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Filipino Catholic nuns aren’t typically considered feminists—but they are in fact formidable members of the global women’s movement, substantially because of their unique position as highly educated networkers who can move seamlessly between the local and the transnational.

Women’s studies largely neglect the idea of Catholic nuns as feminists.[1] Yet Filipino Catholic nuns have become formidable activists in the global women’s movement. They are a tiny minority within the larger community of Catholic nuns, but this group has provided an important element of leadership in women’s movements globally since the late 1970s. In their home country of the Philippines in particular, these special nuns became formidable activists in the women’s movement: in Filipino feminist theorising, as women’s studies teachers, and as leaders and members of transnational organisations.

How did this happen? It was the nuns’ unique location in the interstices—as transnational feminists who moved constantly from the local to the international—that made them effective activists in the women’s movement.

Filipino Catholic nuns have become formidable activists in the global women’s movement

This extraordinary group lived in and out of the convent: part-time with the poor and part-time with their congregation. As members of international religious congregations, these nuns were plugged into the global networks of the “mother house”, able to access the latest developments in Western feminist theology and Third World theology. They were informed by the local knowledge of their mission work in the Philippines, and became spokespersons for Filipina activism abroad as representatives of transnational women’s organisations (some of which they founded themselves), speaking for Filipina women around the world. They had both local and Western knowledge, and global links, and mined these assets to create a unique and eclectic perspective to their activism. Other middle-class lay (non-religious) women leaders of the women’s movements may have been empathetic to the plight of the poor but did not live with them. The nuns’ choice to live with the poor for part of their time distinguished them from middle-class activists and earned them the credentials to speak for Filipinas, while the overseas networks gave them opportunities to have their voices heard. In sum, their shifting subject positions were what made them effective political activists.

Becoming a feminist nun abroad and a political activist at home

The peculiar historical context of the 1970s was instrumental in the evolution of the Filipino feminist nun. Three events in this tumultuous decade prepared the ground for the emergence of activist women/nuns:

  1. the requirement that nuns go overseas as part of their formation training and the greater percentage of nuns who, barred from ordination, chose to obtain higher academic degrees;
  2. the declaration of martial law in the Philippines when President Ferdinand Marcos imposed a dictatorship that unleashed an unprecedented violation of human rights; and
  3. the consequences of Vatican II, especially in the Third World, in which the religious were encouraged to live among the poor.

The combination of events #2 and #3 in Latin American countries gave birth to liberation theology and its Philippine version, the theology of struggle.[2]

The peculiar historical context of the 1970s was instrumental in the evolution of the Filipino feminist nun

The nuns received a feminist education overseas, returned home, and lived with the poor. Witnessing first-hand the victimisation of the disempowered class under the brutal force of the military, nuns experienced their “baptism of fire” in the martial law period. They joined the workers in the barricades striking for better wages (strikes were illegal), documented the plight of political prisoners, participated in the indigenous people’s fight for ancestral lands, and stood at the forefront with the urban poor facing down bulldozers threatening to demolish their makeshift homes. These experiences turned them into political activists against martial law. Once democratic institutions were restored in 1986, the nuns combined their feminist education overseas with their political activism at home and founded transnational women’s organisations (with bases that traversed national borders). Using their ties to the educational infrastructure, they disseminated this new feminist activism through women’s studies courses, workshops and the like.

Academics with international outlooks

Part of the nun’s training required them to spend some time abroad in mission work or to acquire academic qualifications. In some congregations the women were required to spend time overseas as part of their sister formation training.[3] These experiences were not only crucial to the nuns’ development as religious but were important steps in their evolution as feminists. While overseas, nuns were taught feminist theologies[4] and embroiled in mission work (Leonila Bermisa, MM worked with sex workers in Jakarta, for example).[5] They took higher degrees in Theology, Christology, Philosophy, Missiology and Ecclesiology, for example. They joined international organisations such as EATWOT (Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians) and published articles in journals, including in EATWOT’s own feminist journal, In God’s Image.

