Portrait of a Filipina Feminist, Part 1

UP Women’s Center

Sylvia Estrada Claudio is Director of the Center for Women’s Studies at the University of the Philippines and co-founder of Likhaan, a non-governmental organization which provides direct services to women in marginalized communities. This interview provides a glimpse into the history of the Philippines and the reproductive health movement. It is also a story of how one woman is making her contribution as a feminist and a proponent of the Reproductive Health Bill.

I began the interview by mentioning that I’d noticed a big gap between most of the Filipinos I knew and the literati and intelligentsia at the literary festival where we met.

Sylvia’s story

Well, there’s a long history of the educated class in the Philippines being alienated from the general population. The elite of the Philippines has also been typically the group that collaborated with the colonizers. Filipinos had no educational system under Spain, so the only people who could speak Spanish were the Spanish themselves, those who were of Spanish blood born in the Philippines and the very few native Filipinos who served them. The American system just continued the split, with an upper class of people who grew up speaking English and who were educated in elite institutions and then a lot of less educated people without the same grasp of English.

During the U.S. colonial period a very good public education system was put into place, starting with the famous U.S. teachers who came on the USS Thomas [in 1901]. My parent’s generation thought their public school education was better than the education in the private schools. The University of the Philippines [UP] was founded as a counterpoint to the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, the Catholic bastion of religiosity and non-secular views. The U.S. wanted a secular republic run by a group of essentially democratic-oriented, scientific, technocratic people. So my father’s generation got lots of Fulbright scholarships and scholarships from other programs. My father did his post-graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. I grew up in the 1950s, 60s and 70s as the child of two UP professors, and we lived on this campus, which seemed very much oriented toward the sciences as taught to our professors in U.S. universities. Nowadays I think there’s not only a split between the more English-speaking elite and the rest of the population, but also a split between those academics who choose to be engaged in social issues and the ivory-tower academics who don’t. Although I do know of pure science nerds who helped in the reproductive health movement even though it had nothing to do with their university work. And I also believe that there are those who do not engage in social issues but still contribute a lot by being excellent scholars working only in academia.

The great belief in technocracy and science and industrialization as the way to Filipino development didn’t really work. In the 70s we had the declaration of martial law and the gutting of social services, including education. The scholarships dried up, so we didn’t have the same opportunities to go abroad. Many people my age went into the anti-dictatorship struggle. I was thirteen years old and a member of a radical Maoist student groups when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. [This was in September, 1972. In the following month South Korean military dictator Park Chung-hee declared himself President for Life.]

So you take a rebellious thirteen-year-old and tell her that her activities are illegal and she’s an enemy of the state. You use the school authorities to control or frighten her. I just became more rebellious. Who knows why teenagers rebel, anyway? Some have really good reasons, some don’t. I spent the rest of high school doing crazy things, like smoking marijuana, not studying and being impolite to teachers. In my school, students with good grades couldn’t get kicked out. So my friends and I just made sure our grades were good while showing none of the traditional respect for the teachers or the school.

The minute I got into college I was recruited to be a part of a small underground cell at the university. Our biggest task was to run The Philippine Collegian, the student newspaper, which had been allowed to come back in, I think a year before. The student councils were not yet allowed back in, so we were also fighting for a consultative committee for student affairs to be formally allowed in the University. Those were the political tasks given to me as a member of the National Democratic Front which was then and now closely allied to the Communist Party of the Philippines.

I’m very proud of having worked on The Philippine Collegian, which ranks high in the journalistic and literary tradition of the country. It’s always been a radical but good student paper, but at that time it gained national importance because it was the only newspaper telling the truth about the Marcos dictatorship. All the mainstream media were controlled and suppressed. For example, when Marcos had a plebiscite to ask the people whether they would allow him to be president for life, only The Philippine Collegian said vote no. During that period, we covered the very first voters’ strike under martial law. We were printing twice as many copies as the total UP student population. I don’t remember the figures, but if the student population was around 5,000 we were printing 10,000 copies, and we had a pass-on readership of ten times that. People were hungry for news, and this small band of crazy young students was giving it to them. Because of that both the editors were arrested. One of them died as a result of that arrest. He had become very weak and had suffered greatly from asthma, which prison had aggravated. I never got arrested. Both times our offices were raided I was not in the office—just timing, I guess.

In medical school I became a member of an underground cell. We formed an organization that brought medical students to poor communities in order to expose them to the realities of those communities, to treat people and to provide services. Even dental, nursing, and physical and occupational therapy students were included. Cells were organized by class, and I’m again very proud. I think never in the history of this kind of organizing in the UP College of Medicine—or in any other medical school—did an underground cell of the National Democratic Front have twenty members. The next biggest had only seven. We did various things. Toward the end, my particular job was to look after high-value, New People’s Army fighters, Communist Party leaders and National Democratic Front leaders who needed medical care. At the UP Philippine General Hospital, I had a network of people to take the patients, give them false charts, send them to specialists who would not question their identities and get them out of the hospital without the authorities’ knowing. In medical school I was invited to become a member of the Communist Party, and I accepted.

So after graduation we—my future husband and I—went to the provinces. We were scheduled to become guerrilla doctors for the New People’s Army, but then we were told that our skills could be put to better use organizing other doctors. I think we were considered to be good at persuading others to join the movement. So we were called back to Manila, and I subsequently founded several organizations which still exist. They were fronts, but they also did the work they were supposed to do. At the same time they were influenced by the Party line, which was both good and bad.

