A Pre-Colonial Take on the 2018 Filipino Pro-Woman Bill

In a historic vote made in March 2018, the Philippines House of Representatives passed Bill 7303, “An Act Instituting Absolute Divorce and Dissolution of Marriage in the Philippines.” In “Guiding Principles” Section 3.4 of the bill, legislators underscore that “the option to file for absolute divorce is a pro-woman legislation because in most cases, it is the wife who is entitled to a divorce as a liberation from an abusive relationship and to help her regain dignity and self-esteem.” Despite receiving overwhelming support across party lines from both majority and minority House members, the pro-woman bill has reached a stalemate in the hands of the 17th Congress of the Philippine Senate, comprised of 24 senators—6 of whom are women. The bill will likely rest with the Senate until the 2019 mid-term elections, when a number of conservative senators who rely on the support of the Church are running for re-election. Fr. Jerome Secillano, Executive Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, concedes that while “divorce may indeed vindicate the rights of women… it is unfortunately to the detriment of marriage and family as sacred institutions that should otherwise be protected by the state.”

A rally in the Philippines in response to the 2018 Filipino Pro-Woman Bill (image courtesy of Mendoza)

According to the Church, divorce is “anti-marriage” and “anti-family;” women’s rights come secondary to (and may even be incompatible with) religion. In this way, conservative Catholicism pits the pro-woman bill against the national identity of the Philippines as a stronghold of Roman Catholicism. While opponents warn that the bill will open the Philippines to the “divorce virus,” practices akin to divorce existed in the archipelago prior to the arrival of Christianity. Furthermore, divorce had been offered sporadically under Spanish rule in the Philippines. It was not until 1947 that the Civil Code of the Philippines banned absolute divorce for Catholic Filipinos. Attempts were made to abolish absolute divorce entirely from the constitution in 1949 under the guiding premise that divorce “is unchristian and fundamentally alien to the Filipino temperament and way of life.” In other words, in a country that prides itself as one of the last remaining bastions of Catholicism in the modern world, pro-woman legislation becomes a danger to the very definition of what it means to be Filipino.

I want to suggest, however, that the Filipino people—both in our contemporary moment and in the past—do not and did not conclusively view divorce and pro-woman practices to be detrimental to families and to future generations. By stark contrast, pre-colonial Filipino natives found the pleasure and happiness of women to be a central component to the overall good of their societies.

Surveys from 2018 reveal just how divided Filipinos are on House Bill 7303. It is worth noting that, today, divorce is possible for only a minority of Filipinos. Muslim Filipinos are permitted divorce under the Code of Muslim Personal Laws of the Philippines. And, for Philippine nationals wedded to foreign spouses, a divorce obtained abroad is likewise recognized under Philippine law, allowing the Filipino to remarry. For around 80% of the predominantly Catholic population of the Philippines, however, divorce remains illegal. For Catholic Filipinos, an annulment provides the only means by which they can dissolve unions and potentially re-marry. In addition to being pro-woman, House Bill 7303 also, therefore, aims to enfranchise the country’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens who are least likely to receive an annulment, which is a restrictive, costly, and lengthy process in an overburdened court system.

Atienza discusses divorce and annulment in the Philippines (courtesy of Mendoza)

President Duterte, who enjoyed the privilege of receiving an annulment from his first marriage, has reportedly expressed reservations about House Bill 7303. Likewise, senators—such as Vicente Sotto III, Joel Villanueva, Panfilo Lacson, Francis Escudero, Cynthia Villar, and professional boxer-turned-senator Manny Pacquiao—have been vocal in their preference to expand the grounds for annulment rather than legalize divorce.

Although some Filipino couples in the twenty-first century remain trapped in unhappy, estranged, or abusive marriages, their pre-colonial ancestors more than 400 years ago could enter and leave unions with impunity. In a culture that accepted serial monogamy, native early modern Filipino men did not prize women’s virginity. While both sexes likely had multiple partners in their lifetimes, sixteenth-century Europeans fixated on the perceived promiscuity of Filipino women specifically and diagnosed a disregard for chastity as an unnatural inversion of male-female order. European travelers believed that, since Filipinos did not require their women to protect and value sexual purity, native men ceded their dominance and authority to the weaker sex. The Church in 2018 warns that pro-woman legislation destroys families; Christian European travelers in the early modern period similarly used the perceived prurient freedoms of Filipino women to frame the native culture as radically deviant, inferior, and in need of correction.