Maryknoll Sisters

  • Virginia Fabella, a Maryknoll sister, went to the USA to obtain higher degrees at the Maryknoll Sisters Mission Institute (c.1971–75) where she studied with feminist theologians such as Rosemary Ruether and Mary Daly.[6] She later became one of the founders of In God’s Image.
  • Mary John Mananzan, OSB (Benedictine Sisters) completed a doctorate degree in Philosophy, major in Linguistic Philosophy, at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a degree in Missiology at the Wilhelmsuniveresitaet in Muenster, Germany. She also took up fellowships overseas, such as the Dorothy Cadbury Fellowship in 1994 in Birmingham and the Henry Luce Fellowship at the Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1995 as well as a Fellowship as an Asian Public Intellectual in 2002 by the Nippon Foundation.[7]
  • Amelia Vasquez finished both undergraduate and graduate studies in the United States. Her undergraduate degree in philosophy and theology was at Maryville College while her graduate studies in history and religion (Christianity) were completed at Manhanttanville College, Columbia University, Harvard University and Weston School of Theology. In addition, she was also a missionary in Korea.[8] When she undertook a second master’s degree overseas, she took courses with feminist women professors.[9]
  • Soledad Perpiñan, RGS (Good Shepherd Sisters) completed a master’s degree from Fordham University in New York.[10] She has done special studies in spirituality at the Gregorian University in Rome and in social analysis at INODEP, which is affiliated with the Sorbonne in Paris.[11] She has read the American feminist theologians and quoted them in her written lectures.[12]
  • Emelina Villegas, ICM (Immaculate Heart of Mary) did postgraduate work in sociology in Louvein, Belgium, at the University there.[13]
  • Margaret Lacson, MM (Maryknoll Sisters) spent her Orientation years in Newburgh, New York and worked as a missionary in Japan.[14]
  • Although Rosario Battung received her Master’s in Women and Religion from the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies in the Philippines (students enrolled there came from all over Asia and elsewhere), she entered the Good Shepherd Convent in New Zealand.[15]

The years spent overseas ensured that these nuns gained an international perspective while giving them an opportunity to establish international links and networks. When EATWOT was formed in 1976, Filipino nuns such as Mananzan, Fabella and Battung were participants. In the Delhi conference of 1981 the women proposed the formation of a Women’s Commission “to promote a theology of liberation from the perspective of women in the Third World, a theology that springs from a critical awareness of women’s subjugated position and a commitment to change it”.[16] Filipino feminist nuns, particularly Fabella, Mananzan, Battung and Bermisa, became active members of the Women’s Commission. Mananzan and Fabella in particular have published extensively on feminist theology from the Philippine perspective. In fact, their work is included in the standard histories and readers on feminist theologies under the headings of Third World feminist theologies.

They contributed to international conversations on Christology from a feminist perspective (that Christ was a man was incidental).[17] These nuns were important feminist theologians in the international arena.[18] In addition, Fabella edited a number of books on Third World theologies published outside the Philippines.[19] When the EATWOT Women’s Commission in Asia founded their feminist journal In God’s Image in 1982, Fabella was on the editorial board. Articles on the Philippines were plentiful in the more than 20 years’ history of the journal with at least two special issues prepared by women in the Philippines.[20] Filipino feminist nuns like Bermisa, Battung, Mananzan, Vasquez, Villegas, Lydia Lascano, Teresa Dagdag and Margaret Lacson published articles not just on feminist theology from the Philippine perspective but also reflections on Filipino women’s issues and the woman question.[21]

The years spent overseas ensured that these nuns gained an international perspective while giving them an opportunity to establish international links and networks

Some nuns like Mananzan and Fabella moved beyond the Philippine case study and explored the “Asian experience” when they wrote about Asian spirituality[22] or Christology, but they were first and foremost Philippine specialists. This expertise on the woman question in the Philippines was based on years of fieldwork with grassroots women of the urban poor, the factory workers in export processing zones, the peasantry, and workers.

Martial law, political activism and the church of the poor

Vatican II (which coincided with martial law in the Philippines) redefined the Church as the “church of the poor”, giving the nuns the opportunity for the first time to leave the convents and live with the poor at the time when the gap between rich and poor became more pronounced. Contact with grassroots women enabled them to see women’s victimisation and women’s oppression firsthand. Listening to women’s stories introduced them to the world of Filipino machismo, and patriarchy in everyday Filipino culture, while their own marginalisation in the Church hierarchy was a constant reminder of the patriarchy of the Catholic Church.

A small number of nuns chose to spend some time outside the convent living among the poor. From the 1970s onwards these individual nuns then lived life alternately in and out of the convent quite literally, with some days of the week devoted to “convent duties” and other days to their particular “mission”. All feminist nuns I interviewed between 2003 and 2006 were extremely busy individuals with tight schedules who set aside a number of days each week to live with poor women. Fabella, Vasquez and Villegas were based in Cavite province, spending only one or two days a week in Metro Manila.[23] In Cavite, Villegas worked first with salesgirls, then with women in factories in the export processing zones, while Fabella worked with women of the urban poor.[24] Battung’s interests oscillated between the urban poor in Tondo, and the labour unions in Cavite province.[25]

Rosario Battung RGS in habit

Vasquez lived in a little community in Montalban, visiting Manila three days a week (because she was Provincial Superior of her congregation, RSCJ).[26] Perpiñan worked with sex workers in Metro Manila and in the provinces.[27] Mananzan, as Chairperson of GABRIELA, ensured that she had the pulse of the women’s social movements, from the urban poor to the peasants and indigenous women. In 1995 when I interviewed the late Christine Tan, RGS, she was living in Leverisa, the community of urban poor in the city of Manila.[28] Even the nuns who continued to live in the convents, particularly those in the provinces, were often asked by the “outside world” to help the victims of martial law, particularly during demonstrations and rallies, since the presence of nuns in their habits legitimised the resistance and at times prevented the military from extreme violence.

