Women Writing in the Pandemic

Gantala Press is a feminist small press and literary collective based in Metro Manila. We produce and publish books and zines (which are self-published, non-commercial, often homemade publications), and organize art-related projects with artists and groups.

We started our collective in 2015 in response to the underrepresentation of women in literary institutions. At that time, we were acutely aware of writing seminars, conferences, or workshops where the panels of experts were all-male or mostly male. It’s the same story with literary anthologies, as well as in other fields: with art exhibits, film festivals, or concerts where one found only male names or mostly male names in the roster of artists.

We recognized how truly male-dominated the “Philippine literary scene” was, even if women headed major publishing houses or writing workshops in the country; even if many teachers of language and literature from elementary to college were women. The research of UP Diliman Professor Anna Sanchez confirms that it is really the men who have been dominating the writing workshops as organizers, panelists, and fellows. Hence, the culture that is cultivated in these workshops is also largely shaped by men. It is a culture similar to that of many spaces and organizations, where sexual harassment against women or subordinates is normalized.

The invisibility of women extends to the kind of literature that is validated by the culture industry, which includes schools and universities, mainstream publishing houses, writing workshops, national awards, literary festivals, and international book fairs. This demonstrates how men’s stories, concerns, and perspectives govern our education, our consciousness, our history. People just assume that men’s interests are the same as women’s, if not more important.

Left: It is still common to have only one or two women in a group of 10 or more panelists in a writing workshop. Right: In at least eight categories of the 2019 National Book Awards, the nominees were all men. In the Literary Criticism category, the sole nominee was a woman, but her work was still about Rizal — the quintessential Filipino.

But we at Gantala have slowly been veering away from these institutions. With very little economic or cultural capital, we gravitated towards the small press community, made friends with the zinesters and comics artists and non-professional writers. This direction has led to us to collaborate with people’s organizations, which in turn has deepened our engagement with the society and country that we wish to write and read about.

In 2016, a woman-hating president came to power. Suddenly, the poor are killed en masse, a city is bombed to the ground, activists are red-tagged, peasants and workers are jailed or assassinated.

Our generation of writers and artists were thrust into a kind of political awakening, in the same way that previous generations were roused by the Filipino-American War, World War II, and Martial Law — the dark days of history.

Left: One of our latest zines, a collection of writings by widows of Oplan Tokhang. We produced this with the art collectives Better Living Through Xeroxography and RESBAK. RESBAK has been documenting the number of extrajudicial killings since Duterte came to power. Right: The second book that we produced, an anthology of essays on the Marawi Siege and Martial Law in Mindanao. We titled it after Princess Lawanen, the lesser-known sister of the Darangen hero.

We always say that we started to reflect on our practice as writers when the Marawi Siege broke in 2017. That was when we first thought of the possibilities of writing outside merely writing. We learned of Meranao women who lost their babies, their sanity, and even their life when they were displaced from their homes and forced to live in evacuation centers. We realized that women truly go through disaster, and life, in ways that are different from men. And that no one but the women themselves can tell how different.

I first read the sentence “It’s a man’s world” in Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70. I was in high school. The novel, like Bautista’s other works, has also taught me what a liberated woman is, what a feminist Pinay can look like. I am privileged because a woman writer was able to warn me early on that the world is indeed shaped by patriarchy. That critical, useful worldview has stayed with me ever since. I see how women are interrupted by men all the time. How they are ignored. How they are silenced. Important decisions that affect our everyday lives are organized by men according to their outlook, needs, and convenience, often at the expense of women. (We can see this in Senator Pimentel’s careless act of visiting the hospital even after having been tested positive for COVID-19. And in the recent pandemic response, the government appointed male soldiers and policemen to literally man the barangay checkpoints. Had women been consulted, they would have suggested that female officers be placed in the checkpoints to avoid sexual harassment and violence.)

Being an activist collective, perhaps it was inevitable for us to meet the Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women in this administration, since the long-existing oppression of peasants has intensified in this regime. As of April, the military has killed 250 peasants, 35 of them women. Just last week, another peasant leader was gunned down in Samar.

The military also continues to harass and intimidate indigenous peoples on behalf of large corporations. On May 19, around 40 military and police troops arrived in full battle gear in the Lumad communities of Km. 16 and Han-ayan in Surigao del Sur to arrest a Lumad, question the residents, and surveil the Lumad school there. Elsewhere, many other peasants and peasant advocates are arrested on trumped-up charges. Among the young activists who were wrongfully imprisoned in Leyte in February is Frenchie Mae Cumpio, the editor-in-chief of a community newspaper.

In the past five years that we have been working more or less outside the literary industry, the act of writing has also been demystified, deconstructed, and decentralized in various ways (forgive the alliteration). For us, this means writing not for writing’s sake, nor for the sake of money or awards or fame. Working as a feminist literary collective has meant providing a space for anyone to write, especially those who really need to. And they are the people in marginalized communities, particularly the women who are direct targets of patriarchal oppression, which comes on top of the other forms of oppression against Filipinos.

