Notes on “Umiimik, Umaalma”

By Angeli Lacson, UP Writers Club

Last November 23, 2019, UP Writers Club, in partnership with feminist literary collective Gantala Press and small press expo Better Living Through Xeroxography, held Umiimik, Umaalma: Resisting the Cultural Reproduction of Violence Against Women at the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, UP Diliman. Moderated by Ms. Faye Cura, the roundtable discussion brought together perspectives from the fields of literature, media, entertainment, music, and law. Present were Prof. Anna Sanchez, Prof. Rowena Festin, Ms. Kat Alano, Ms. BP Valenzuela, Prof. Diosa Labiste, and Prof. Christine Lao as resource speakers.

Violence against women (VAW) persists in all industries; cultural products such as art and literature can thus be used to resist or perpetuate VAW.

In literary circles, misogyny, abuse, and patriarchy still reign, as explained by Sanchez and Festin. Sanchez, who is Director of the UP National Writers’ Workshop, tracked the literary patriarchy in numbers, collecting data from nationwide workshops, awards, and contests. From the UPNWW to the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, fellows and awardees were often male, often privileged. UP Pampanga professor Festin, supporting Sanchez’s findings, see workshops as consistently dominated by males—their voices, worldviews, and ideologies. The absence of women has contributed to the deafening silence surrounding VAW; their exclusion weakens essential circles of support, empathy, and solidarity.

Moreover, Festin noted that simply increasing women’s voices is not enough. It is equally important to question why one has chosen to write or speak about women’s struggles—for whom, and towards what end? Artistic spaces can equally serve as sites of resistance or exploitation; capitalizing on women’s narratives as mere props to further careers contributes, no matter how indirectly, to marginalizing women.

In the entertainment industry, VAW is part and parcel of the inner workings of showbiz and fame. Alano, an outspoken advocate for women’s empowerment, explained that harassment and abuse are the norm (“All of the main hosts of the noontime shows are rapists.”). Producers, executives, and big-name entertainers coerce hopeful young artists into performing sexual favors in exchange for connections and credibility. Protected by their name, reputation, and wealth, these predators act with the utmost impunity, suppressing any attempt at legal action with violent threats at both the life and career of the victim.

Having experienced VAW firsthand, Alano discussed her current efforts to create an alternative, safe, and sustainable platform for artists. Her project, Empower Philippines, draws from her research in law and government regarding anti-VAW initiatives.

Accordingly, singer-songwriter and producer Valenzuela recognized the culture of normalizing sexism and harassment within the music industry. She recounted being heckled at the UP Fair, and offered unwanted sexual attention following performances. Emphasizing the need for active solidarity, Valenzuela called for women to look out for each other—especially in spaces dominated by men—and to continue to organize and mobilize against all forms of VAW. 

Analyzing the proliferation of trolls since the 2016 elections, Labiste, who teaches media studies and journalism, highlighted the ways in which troll farms have used misogynistic and threatening rhetoric to increase social media engagement. These troll farms are wide-spread and unregulated, reproducing fake news to misinform, confuse, and exhaust the general public. Since 2016, trolls have become increasingly difficult to identify, in turn making it harder to differentiate facts from fake news. More importantly, the trolls’ misogynistic and violent language is both normalized and perpetuated because it is reinforced by the highest government official: the President. Duterte’s blatantly violent, abusive, and sexist comments have, in a way, allowed others to act and speak similarly, justified by the fact that “even the President does it”. Duterte’s sexist attacks on his opposition, such as Senator De Lima and VP Robredo, are imitated online and in daily life. Labiste explained that trolls profit from any kind of engagement on their posts and recommended ignoring them while working with others to verify the validity of information.

It is of utmost importance that women—especially young women—know that they can leave institutions that refuse to protect them; that they do not owe their mentors, teachers, or employers anything. They can likewise choose to work within institutions—or create their own platforms—to forward genuine change towards gender equality and safety. What is essential to note is that the deep-seated normalization and propagation of VAW demands a solution greater than that which can be accomplished by a single individual. Ultimately, eradicating VAW requires structural and systemic reforms. 

Yet processes under the legal system, the very institution sworn to protect and uphold the rights of its people, are not infallible nor always fair. Lao, a professor of literature and a lawyer, explained that while the law upholds women’s right to safety and justice in theory, the practice of the legal system can reinforce gender-based violence. The Philippine judiciary largely rules via precedent—the outcome of cases are, more often than not, determined by the rulings of prior cases. Coupled with the tedious and often traumatic bureaucratic process of filing legal cases, as well as pervasive misogyny and victim-blaming, VAW cases often end with the abuser acquitted and the victim left without justice. 

The present failures of the legal system should not deter women from reporting and filing cases of VAW. Lao suggests the opposite: that speaking up and filing more cases will heighten the urgency of VAW cases in the legal system. It is not improbable that one day, a judge will rule in favor of women, and thus set a legal precedent for future VAW cases. 

There is no “best” course of action, and neither is there a singular path to genuine liberation. But if there is a common thread to be drawn from historical and present struggles, it is that there is power and strength in organizing. The ruling class has every interest to alienate and isolate us from each other; to force competition and extreme individualism upon the many. Women’s liberation calls for solidarity to forward resistance. As we move into the next decade, we must draw larger circles of empathy—to keep looking out for each other, to create new spaces, and to continue organizing together.

Photos by the UP Writers Club

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