Nuns agitated for the release of political detainees, “womanned” the barricades of labourers striking for better wages and conditions (at a time when strikes were illegal), and supported the indigenous people’s fight to protect their ancestral lands from government appropriation

The martial law experience politicised the nuns, who were rapidly drawn into the struggles of the poor and dispossessed. Nuns dominated the Task Force Detainees, which agitated for the release of political detainees (in fact, a nun, Mariani Dimaranan was president of the TFD), nuns “womanned” the barricades of labourers striking for better wages and conditions (at a time when strikes were illegal), and supported the indigenous people’s fight to protect their ancestral lands from government appropriation. They conducted “conscientisation” seminars that were supposed to make religious around the country aware of the experiences of the victims (both political and economic) of the Marcos dictatorship. Nuns stood at the forefront of demonstrations confronting the military. The iconography of the People Power Revolution of 1986 that toppled the Marcos regime was replete with images of militant nuns protecting civilians facing the military sent to disperse or destroy them.

Organising women transnationally

Perhaps precisely because the nuns quite literally lived in international/transnational “homes”, the women’s organisations they chose to lead had transnational “bases”. For example, in 1986 Mananzan was elected National Chairperson of GABRIELA, the umbrella organisation of around 200 grassroots women’s organisations all over the country from all sectors, including workers, peasants, urban poor, Filipino “comfort women”, Muslim women, indigenous women, youth, and women rape victims. This organisation had chapters all over the world and Mananzan remained Chairperson until 2009.

Perpiñan founded the Third World Movement Against the Exploitation of Women (TW-MAE-W) on Human Rights Day, 10 December 10 1980, an organisation that staked the entire “Third World” as its home base. Established to attract worldwide attention to military prostitution and Japanese sex tourism in the Philippines, by 1985 it had launched a Campaign Against Military Prostitution (CAMP International) in Nairobi at the NGO Forum and submitted a proposal for the prevention of prostitution and rehabilitation of sex workers in the UN ESCAP workshop in Bangkok in the same year. TW-MAE-W built “drop-in centres” where sex workers were given counselling, training for alternative employment as well as gender sensitising workshops. These centres, called “Belens”, were located in Metro Manila (Belen sa Quezon City, Belen sa Pasay), and the provinces, including Subic (where the military base once was), Cebu, Batangas, General Santos and Angeles City.[29]

The Third World Movement Against the Exploitation of Women built “drop-in centres” where sex workers were given counselling, training for alternative employment as well as gender sensitizing workshops

TW-MAE-W has since expanded its scope to include issues on the sexual exploitation of women, marriage brokers (the so-called “mail-order bride” phenomenon), migrant workers, ethnic rights, child prostitution and the religions oppression of women.[30] TW-MAE-W itself received some funding from Europe and private individuals.[31] Due to its prominence, it was given consultative status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1985.[32] Perpiñan has drafted statements for the Commission on the Status of Women for the United Nations.[33] This is one clear example where Filipino women had a major impact on United Nation’s policies governing women, particularly prostitution and trafficking.

Women’s studies in the national and transnational contexts

Aside from running women’s organisations, feminist nuns who were already plugged into the educational sector (e.g. if their congregations ran colleges of higher education) began to disseminate feminist ideologies in the classroom. By then, the very spatial, temporal and physical aspect of “the classroom” had undergone a massive rethink. The martial law period had introduced the possibilities of “traveling classrooms” wherein nuns and laity went all over the Philippines running “conscientisation seminars”. By the post-Marcos era (post-1986), nuns built on this experience and began to run “gender sensitising” workshops across class boundaries and across national borders.