Anyone should be able to write. But in today’s world, the validation that writing degrees and awards provide often only serve capitalism’s interests, the interests of the few. Our educational system teaches us how to write only so we can better serve our future employers, the multinational corporations.

Left: In DepEd’s new curriculum for the Humanities, “Work Immersion” — or how to behave in offices — is being taught to high school students. Right: “Business Writing” is one of the writing genres to be borne out of the neoliberal economy.

However, writing is powerful when used properly, that is, in the name of justice. It can change people’s minds and worldviews (like Dekada ‘70 has changed mine). It can transform people’s lives. That is why the powers that be are threatened by dissent, and journalists like Frenchie Mae are thrown into jail. So imagine the lives that Filipinos could be leading if women peasants and workers and indigenous peoples — if the broad masses — write their stories. Imagine the stories of oppression, but also of struggle and resistance, that will empower us all.

Up until our sixth book, we have been publishing the works of mostly middle-class women writers. Then, Batis AWARE, a group of former migrant women, asked us to help them release their second anthology of writings and visual art. Their anthologies are produced after several workshop sessions with writers. That has since served as our model in publishing: not writing for the oppressed, but writing with them. When we go to a community and ask the women to share their stories, we go not to offer our supposed expertise on how to write better or more effectively. Instead, we learn about the struggles not only of individuals, but of entire communities. We learn how writing becomes just one of the instruments or weapons of resistance.

Here’s a zine we produced with the women workers of Sumifru Corporation, a banana and fruit plantation in Compostela Valley which would not recognize the workers’ union despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in their favor. We asked the women to write their everyday routine and learned that they wake up at four am, work for a pittance with no benefits, no sick or maternity leaves, then come home at 10 pm.

This is a book about the three-decade struggle of peasants in Lupang Ramos, a 374-hectare agricultural land in Cavite that the Ayalas want to buy and develop. Working on this book, we learned that the women and children serve as frontliners in physically defending their land from attackers. An unforgettable story involves Lola Masang, who climbed a bulldozer and threatened to strangle the driver with a Good Morning towel if he dared run his vehicle on their farm.

Here we have the nanays of Sitio San Roque with whom we wrote riddles and renggas, one rainy afternoon in Quezon City. Their community is being coveted by the Ayalas, again, who want to build a condominium complex on that land. The poems that the nanays wrote in this session were also performed by them in one of their community gatherings.

The underrepresentation of women in literature and culture is not due to the fact that women have not been creating art. History would tell us of women writers like Leona Florentino of Ilocos, who wrote occasional poetry for her neighbors; or Magdalena Jalandoni of Iloilo, who as a young girl sold her corridos in the palengke so she could buy dolls for her puppet plays at home. Many women also kept diaries and journals during the war. Of course, the fact that they belonged to the middle or upper-classes had a lot to do with why their works were preserved or published at all.

But our encounters with peasant women and women laborers have also shown us that class has little to do with the compulsion to create. Here is Marites Nicart of Cavite, who produces poems for their organizational meetings. She writes while selling her vegetables or guarding their farm from the enemy’s encroachment. Here is Zenaida Soriano, Chairperson of Amihan Women, who reads poetry in protest rallies and writes them herself. She is also a tremendously gifted mananahi. She sews protest banners that add splashes of color and life to Metro Manila’s gloomy streets.

Here is Melanie de la Cruz, a factory worker at Regent Food Corporation, who composes verses and songs that speak of inhumane working conditions. She was among the unionists who were jailed after their picket was violently dispersed by police. According to her, the songs help her get through miserable days. Ka Inday Bagasbas is also a well-known urban poor leader, who writes poems and speeches that encourage people to join their organization, their struggle for a decent home and a decent life.

It really is no wonder that women still create despite this crisis. But before we get to that, let’s have a brief review of women’s situation in the pandemic.

The Center for Women’s Resources has identified Seven Deadly Sins Against Women. In the pandemic, we see that these sins have become even deadlier.

The first issue is the high risk of infection. Seventy percent of health and medical frontliners, including social and barangay workers, are women. With no mass testing, insufficient protective equipment for our frontliners, and inadequate health and medical care even before the pandemic, the number of positive cases of coronavirus will just continue to rise.

Next, women and men have lost their livelihood. Women farmers could not sell their vegetables, their doormats and potholders, in the market because of the lockdown. Men farmers could not go to the cities to earn extra income in construction work or as drivers. Hunger among majority of our country’s population has worsened, and instead of properly distributing the social amelioration fund to those in need, the government deployed soldiers in neighborhoods and even recently fortified the anti-terror bill.

With classes and office work suspended, work has increased for women at home. In Hong Kong, domestic workers are asked to work even on their rest day.

