When Gabriela met Rizal | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Women to march against violence,” announced the caption of the huge front-page photo of the Inquirer’s March 7 issue, showing activist women leaders making a strong “halt” with their hands. It further said, “Spearheaded by the Gabriela partylist group, the United Action Against Misogyny will march on Rizal Park on Friday to protest what it describes as abuses against women under the Duterte Administration.” March 8 was International Women’s Day.


Anyone reading the accompanying article would be impressed at how today’s women fearlessly articulate their grievances, often more strongly than men. I also found it appropriate that in recent years, women activists have gravitated to Rizal Park, because it reminded me that Jose Rizal was one of the first proponents of women’s rights  in the late 19th century.


Looking back, it is amazing how the confident, even confrontational, stance of today’s women’s rights advocates reflects the enormous gains of the feminist movement in our country.


It’s a far cry from 1888, when 20 young women of Malolos wrote a respectful petition to then Spanish governor general Valeriano Weyler, and presented it to him personally as a group— an unprecedented move considered bold for that time. Theirs was a modest request to be allowed to learn Spanish under Teodoro Sandiko, a progressive-minded teacher sympathetic to them.

 A threat

They were turned down initially, because the town’s friar curate objected. He believed that knowing the Spanish language posed a threat to Spanish rule, because it would provide access to knowledge, and eventually lead to a desire for freedom and a demand for human rights by the native women.


Considering that women’s suffrage was achieved only in 1937 under the Americans, it was hardly surprising that the Spanish colonizers of an earlier time would have a much more unenlightened  mindset.


Rizal entered the picture when, at the request of Marcelo del Pilar, he wrote a letter to the Malolos women commending their courage and exhorting them not to give up their struggle. Originally written in Tagalog, it is the now famous “Letter to the Young Women of Malolos.”


Although the women eventually succeeded in having their school, their victory was shortlived. The school  shut down after only a few months. But their aspirations did not die, and their awakened spirit continued to be manifested in the Philippine Revolution against Spain. Later on, some of them became founding members of the Malolos Committee of the Asociacion Feminista Filipina in 1906, a national organization aimed at improving the welfare of women in all classes.


“It can be said that the women of Malolos were the forerunners of the feminist movement in the country for championing the cause of women’s right to education and equal rights regardless of gender.” (From “Girl Power: the Women of Malolos” by Quennie Ann J. Palafox)


Rizal’s inspirational letter to the women was an essay addressed to unmarried young women, wives and mothers, which articulated his philosophy of freedom, human rights, equality and education for everyone. And although it is from another age, it still applies today. For one, the all-powerful, abusive and suppressive friars have similar counterparts in today’s society.


It is ironic that given today’s supposedly more enlightened social environment, problems of sexual abuse, harassment and molestation of women—and children—and the cavalier attitude of some towards these acts, are still significant issues, not only here but around the world.



These have given rise to the women’s #MeToo movement and the global outcry against the thousands of clergymen who have been accused of molesting children over many decades. Here at home, the thousands of unsolved EJKs “under investigation” (and the seemingly half-hearted measures to solve them) continue to deprive many mothers, wives and children of their loved ones without obtaining justice.


In trying to understand the various causes that today’s women activists are fighting for, I am strongly reminded of a “modernized” fable which I received on Viber a while back. Briefly, it goes like this: King Arthur, who had been captured by a neighboring monarch, was to be put to death unless he could answer a very difficult question. To save his king, Sir Lancelot, the most noble knight of the Round Table, agreed to marry the only person who could possibly give the right answer, an ugly, repulsive old hag whose precondition was marriage to Lancelot.


The question was: “What do women really want?” The old woman’s answer, which saved King Arthur’s life, was this: “What a woman really wants… is to be in charge of her own life.”


On their wedding night, Lancelot, steeling himself for a horrible experience, was instead met by the sight of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She then told him that because he had been kind to her when she was ugly, she would be ugly only for half the time and beautiful the other half. She then asked Lancelot which he would prefer—her being beautiful during the day and ugly at night—or the other way around. Lancelot finally said he would allow her to make the choice herself. On hearing this, the woman announced she would now be beautiful all the time, because he respected her enough to let her be in charge of her own life—which was actually her original answer to the difficult question!


In the 1960s, when smoking was still cool, Virginia Slims became the no. 1 women’s cigarette with the now classic (some would say sexist) slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”


Yes, today’s women have indeed come a long way from the days of the intrepid women of Malolos and their champion, Jose Rizal. But they know they still have a long way to go.–CONTRIBUTED

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