Mananzan’s Institute for Women’s Studies ran the first women’s studies workshop in 1985 where the first syllabus on women’s studies in the Philippine context was designed[34] and the first collection of essays on “the woman question” published.[35] The Institute did not limit its focus to the middle-class students who enrolled at the college. It ran three-day women’s orientation seminars six times a year for grassroots women in Manila and in the provinces.[36] Furthermore, the Institute, nicknamed “Nursia”, also hosted conferences and workshops for international academics and NGOs, particularly from the Third World. Even Nursia’s publication arm projected its transnational outlook: its journal was entitled Lila Asia-Pacific Women’s Studies Journal (staking the Asia-Pacific as its region of concern). Mananzan’s own research interests and publications moved from studies on the woman question in the Philippines, and the religious roots of women’s oppression, to women and religion—here including the entire region of Asia and the world great religions—Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.[37]

Discussing these sensitive issues [such as wife battering, rape, incest, and sexuality] “on the air” effectively lifted the cultural ban on discussing them—making it all right to “come out” and admit one was a victim of domestic violence, for example

Then, in 1995, Nursia launched Tinig ng Nursia, a radio programme whose by-line “women’s studies on the air” advertised exactly what it was: a women’s studies syllabus in a talk show format, every Monday afternoon, as radio anchor Mananzan and her team of instructors from Nursia delivered their teaching “modules” on airtime. The rationale for the radio show was announced at the first episode—since not everyone had the opportunity to go to Nursia to gain a women’s studies education, women’s studies had to be transmitted through the airwaves.[38] Portable radio was also the medium most “woman friendly” since one could listen to it while multitasking—like doing the housework.[39]

A discussion format with a theme for each segment, and a resource person as “feminist teacher”, the programme went through almost the entire gamut of issues raised by the feminist movement, including taboo topics such as wife battering, rape, incest, and sexuality. Discussing these sensitive issues “on the air” effectively lifted the cultural ban on discussing them—making it all right to “come out” and admit one was a victim of domestic violence, for example. In this show the international visitors of Nursia also made infrequent guest appearances on these programs, sharing topics such as religious festivals in their home countries such as India and Africa. The resource persons discussed United Nations definitions of human rights, the history of international women’s day and the experiences of Filipino women overseas. National audiences were made conscious that indeed “sisterhood is global”.

Fabella introduced an MA in Women and Religion when she became Dean of the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies or IFRS (known then as the Sisters Formation Institute, the training centre for future nuns).[40] Feminist theology was taught at the IFRS, with a women’s perspective on scripture introduced to future nuns and seminarians. But the student body of IFRS was clearly international. When I attended a nun’s MA defence in feminist theology (a topic on mission) where feminist theology experts such as Helen Graham and Arche Ligo acted as supervisor and examiner, the student being examined was a young feminist nun from South Asia who defended her thesis attired in Punjabi national dress. The faculty of the IFRS addressed themselves to an international student body (male and female).

National audiences were made conscious that indeed ‘sisterhood is global’

The woman as martyr: Christianity and cultural constructions of the feminine

Cultural constructions of the feminine in the Philippines were consistent from the Spanish colonial period up until the 1960s. Women were “wife and mother”, the support system of the kinship group. Because they were the support system of the kinship group, they acquired cultural capital through self-sacrifice for the family—as dutiful daughters, suffering mothers, and self-sacrificing wives. The ideal of the woman as martyr was already present in the nineteenth century, epitomised by the female character of Sisa in Jose Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere.[41] Sisa, who sacrificed everything for her two boys, represented the woman of the working class. Sisa’s husband not only neglected to support this wife but periodically took her wages to support his vices, which included drinking and gambling. Sisa never complained even though he showed no concern or affection for his wife and children, and was guilty of domestic violence. Sisa’s nature, consistently portrayed as quiet, hardworking, and submissive, appeared heroic and admirable, even though her son’s death at the hands of a Spanish friar drove her to madness.

A century later, Sisa remained in new forms:

  • The Filipino domestic helper (overseas contract worker, often a mother), who endured years of loneliness and separation from family, not to mention tedious hours of work and possibly abuse from employers, in order to send money home to her family, while the husband gambled the savings and took a mistress;
  • The women factory workers, who worked in deplorable conditions or minimal pay in order to help sustain younger siblings; the Japayuki (overseas contract entertainer in Japan), who danced in a night club and booked afternoon “dates” (dohan) with customers in order to send money home to the family;
  • The squatter from Tondo or the urban poor who had to stretch the household budget to feed an entire family so that she would rather go without than deny food to her children.

Even the women who gained political power as women politicians tapped on this feminine ideal. Corazon Aquino, the widow of assassinated senator Benigno Aquino, acquired cultural capital when her husband became a martyr. Her suffering at the hands of brutal dictatorship epitomised the Philippine nation as victim under martial law. A housewife without any political experience, but seen as the alter ego of her husband, she gained symbolic capital as “victim”. This victim status later earned her the title of the first female president after Marcos was deposed in 1986.

Women were the support system of the kinship group… they acquired cultural capital through self-sacrifice for the family—as dutiful daughters, suffering mothers, and self-sacrificing wives

The nuns’ major contribution to feminist theorising of the Filipina was their deconstruction of what Mananzan has termed “the religious roots of women’s oppression”[42]—critiquing Christianity and its definition of the feminine as responsible for the desire to embrace victimhood.