The lack of access to basic services, the loss of livelihood, fear of infection and distrust of the government, and a general uncertainty about the future have led to an increase in depression and anxiety among women and men. Studies show that depression is more prevalent among women, who carry multiple burdens as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, etc. Here we see a news item about a Filipina domestic worker who jumped to her death on May 24 in a migrant shelter in Lebanon. The coronavirus is just the latest in a string of difficulties that our migrant workers face, especially in conflict areas like West Asia.

The ECQ has also forced women to be locked down with their abusers. With no access to transportation, report desks, or shelters, victims of intimate partner violence have nowhere to go. It is even more difficult for abused migrant workers who are often cut off from any form of social support abroad. There are also the cases of sexual harassment and exploitation of women at checkpoints. Reporting cases of gender-based violence might be more difficult these days. Women are blamed, asked “Where are the bruises?” when they try to report the crime committed against them.

The lockdown has also seen a dangerous increase in the consumption of porn, of incidents of online sexual harassment and bullying, and of cases of online prostitution of young women and girls. It has also led to more unwanted and unsafe pregnancies, either as a result of sexual violence or incest or of the lack of access to reproductive health services, not to mention the squalid living conditions of many Filipinos in their tiny houses.

Hospitals turn pregnant women away. One woman had to give birth on the streets. Another died. Here we have an op-ed written by Dr. Florence Tadiar, a foremost SRH expert in the country, on the preventable death of Katherine Bulatao. Let’s read Katherine’s story:

But we have also seen how efficiently women have been managing the crisis. Most of the relief efforts by civil society are led by women. Likewise, women’s groups take the initiative of opening VAW hotlines or psychosocial support groups. Artists and writers offer their works to help raise money for frontliners or for peasant families in the forgotten countryside. We at Gantala once pooled money to help with the birth expenses of an urban poor woman who had other family members to support. I am sure there are many more untold acts of solidarity and sisterhood among women.

This crisis has given us a chance to reflect on how our pre-pandemic way of life made us vulnerable to the disease, and on how we can fortify ourselves and our families at the moment and when the second and third waves of coronavirus arrive. The pandemic has allowed us to see what old habits or customs need to be dropped, what habits or customs we can bring into the future. It has allowed us, or at least those of us who can, to fight capitalism by changing our way of life. So we shift to a plant-based diet. We learn to ferment in order to prolong food supplies as well as strengthen our immune system. We start our own backyard gardens. We buy from small farms and volunteer in community kitchens. We try to be less and less reliant on consumerist products and live simply. We attempt to sew our own masks and clothes, mix our own medicines and disinfectant. We go back to the wisdom of our ancestors when water birthing at home.

And we record all of these. With the Internet, it is actually easier to document our lives. So during the lockdown women have been writing: recipes, menus, guides and manuals, reflections, political statements. We have been keeping blogs and journals. We have been embroidering poems and slogans, designing posters that call for mass testing, producing instructional zines on what COVID-19 is and how we can fight it.

Here are some writings by women in the pandemic:

Here, anxieties that peasants have about their future, including the threat of Martial Law.  

Here, some observations of midwives, which can teach our lawmakers how to make the No Home Birthing policy more workable for women.

Here, a poem about the government’s incompetence in handling the crisis, inspired by a mundane, everyday task like making breakfast. If you notice, the eggs resemble the despairing figure in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream.

Here, a journalist’s encounter with nurses at a hospital, who say that they would rather serve their country than work abroad, if only they had a choice.

Here, a Muslim leader’s call for her community to take care of one another in this crisis. Ma’am Samira has written another piece on how internally displaced persons continue to suffer in the shelters and could not go home, three years after the Marawi Siege.

Many of these creations circulate within communities of women, within cultures of care. They are ordinary stories, stories that do not pretend to be grand tales of sacrifice or heroism. But they are the kinds of stories that should help lay the foundation of this new world that we are building.

Women write for many reasons. First, we write in order to understand things and make informed decisions. We try to reconcile what we have learned from our mothers (and fathers) with our own learnings, from our own battles.

Second, we write to teach, to pass on knowledge and wisdom to our children.

Third, we write to lend strength to our sisters, in collective resistance.

Women write to nourish and protect our communities. Ultimately, we write to save lives.

Women journalists joined the resistance or edited underground publications during Martial Law. Despite the stigma against former comfort women, Lolas Remedios Felias and Rosa Henson told their stories to exact justice. Had they and the other lolas not spoken, the misunderstanding of rape and war would have remained in our collective unconscious.

A publisher from Africa pointed out that in her country, women write storybooks about child marriage not for the fame or the byline, but in order to change society and culture and protect their daughters. I believe that this impetus is common among women who also happen to write, women who do not see themselves as writers primarily, but as women.

In the face of the so-called new normal, it is more important to write, to draw, to remember our past, document our present, and visualize a new world. The question is not, “how can women write during the pandemic?” Because women will always write — that’s for sure. The question should be, “What kind of world is at the tip of our fingers?”

I would like to end with the Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s words, truly a light to guide us in this darkness:

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Maraming salamat po.

First presented by Faye Cura with the English Department of Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology via Google Meet, June 1, 2020.

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