Boxer Codex-Bissayan 1 and Boxer Codex-Bissayan 2 (courtesy of Mendoza)

Native women’s sexual autonomy was evident not only in Filipino relationships in general but also in specific erotic practices. These practices were used as ammunition to justify European imperial expansion. The authors of European travel narratives expressed a mixture of contempt and fascination in response to the pervasive custom of male genital piercing that was reported among Filipinos as well as the Cambodians, Malays, and Bengalis. According to the early seventeenth-century accounts of Antonio de Morga and Friar Juan de Medina, a spur-like implement called a sagra, which resembled a blunted St. Catherine’s Wheel, would be fastened to a man’s genitals by a rod, about the size of a goose quill, that pierced through the head of the penis.

image courtesy of Mendoza

In An Account of the First Voyage Around the World (ca 1526), the Italian Antonio Pigafetta reported to his European readers that all men—both young and old—in the Visayan Islands had subjected themselves to palang piercings. When asked why they had elected to undergo a painful and potentially dangerous form of bodily mutilation, the men purportedly responded, “this is the wish of their wives, and that if they did otherwise they would not have intercourse with them.” Native men, Medina agreed, could not even approach Filipino women without a sagra. And, more than a century later, Jesuit missionary Francisco Ignacio Alcina confirmed in his Historia de las Islas (1668) that social pressures, primarily deriving from the sexual expectations of women, compelled Filipino men to suffer the procedure.

Palang piercings, from a Christian perspective, were overwhelmingly considered aberrant but not simply because of the palang itself. For sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Europeans, “[n]ot only [did Filipino men place] women in the unusual position of controlling their partners’ sexual organs,” as Carmen Nocentelli explains, “[they also granted] their pleasures and desires an unprecedented weight in the establishment of societal practice.” In Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity, Nocentelli further suggests that the cultural emphasis on women’s pleasure for the sake of their pleasure—and not just for the purpose of reproduction—was what bothered and perplexed early modern European travelers the most about palang piercings. Consequently, colonialists held palang piercings up as evidence of an immoral, irrational, and uncivil society where women’s coital satisfaction rendered men effeminate and distorted the natural order of male dominance.

In other words, what may be termed today as “pro-woman” erotic practices were understood by Europeans in the early modern period as perversions of a natural social hierarchy that was supposed to secure men’s access to the bodies of women and to reify their dominance in the home and in society. By demeaning the erotic practices of early modern Filipinos, European travel accounts cast the natives as worthy of dispossession and in need of rational, “masculine” governance. In this way, “pro-woman” early modern sex practices became one important part of the ideological justification for colonizing the Philippine islands.

Rather than flirt with the dangers of romanticizing a pre-colonial and pre-Christian past, we should remember that mistrust and even vilification of “pro-woman” practices—particularly when it pertains to sexuality—existed long before House Bill 7303 and, in fact, remain deeply woven into the fabric of Philippine colonial history. Yet women’s autonomy, well-being, and pleasure did also once occupy a crucial position in the structure of pre-Christian Philippine society. In fact, one must wonder if early modern Filipinos really thought that palang piercings and serial monogamy established women in positions of undue sexual and social power. Instead, I would suggest that perhaps the dynamic between sixteenth-century Filipino men and women, lovers and past-lovers, simply eluded the strict dichotomies that the Europeans were conditioned and wanted to see.

While laws that are directed toward the enfranchisement of Filipino women are today lambasted as threats to the family and the identity of the Philippines, social practices that prioritized women’s desires were used by foreigners to rationalize centuries of oppression. If the Philippine people now—both those who support and those who oppose divorce—could read House Bill 7303 with their early modern ancestors, perhaps they would be challenged to think outside the reductive classifications of “pro-” and “anti-.” Perhaps, they would be asked to consider how caring equally for the welfare and pleasure of adults can and does align with the goals of protecting children and strengthening Filipino families.

Kirsten Mendoza is Assistant Professor at the University of Dayton. Her work focuses on gender, race, sexuality, and consent in the early modern period.

The contributors to this special issue were participants in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Colloquium on “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies.” Organized and facilitated by Kimberly Anne Coles and Ayanna Thompson, the year-long colloquium met monthly to study a range of early modern cultural artifacts and texts. While exploring the Folger’s extensive collections, the participants also pursued innovative methods for bringing gender and race into dialogue with each other. Patricia Akhimie asked participants specifically to consider how questions of gender and race might be analyzed “in relation both to early modern texts and our own personal and contemporary experiences.” The contributions in this issue represent our efforts to do just that.


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