Participation in the Women’s Commission of EATWOT allowed these unusual women a space to critique patriarchy in the Catholic Church in the good company of other feminist nuns from the south. For these Asian feminist theologians, “The image of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb has likewise induced women to follow the path of ‘innocent victimhood’”.[43] The pages of In God’s Image were replete with examples of how this Christian construction of “woman” had been multiplied many times over in the Third World context, and Filipino feminist nuns participated in these discussions with examples from the Philippines. An essay on “Women and Christianity in the Philippines” where the author acknowledged input from Fabella and Tan blamed Christianity for commanding women to obey their husbands and exalting males as superior, while women were defined by the men in their lives.[44] The author lamented that women were taught “Redemption for woman lay in self-rejection”[45] and that “This world was a vale of tears whose reward was eternal life in the next world; and suffering was glorified as a peculiarly female lot”.[46]

Feminist nuns therefore knew that it became necessary to demythologise “suffering”; to remove the status of female “victimhood”

These nuns contributed to theological debates from the perspective of developing countries and the Philippines in particular, and/or were teaching these radical ideas to the next generation of religious in a student body from around the world. They applied this feminist theorising to the Philippine situation while also using local praxis to articulate how Christianity has impacted negatively on women’s lives. The transnational and transcultural approach to the woman question in the Philippines pointed to the cultural predilection for glorifying suffering as a woman’s role as one primary reason for women’s victimisation. Nuns who were continuously approached by lower class women as “advisers” heard many stories of women embracing victimisation because it meant that like Jesus Christ, they were given a cross which they had to carry all the way to Calvary. Suffering then became a metaphor for one’s experience of Calvary; a prerequisite for winning redemption in the next life.

Feminist nuns therefore knew that it became necessary to demythologise “suffering”; to remove the status of female “victimhood”. When Emelina Villegas was subjected to countless stories of women factory workers in Cavite province who experienced philandering husbands or partners who abandoned them, she gave them all the same counsel: “they should not suffer unnecessarily, I call that ‘useless suffering’ … I tell them ‘useless suffering’. And then I always tell them—what about your children, do you want your children to experience this?”[47] Villegas empathised with the huge burden and the pain these women faced every day so her strategy was to confront them directly with the question: “Is it useful or is that useless? [laugh]. Useless suffering. Kasi walang kuwenta … sayang sayang ang luha (It is not worth it, it is a waste of tears)”.[48] By labelling “suffering” as “useless” and “wasteful”, this nun hoped to demystify it. This particular strategy and approach to feminist theorising of the Filipina was a product of the feminist clergy. And such a contribution to the ideology of the women’s movement was made possible because of the transnational orientation of these specially placed women. The nuns’ identity as religious persons however, also hindered their activism since they could not officially go against the Catholic Church. Nuns couldn’t publicly indicate support for certain issues such as divorce, abortion, and reproductive rights (natural family planning is the only contraception endorsed by the Catholic Church).

The nuns’ identity as religious persons, however, also hindered their activism since they could not officially go against the Catholic Church

The woman as militant activist

To destroy the “martyr complex” required a complete makeover in cultural constructions of woman. The martyr must be reinvented as a militant advocate/activist. Unique strategies therefore had to be put in place in order to transform victims of patriarchy into militant feminist advocates. While workshops, seminars, research and publication of materials were essential to the conceptualisation of feminist ideologies, spectacles of protest became an essential genre of feminist propaganda, reinforcing the women’s movement’s activist roots. These spectacles included demonstrations, theatre, rituals (including liturgical rituals), dance, songs, radio shows and fashion pageants. Such activities, some of them quite radical (like storming the United States embassy to protest the Gulf War) were crucial in the formation of feminist identities. Women bonded together by confronting the state and beyond, in a truly transnational form of activism.

The martyr must be reinvented as a militant advocate/activist

In the space available one example will have to suffice. The former sex workers who had become members of Perpiñan’s TW-MAE-W wrote and performed a play about trafficking. Entitled They are so Sweet, Sir and based on the book by Chris De Stoop, the play has gone on road tour in the Philippines and overseas. It was performed at the Long Shan Auditorium in Huairou, China during the United Nations NGO Forum on Women where the audience included Queen Fabiola of Belgium and the First Lady of Burundi.[49] In addition, the testimonies of these women were “performed” to politicians, including President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines and members of the United Nations.[50] From Perpiñan’s writings it was clear that the “theatre forum” was a deliberate strategy organised to empower former marginalised women. Writing a play about their experiences became a therapeutic exercise enabling women to come to terms with their tragic past and rediscover power in them. Since women were also enrolled in gender sensitising workshops, these women who were deprived of higher education became graduates of a feminist education.

