The Art of Women’s Struggles Is the Art of Building Community and Making Alternative History

Women across the world have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Care responsibilities, which now include teaching children, top off the long-standing problem of unpaid labor such as housework. During the lockdown, women have also been more vulnerable to domestic abuse and online sexual abuse. Then there’s also the back-to-back phenomena of the so-called Baby Boom and Shecession (the phenomenon of largely female job losses). It is only apt to conclude that the longer the lockdown, the worse things get for women.

In the Philippines, where the longest and strictest lockdown in the world has been imposed, these existing problems are worsened by the president’s intensified misogyny. Dubbed an “orphan maker,” Rodrigo Duterte is accountable for thousands of cases of extra-judicial killings from the height of the war against drugs up until the present—this moment when the COVID-19 numbers have not significantly improved due to his flawed and militaristic pandemic response. He even weaponized the pandemic to come after dissenters and activists with the railroading-through of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. According to the Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women, as of March 2021, the number of women political prisoners has climbed to eighty while that of peasant women killed by state forces has risen to . Women who simply criticize the government and perform humanitarian acts are being red-tagged, which endangers their lives and possibly authorizes their grave punishment by imprisonment or execution. In the countryside, peasant women leaders who struggle to defend their land are harassed by state forces, threatened, and illegally arrested. Perhaps one of the most misogynistic treatments that the world has witnessed was that of Reina Mae Nasino, political prisoner, who didn’t even get to hold her baby, let alone wipe her baby’s tears, on the day of her internment. Locked up on trumped up charges, Nasino was separated from her baby after giving birth, which eventually led to the infant’s death

“History has shown us that while there is oppression, there is resistance. This is true among women’s movements in many parts of the world. Despite the pandemic, hundreds of thousands and millions of women and men go to the streets to protest about issues that are specific to women,” say the editors of Gantala Press (2021) in an essay where they enumerate different forms of women’s resistance around the world. This Periscope dossier attempts to contribute to efforts such as this one through documenting the creative resistance of Filipino women against the authoritarian conditions they struggle against today

In the gender as well as racial logic of capitalist modernity, women have largely been reduced to what Hannah Arendt called “labors of necessity,” the degraded work of merely reproducing life, while men have been elevated to the higher work of culture and civilization, the arts of producing the enduring artifacts that are proof and example of the lasting achievements of humanity and that transcend the basic necessity of mere living. In this view, the arts have been the provenance of masculine creativity, imagination, design, and intelligence—the designated model of human culture that transcends nature, the body, and a brute life of subsistence. As feminists have long noted, the same gendered hierarchy marks the distinction between the “high” fine arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, etc. and the “lower” practical or functional crafts of basket making, weaving, sewing, and embroidery. This distinction similarly marks the division between mental and material labor (between products of the mind and processes of the body), sexist and racist divisions between kinds of humans and between forms of activity. These distinctions have been intrinsic to the capitalist mode of accumulation of value and power and are based on the degradation and exploitation of the purportedly merely reproductive lives of subsistence of women, peasant farmers, Indigenous communities, and the urban poor.

Today, under the murderous, misogynist regime of Rodrigo Duterte (what Cabral refers to, in her essay for this collection, as its “macho-fascism”), the sexist logic of state power as permanent war against its own people has never been clearer. At the same time, the power and creativity of women’s struggles and feminist organizing have been formidable. It is this power and creativity of women’s forms of resistance, and in particular feminist and women’s activists’ use of women’s “arts and crafts” against the murderous, violent forms of power and governance asserted by the Duterte regime, the police, the military, etc. that we wanted to foreground in this issue of Periscope.

To this end, the editors have gathered women activists’ reflections on arts and crafts (stitching, sewing, publishing, visual arts, teaching, community writing, printmaking, and songwriting, as well as the subsistence practices—urban gardening, community pantries, etc.) that they and the communities they work with have been using in the political struggle against the deeply masculinist state craft of the Duterte regime, with its sovereign “arts” and acts of violence evidenced in militarist repression and criminalization of dissent, relentless land dispossession of farmers and Indigenous communities, and attacks on people’s livelihood, targeting of people’s defenders, closure and outright bombing of Lumad (Indigenous communities of Mindanao) schools, and active indifference to the disproportionate toll that women in the informal economy have suffered under a militarist lockdown during the pandemic.

We wanted to explore how women and feminists in the Philippines understand the political importance of the creative practices and modes of expression used in struggle as a means and model of resistance against the systems of power (the “statecraft” and “corporate arts” of authoritarian repression, capitalist exploitation, patriarchal and masculinist structures, imperial dispossession, and other forms of social injustice and violence) that they are fighting against. Primarily feminist activists, the women who have contributed to this online dossier come from various arenas of cultural work—visual art, writing and publishing, music, journalism. They focus on the marginalized women they work with, such as peasants, workers, the urban poor, and Indigenous communities, who have been continuously resisting and working against these long-standing structures of violence that have only been exacerbated by the state’s actions during the pandemic.

For example, demolitions of houses in the urban poor areas have not ceased, even in the middle of the pandemic. While people are being told to stay at home and practice physical distancing, the homes of the poor—where people can barely move—are being crushed in the name of gentrification and Duterte’s Build Build Build project. In “Urban and rural women at the forefront of reclaiming their land,” Geela Garcia highlights urban poor women championing the art of growing their own food and reclaiming demolished spaces while they’re at it.

