Brown Feminism

Last year, I had the privilege of being the respondent to a survey involving gender sensitivity and women’s rights in the context of disaster response. We spent some time talking about our experience with disaster response, as well as the strengths and the limitations when it comes to women and children.

The conversation below is probably not verbatim, but you’ll get the picture:

“According to our data,” said the interviewer (who was definitely not unfamiliar, because our organization has had the pleasure of working with him many times before), “women are less likely to know how to swim than men.”

That’s potentially a bad thing, yes. Probably may affect the survival rate in some communities in the context of disasters.

“What do you think it is that keeps women from learning how to swim?”

Now there’s a baffling question. Maybe they don’t feel like they need to learn how to swim?

“Isn’t it a survival skill? Because they don’t know how to swim, would that mean they are less accomplished or skilled? Would it mean that the women are now dependent on men for this survival skill?”

Yes, it is a survival skill. Everyone, particularly in flood-prone communities should know how to swim. Heck, I don’t know how to swim. I’ve been meaning to learn how to swim for a long time, but haven’t had the time. And I hardly think I’m less of a person just because I don’t know how to swim…

“These questions are probably a Western feminist thing, though,” the interviewer explains.

Ah, now I understand what this is about.

The thing with the Western point of view is that it takes too much stock on personal achievements, personal gains. If you have a PhD in Astrophysics, or own a multi-million dollar IT business, or won the Gold Medal for Discus-throwing in the Olympics, then congratulations! You have officially gone somewhere in life. If you haven’t, then sorry. You really ought to try harder. And get off the couch, you lazy ass.

Possibly, the above is a little exaggerated. I had a friend from high school who moved to the United States. Kept lamenting that all our classmates were already getting college degrees, working “professional” jobs, travelling places, etcetera, etcetera while he was stuck in a relatively low-paying 40-hour-a-week job and “not getting anywhere in life”. (Not a surprise. Education is relatively cheap in the Philippines. And it’s possible to get a great-quality education while working a part-time job, juggling a scholarship, or from your parent’s pockets. The general experience of family friends in the USA is that college education is but a dream if you weren’t born rich and aren’t willing to get thousands of dollars in debt.)

In the meantime, though, I was confused why this would make anyone feel bad about themselves. I know plenty of smart, talented people who could get college degrees or better jobs but just can’t be bothered.

But then here again, I must admit that I grew up in a relatively Westernized family. My aunts and uncles and grandparents are lawyers, doctors, degree-holders. Within the family, it is seldom directly said, but you are at the very least expected to finish college. But this isn’t set in stone either. You can choose not to. There may be talk, but you’re not likely going to be disowned or beaten up. (Not with the current generation, at least.)

And this is because, Westernized as our familial culture is, we’re still Filipino after all (and part-Chinese at that). And it’s pretty much a characteristic of Eastern cultures to have a culture of interdependence versus independence.

They recognize that they can’t do everything so we might as well divide the labor so everyone is happy. This has historically resulted in gender roles, which aren’t bad, really, as long as they’re by personal choice and are not limiting to one’s growth. Personally, my future husband doesn’t have to know how to cook for all I care. I love cooking. But if he can’t iron the clothes, we’re in trouble. Because that’s something I’ve never been able to do properly. And I don’t mind lifting heavy stuff either.

In the rural setting, this means that someone manages the farm and someone manages the home. In reality, those two people actually take turns with both tasks. (Men are more likely to take on the more macho-sounding chores, and often women are secretly happy that they don’t have to do all that hard work. That is not, of course, discounting the diverse contributions of women who do “macho” work and men who don’t.)

I recently read a book by Desmond Tutu that sums this up in one beautiful Nguni word: ubuntu – not to be confused with the operating system. I know it must be difficult to translate literally. But if what I’ve read about it so far is to be believed, it basically means that we are all human through other people. That we are who we are in how we treat others. I love this because it acknowledges that true humanity is not built by geniuses or leaders, but by our relationships and our interdependence to each other.

And sometimes this interdependence can be defined by gender (or by age) the same way it is defined by occupation. An office worker can hardly farm his own crops, but there is a very obvious relationship between him and the farmer. And I will repeat what I said, because I believe this is always important to note: This isn’t bad as long as it is defined by personal choice and doesn’t limit growth.

Basically, we’re all in the same boat. Each person needs to play a role so we get where we need to go, because no single person can steer it on their own. (But then everyone should still learn how to swim.)

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