The strategies used to transform women from victims to agents involved activities in transnational spaces. The past experience of trafficking itself took place in the transnational realm as syndicates brought women across nation-states for the purposes of prostitution. The former victims’ activism was also performed in transnational spaces, utilising Perpiñan’s powerful networks overseas, which included the United Nations and international royalty.

Women bonded together by confronting the state and beyond, in a truly transnational form of activism

Demonstrations were another activity that required the militant persona. Women’s organisations participated in all sorts of demonstrations and almost all joined the annual Women’s Day March. GABRIELA has a tradition of joining the usual activist protests at the yearly State of the Nation Address (SONA) given by the president of the Philippines. Apart from joining protests at the Japanese Embassy, members of Lila-Pilipina (the organisation of former victims of sexual slavery during the Japanese Occupation), many in their 70s and 80s, also joined GABRIELA’s demonstrations—against the rise of EVAT (Expanded Value Added Tax), in support of the salesgirls over labour issues in the Shoemart strike, and the anti-Gulf War rallies. In supporting these causes, the women bonded with feminists worldwide.

When I asked the lolas (meaning “grandmothers”, the affectionate term used to refer to Lila Pilipina members) what they wanted, they said, “A World Without War”.[51] Because a demonstration was by definition protest action, participants were required to articulate their demands boldly and loudly (microphones and loudspeakers were used). A united front of angry but valiant women was necessary in the task of confronting the “oppressors”. With clenched fists raised above their heads they addressed the public space. When I participated in GABRIELA’s demonstration in support of the Shoemart strike by salespersons on temporary job contracts, the strikers invited me to stand atop a jeepney and denounce President Gloria Macapagal as a liar. I noticed various activists took turns doing this, including a group of Belgians who joined GABRIELA as part of their overseas exposure experience. It was a ritual; a rite of passage for one’s metamorphosis into an activist.

A united front of angry but valiant women was necessary in the task of confronting the “oppressors”

In and out of the habit

The most visible metaphor of the nun who moved through spaces was the practice of wearing the habit. While a number of feminist nuns no longer wore the habit, there were a number who lived life in and out of the habit. The reforms of the post-Vatican era included radical alterations to religious dress in the 1960s and 1970s. The majority of women in the non-cloistered orders were asked to exchange religious habits for secular fashions.[52] The habit was meant to obliterate individual identities because it prioritised the collective identity and commitment to the Roman Catholic Church.[53]

Filipino nuns were also asked to discard their habits so that they would blend more easily with the community and be exempted from special privileges such as seats on full buses, for example.[54] In the Philippines, because religious persons were highly respected, nuns interviewed claimed that the habit gave them “symbolic capital”.[55] The initiative to dispense with the habit and wimple raised interesting dilemmas for Filipino nuns at a particular time when they were political activists against a repressive regime. Determined to continue their political activism and aware that they had some advantages over Marcos—their “moral power” and credibility as defenders of social justice—the nuns chose to wear their habits as a “costume” during demonstrations and rallies. The nuns’ habit and wimple advertised the moral power, the legitimacy of the wearer. The habit proved to be very useful attire for political activism.

Rosario Battung RGS in civilian clothes

Nuns were acutely aware of the power of religious dress in the Philippines and some religious orders and individual nuns have been flexible about the use of the habit and wimple. Perpiñan worked with sex workers, so wearing the habit to the various bars where sex workers worked would only elicit hostility from bar owners, who feared that the presence of a nun at a bar would scare customers. Perpiñan did not wear the habit when she visited the bars. But when she represented the TW-MAE-W she wore the habit; sometimes with the veil, sometimes without.[56] Mananzan wore the habit in the Philippines but not on her overseas sojourns. She confessed in an interview that it was more practical to travel in “civilian” clothes because it was not possible to lie down in the departure lounge of an airport wearing the habit and wimple. On the other hand, she was forthcoming in admitting that the habit was “symbolic capital” in the Philippines where religious persons were respected.[57] If she appeared on television criticising the government, she wore her habit and wimple.

The nuns chose to wear their habits as a “costume” during demonstrations and rallies. The nuns’ habit and wimple advertised the moral power, the legitimacy of the wearer

In the People Power Revolution which toppled the Marcos regime, the nuns were very conspicuous in their habits and wimple, linking arms in the front lines, protecting the “civilians” from the armed soldiers and armoured personnel carriers sent to attack the defenceless public. In this case, the nuns faced the macho military and armed only with rosaries and their “moral power”, were critical in persuading the soldiers not to fire a single shot. Even after the restoration of democratic institutions in 1986, Filipino nuns remained strategic about the habit, using it when they needed to present the collective identity of the Catholic Church and discarding it when it became more effective to assume personal identities as leaders in the women’s movement.


