their chair was violently killed by the paramilitary. From then on, Lumad women took turns taking on leadership roles in the community. They find their voices during big gatherings, negotiations, consultations, and even rallies.
Femia, a former Manobo party list representative, is one example of courage displayed in the august hall of Congress. Bai Bibya-on of Pantaron exhibited the same firm stand in favor of her community and environment. The T’boli women witnesses to the massacre of Datu Danyan in Lake Sebu displayed an undeterred will to claim justice. I personally met Bae Lucy of San Luis whose voice cannot be ignored at peace negotiations. Bae Becky of Bunawan, Bae Minda of the Mamanwa tribe, tireless Matet of the Tagakulo, Subanen women leaders, are few of the respectable leaders representing their ethno-linguistic groups at different local, national, and international forums. And there are countless Lumad women still spread all over the country who are firmly leading and equally nourishing their communities. In them, I exactly recall the biblical women who continued to be faithful to the covenant with YHWH while the men failed.
It is timely that Lumad women’s contribution to their community and to our society at large be recognized while we are still celebrating Women’s Month. Lumad women showed how women can play an active role in the transformation of society. It is important that in building a community, all voices must be listened to. Their voices are as equally important as their role in child-rearing. I remember when I interviewed Inda, my key informant and an OIC Lumad leader after the first Lianga massacre (2015), who confided to me her anger against the perpetrators and fear for their lives. And yet, she never insinuated that she would counter the violence done to them. Lumad women, though firm and relentless in their stance, still believe that violence has no place in the building up of a better and more just society. They are willing to bear the brunt of life’s adversity but not turn themselves into the evil that they fight against. It is perhaps through their wisdom of not becoming one like their oppressors that they safeguard the generation of their community.
If women in general have anything to learn from these great Lumad women, I suppose it is their capacity to always put the interests of the community or tribe before their own. During ‘bakwit’ days, I can still recall how I was so touched by a Lumad grandmother who, due to the limited provision, refused to take her own food, but instead gave them to other children who were hungry by then. She told me later casually that she was ready to die already but can’t bear to see the Lumad kids go hungry.
In the capitalist-dominated world that we have, we need Lumad women who can teach us certain kinds of altruism, reminding us that we belong to one human family first. It is unthinkable then for these Lumad women to flourish on their own without minding the welfare of others. We can’t simply survive alone. While we continue to fight for the equal rights of women in the society, let us also celebrate their worthy contributions. Celebrating women’s month behooves us to acknowledge lumad women’s extraordinary display of inner strength, courage amidst oppression, nourishing leadership, peculiar altruism for the next generation, and a non-violent appeal for social transformation. Not that Lumad women are better than the rest of the women, but by the prevalence of oppression and repression among their communities, they refused to give in and be cowled by the situation. Lumad women are simply women who aspire for freedom and progress amidst their adversities and, by doing so, inspire us all to do the same. (Original names are withheld for security reasons)
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews Fr. Raymond Montero Ambray heads the Integral Ecology Ministry, LGBTQ+ Apostolate, Church Heritage and Historical Commission of the Diocese of Tandag. He is a graduate of MA Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University, a member of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and a founding member of Caraga Watch, an environmental watchdog. He is part of the Board of Consultors of the Bishop of Tandag. This reflection was first published on his FB page. MindaNews was granted permission to publish this)