When I was a member of the CPP, I thought I was rather obedient, but I think that in some ways that might not have been true. It’s just that I never considered feminist, personal issues as somehow connected to the struggle of the Party. This made a great deal of sense during the Marcos dictatorship. I had lost a lot of my dearest, closest friends to the military, to savagery and torture. There were massive human rights violations.

I heard stories of comrades who experienced sexism from the Party, like sexual harassment from some of the macho comrades. I wasn’t treated like that. I was living with the man who later became my husband, and I heard, “Why are you living together? That’s a violation of Party rules.” My future husband was a good Catholic, so he said, “Why don’t we just get married?” I didn’t really care, but since he and the Party and the Church wanted us to get married, why not? So in that sense I wasn’t as obedient as I thought. I was happy with the Party until I began to read up on women’s issues and feminism. When you come to work on women’s issues, you have a whole different take on things.

My break with the Party began with “the boycott era” at the time of the Snap Elections which pitted Corazon Aquino against Ferdinand Marcos. The Party came out with our typical Maoist line: it was only a struggle of two factions of the elite, Cory Aquino herself was a big landlord, this was a false belief in empty democracy fostered by U.S. imperialism, the U.S. liked the election and Cory Aquino, but the election wasn’t in the real interest of the masses. At that time I was sitting in the biggest legal formation of our forces. I represented the health sector in that multi-sectoral formation. This included Party members, National Democratic members and ordinary progressive doctors and workers. I told my superiors in the Party that if it came to a vote I wanted to vote yes. In the words of the time, I said, “The masses of the health sector want the election. People deem it worthy of participation. They want to participate. We cannot go against the sentiments of the people. I want to vote for the sentiments of the people I am supposed to represent.” The Party said, “If you vote yes you will be going against party discipline. You’re a Party member first and foremost.” I had no integrity. I voted no. But that was it.

The Party boycotted the election and as a result very much marginalized itself in the EDSA Revolution. As it turned out, the EDSA Revolution was indeed a hodgepodge of various interests. The U.S. wanted a peaceful change and the U.S. government facilitated that. But even the Party members I knew were very happy when Marcos left. Indeed, Cory Aquino was from the elite and to a certain extent didn’t push for fundamental changes as hard as she could have, but she was a true democrat in the democratic liberal sense. Despite threats to her administration, she established voting and attempted to make human rights a little more respected. She gave up power when she could, and she insisted on changing the constitution [to one which limited the powers of the presidency and established a bicameral legislature]. I really think that as a person she had integrity in the sense that she implemented what she believed in, in fact more integrity than many Party leaders I came to dislike. For example, there were Party purges, which I didn’t participate in.

So Marcos fell, and we had Cory Aquino. I was still hanging on, cynical and doubtful. Then the leaders of the mass organization I was in—it’s called Bayan, and it still exists—started getting assassinated one by one. We didn’t know who was behind it. One theory was that it was a right-wing military group that Cory Aquino couldn’t control. I have no idea. I was in the Bayan leadership. I don’t know where it came from, but according to our New People’s Army counterintelligence group I was one of those scheduled for assassination. There was some verification because a newspaper later published a list of state enemies, called in the military an “order of battle” and I was number 30-something. To this day my friends laugh at me because the price on my head was 20,000 pesos [about $785 at the time]. I was so poor I couldn’t even buy myself. Some people were worth millions. Nonetheless, I was considered worthy of two bodyguards from the sparrow units of the New People’s Army. I lived for a year like that.

If you’re a celebrity or a politician or the child of a multimillionaire, maybe having bodyguards would make sense. But if you’re just an ordinary activist, daughter of two professors, it didn’t make any sense at all. I was working with a poor NGO that I had set up—that is, I was still getting a salary, but I couldn’t go to the office anymore because that’s where I was likely to get shot. I was also getting these really funny vibes. There’s a valorization of violence and martyrdom in that kind of revolutionary movement. I’d enter a room, and the young people would get excited—not because they knew me or liked me or because in their eyes I’d done something admirable, but because I had two bodyguards and was a target for assassination. There were also two people who’d become egotistical because they had a higher price on their heads and far more bodyguards. That was upsetting.

After a year of living this horrible, constrained life, I asked one of my bodyguards if he would really take a bullet for me. I had a four-year-old son then, and I knew he had a family also. He said, “Yes, I would because your work in the movement is far more important than mine.” I thought, “It doesn’t make any sense that someone else should die for my choices. There can’t possibly be any work in the movement more important than his life.” I decided that was it. I asked for a year’s leave to think things over. I said I needed a leave so that the military would stop breathing down my neck and so Party resources could be put to better use. This was in 1987, so about two years after the boycott. The Party said yes, reluctantly.  Of course there were people who said my inability to stay on and live with this hardship, to take the risk and be brave, was due to my faltering ideological…whatever. That’s very much in the subculture of Maoist politics.

Nowadays I often think of how the religious fundamentalists who are opposed to the Reproductive Health Bill think and sound as humorless and as irrational and as ideological as my former Maoist colleagues. They both have the absolute truth. In both it’s a control issue. Both have very top-down organizations.

So to wrap up the storyline, I left. I had no experience other than studying and doing revolutionary work. I left the NGO and went back to the UP Department of Psychology, where I’d done my undergraduate major. The department chair said, “Well, your grades were good. Why don’t you go into the straight PhD program?” I had no idea what that was, and I didn’t care. I just wanted to study for a semester to consider my options. We had no money, so I moved home with my parents—husband and child in tow.