Like gardening, stitching and embroidery are also practical, creative ways of resistance with a long history. Through collective stitching, women do not just prepare an eco-friendly protest material but importantly sew a culture of solidarity, as Rae Rival writes in “Defend Peasant Women: Stitching to Resist.” Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women, Rural Women Advocates, and artist Yllang Montenegro stitch to amplify the call to #DefendPeasantWomen, unfurling their hand stitched banners in protests. Faye Cura’s cloth books, which she describes in “Sewing Dissent: Making Cloth Books During Covid-19,” contain secret codes, escaping the cunning of the repressive 2020 Anti-Terror Law, which outlaws criticism against the government.

Then there are messages that aren’t supposed to be secret, such as calls for free mass testing, vaccination, and medical solutions. As she describes, in “Music as Counterviolence in the Time of Duterte and COVID-19,” Alyana Cabral embeds such messages in songs sung at protests and educational fora. Meanwhile, always on the brink of displacement, Lumad Bakwit students have pen and paper to turn to, as narrated in “Writing to Resist, to Remember.” Roda Tajon writes that for Indigenous youth evacuated out of conditions of state war against their communities, “writing as an art form is their way of remembering their communities, the families that they have to temporarily leave behind so they may seek justice…their written narratives offer hope that the wisdom and knowledge gained from the collective struggle to resist attacks will live on. It will be passed on to the future generation of brave and resolute Lumad youth.”

But art isn’t easy for everyone, especially not for women who have lost their jobs. In Roma Estrada’s “Women and the (Non)Working Filipina,” women workers describe how even simple joys become difficult to access due to the lack of resources. And yet, through collective practices of cooperation, such as those enlivened through community pantries where they work together, women also get to create spaces for solidarity. As Rival notes, collective sewing keeps defenders of peasant women together. She writes that in the face of and protest against harassment and attack, “we collectively mended our grief in front of the cameras, stitching and processing our anger through our solidarity statement.” Stitching is speaking as well as mourning, healing, and reinvigorating the fight for radical transformation.

In an essay titled “Weaving: Women’s Art and Power,” Alice G. Guillermo argues that women’s traditional art of weaving in the Philippines has largely been taken for granted and overlooked in the context of a dominant patriarchal order, even as it is an integral and vital part of communities’ everyday life. Women weavers exercise important social power in traditional communities because of their role in preserving and disseminating the world view and values of their communities. Weaving is associated with the babaylan, or native priestesses, as mediators between the community and the spirits and forces of nature, because of the importance of this art and the women weavers themselves to social rituals of birth and death, spiritual and physical healing, and all aspects of community life and survival. As they inscribe the perspectives, imagination, and spiritual and practical aspirations and invocations of their communities through the mediation of the women weavers, Guillermo argues, the handwoven fabrics become women’s “narratives of social and environmental exchange, protecting and unifying the body and spirit of a community” (36). In contrast to the histories of patriarchal state power, these are everyday life narratives that “reflect the female point of view of cosmological relationships and cultural interactions.” In this way, “textiles constitute an alternative history by and of women, as well as of the socially marginalized, economically deprived, and non-Christian groups, as against mainstream history constructed in the interest of powerful, economically dominant, male Christian elites” (36)

The arts and crafts of women’s struggles today continue this tradition and the role of women weavers as makers and defenders of their communities’ survival and as writers of an alternative, communitarian history. “Creative resistance” might thus be understood in this sense—as acts that make as well as testify to the life and struggle of survival of communities. Like traditional woven textiles, the cloth books of Cura, for example, serve at once as revolutionary organizing codes, as gifts, as a source of strength, but also as documents of the failure of the state in a time of people’s crisis and the refusal of women to forget it. Similarly, in addition to amplifying the voices and demands of the people, as Cabral asserts, women’s activist music is a form of healing, of processing the strong emotions of struggle. As a creative mode of expression, it is a social force of “counter attack,” of narrating “events and stories of the marginalized exactly as they are, in ways we should remember them.” As such, music becomes “a way of documenting and mapping memory, playing a role in reconstructing and correcting history.”

It is in this same spirit of contributing to an alternative history that we have gathered together these essays. We hope that these essays are also seeds of further thought and action that can grow and sustain old and new communities of solidarity with those presented here. In this, we take inspiration from the work and words of Nanay Carmina, one of the women reclaiming land for the cultivation of urban poor gardens. As she reflects, “If art involves imagination, our gardens are art because through them we imagine and contribute to building better communities.”

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Roma Estrada

Roma Estrada has taught for ten years in different high schools and universities. Currently maintaining a monthly opinion column for Davao Today, she also does volunteer work in different art and cultural organizations. Her works are archived at romaestrada.wordpress.com. Reach her at romaestrada@protonmail.com.


Rae Rival

Rae Rival is the coordinator of Rural Women Advocates, the volunteer arm of Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women. She teaches arts-based research and creative nonfiction at the Philippine High School for the Arts.


Neferti X. M. Tadiar

Neferti X. M. Tadiar is author of Things Fall Away: Philippine Historical Experience and the Makings of Globalization and Fantasy-Production: Sexual Economies and Other Philippine Consequences for the New World Order. She is Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Barnard College and Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. Her current book project is entitled Remaindered Life.