Although feminist nuns supported ordination for women, when asked whether they would personally choose to be ordained, the answer was a surprising and unanimous “no”. The reason they gave was that the present hierarchal system meant that priests were subject to more rigorous rules and were required to spend all their time administering the sacraments. Nuns, monitored only by their local superiors, had more freedom to pursue their individual “mission” or advocacy.[58] Thus, despite their unequal standing with priests, the nuns capitalised on a small window of opportunity—the freedom to traverse spaces and cross borders of class,[59] locality, nation, and ideologies—a lifestyle denied to ordained priests. This location in the interstices enabled them to have an impact on the women’s movement, not just in the Philippines but in the very transnational spaces they inhabited.

Gica Tam

Their impacts extended to feminist theorising; where one of their unique contributions lay in placing the woman question in its religious context and demystifying women’s suffering and victimisation. As teachers, they also saw the world as potential students of women’s studies as they transmitted their ideas inside mobile “classrooms”. Raising issues (during classes, radio shows, or as daily advisers) on topics considered taboo lifted the cultural ban on discussing them (after all, if a nun could talk about it, it must be all right). This gave victims (of rape, violence, sexual harassment) the courage to share their stories and seek help, and information about their bodies (health, sexuality, reproductive health).

They also founded feminist organisations with transnational moorings and a transnational perspective, seeking to foster feminist identities cross-culturally and across nation-states. At the same time, they encouraged women to reject the victim status and become advocates as participants in these organisations. In particular, they saw their role as articulating the Filipino “woman question” in a dialogue with the North and the South. But their positions in transnational organisations, for instance in the United Nations, meant that they also had a global impact. Today’s feminist nuns continue to command respect as formidable women; champions of the cause of the oppressed and exploited wherever these victims may be.

Acknowledgements: Research for this article was funded by a Faculty Research Grant and a Goldstar Grant from The University of New South Wales and an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant. I would like to acknowledge the help of Melizza Yao and Raina Anne Bernandez in transcribing interviews.

Adapted from: Mina Roces (2008) The Filipino Catholic Nun as Transnational Feminist, Women’s History Review, 17:1, 57-78, DOI: 10.1080/09612020701447657. New Naratif expresses its thanks to the author and to Women’s History Review for kind permission to publish this adaptation of the original.

To link to the original article:

Author: Mina Roces
Illustrator: Gica Tam


[1]Exceptions to this are Anne O’Brien (2005) God’s Willing Workers: women and religion in Australia (Sydney: University of New South Wales); Rebecca Sullivan (2005) Visual Habits: nuns, feminism, and American postwar popular culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).
[2]Anne Harris (2003) Dare to Struggle, Be Not Afraid: the ‘theology of struggle’ in the Philippines (Quezon City: Claretian Publications).
[3]Interview with Amelia Vasquez, RSCJ, Quezon City, August 19, 2003.
[4]Interview with Virginia Fabella MM, Pasig City, Metro-Manila, January 18, 2005; interview with Amelia Vasquez, RSCJ, Quezon City, August 19, 2003.
[5]Interview with Leonila Bermisa MM, Quezon City, July 20, 2003.
[6]Interview with Virginia Fabella MM, Pasig City, Metro-Manila, January 18, 2005.
[7]Mary John Mananzan (2004) Woman, Religion and Spirituality in Asia (Pasig City: Anvil Publishing), back cover.
[8]Amelia Vasquez, RSCJ (2003) Fidelity in Vowed Life: matrimony and religious life, Religious Life Asia, V(1), March, p. 55.
[9]Interview with Amelia Vasquez RSCJ, Quezon City, August 19, 2003.
[10]Floy Quintos (1993) The Gentle Activism of Sister Sol, Metro—The City Life, March, p. 34.
[11]Short biography of Soledad Perpiñan in Mary Soledad Perpiñan, RGS, ‘Muffled Voices’, Paper/lecture, no date, in the personal papers of Mary Soledad Perpiñan, TW-MAE-W Office, Quezon City.
[13]Interview with Emelina Villegas ICM, Quezon City, January 10, 2005.
[14]Margaret Lacson, MM (1993) Questing Woman-Spirit, In God’s Image, 12(3), p. 14.
[15]Interview with Rosario Battung RGS, Quezon City, January 23, 2005.
[16]Virginia Fabella, MM (1993) Beyond Bonding: a Third World woman’s theological journey (Manila: Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians and Institute of Women’s Studies), p. 36.
[17]See Kwok Pui-Lam (2000) Introducing Asian Feminist Theology (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press), chapter 6, where Mananzan’s and Fabella’s contribution to theological debates is summarized. See also Virginia Fabella, ‘Contextualization and Asian Women’s Christology’, lecture presented at Ewha Women’s University, Korea, September 7, 1994, in personal papers of Virginia Fabella.
[18]Based on a large selection of publications. For full citation, see reference #27 in the original article on which this adaptation is based.
[19]Fabella et al. (Eds), Asian Christian Spirituality; Fabella & Torres (Eds), Doing Theology in a Divided World; Fabella & Sun Ai Lee Park, We Dare to Dream; Fabella (Ed.), Asia’s Struggle for Full Humanity; Fabella, * Sugirtharajah (Eds), Dictionary of Third World Theologies; Fabella & Torres (Eds), Irruption of the Third World.
[20]The Special Issues were: In God’s Image, 12(3), 1993 (a special issue on ‘Reclaiming Women’s Partnership with the Earth’), In God’s Image, 21(2), 2002 (a special issue on ‘Women and Just Relationships’), and In God’s Image, March 1989 (a special issue on the meaning of Easter).
[21]Based on a large selection of articles published in In God’s Image, from 1985-2004. For the full citation see reference #30 in the original article on which this adaptation is based.
[22]See Mananzan, Woman, Religion and Spirituality in Asia; Mananzan, ‘Feminist Theology in Asia’, pp. 38–48. See also Virginia Fabella’s edited volumes.
[23]Interview with Amelia Vasquez RSCJ, Quezon City, August 19, 2003; interview with Virginia Fabella MM, Pasig City, Metro-Manila, January 18, 2005; and interview with Emelina Villegas ICM, Quezon City, January 10, 2005.
[24]Interview with Emelina Villegas ICM, Quezon City, January 10, 2005.
[25]Interview with Rosario Battung RGS, Quezon City, January 23, 2005.
[26]Interview with Amelia Vasquez RSCJ, Quezon City, August 19, 2003.
[27]Interview with Soledad Perpiñan RGS, Quezon City, August 28, 2003.
[28]Interview with Christine Tan RGS, Leverisa, Manila, February 7, 1995.
[29]Primer on TW-MAE-W, archives of TW-MAE-W, Quezon City, Philippines.
[31]Ibid., p. 6.
[33]See, for example, ‘Third World Movement Against the Exploitation of Women: statement given to the Commission on the Status of Women, Beijing PrepCom, 15 March–4 April 1995, United Nations, New York’, in Personal Papers Soledad Perpiñan, Quezon City, and ‘TW- MAE-W Statement for the Preparatory Committee for the International Conference on Population and Development United Nations, New York, 4–22 April 1994, in Personal Papers of Soledad Perpiñan, Quezon City.
[34]Mary John Mananzan (1998) Women’s Studies in the Philippines, in Challenges to the Inner Room: selected essays and speeches on women by Sr. Mary John Mananzan OSB (Manila: Institute of Women’s Studies), pp. 190–191.
[35]Mary John Mananzan (1987) Essays on Women (Manila: Institute of Women’s Studies).
[36]Mananzan, ‘Women’s Studies in the Philippines’, p. 192.
[37]See in particular her three most well-known books: M. J. Mananzan (Ed.) (1987) Essays on Women (Manila: Institute of Women’s Studies), Mananzan, Challenges to the Inner Room, and Mary John Mananzan (2004) Woman, Religion and Spirituality in Asia (Manila: Anvil).
[38]Tinig ng Nursia
, October 9, 1995.
[39]‘Women in Radio’, Tinig ng Nursia, June 17, 1996.
[40]Interview with Virginia Fabella MM, Pasig City, Metro-Manila, January 18, 2005.
[41]Jose Rizal (1986) Noli Me Tangere, translated from the Spanish by Charles E. Derbyshire (1912, 1976) as The Social Cancer (Manila: Philippine Education Company).
[42]International Viewpoint, No. 145, July 11, 1988, pp. 14 and 16.
[43]Mary John Mananzan, Benedictine Values and the Woman Question, in Mananzan, Challenges to the Inner Room, pp. 59-60.
[44]Jurgette Honclada (1985) Notes on Women and Christianity in the Philippines, In God’s Image, 13–20.
[45]Ibid., p. 16.
[47]Interview with Emelina Villegas ICM, Quezon City, January 10, 2005.
[49]Mary Soledad Perpiñan, RGS, ‘Preventing Trafficking and Rescuing the Trafficked’, Panel Presentation, from the personal papers of Sr. Mary Soledad Perpiñan.
[50]Mary Soledad Perpiñan, RGS, ‘Combatting the Globalization of Sexualized Violence’, p. 4, and Mary Soledad Perpiñan, RGS, ‘From Darkness to Light’, Paper/Lecture, no date, from the papers of Mary Soledad Perpiñan, TW-MAE-W office, Quezon City, pp. 1–7 (this paper has women’s testimonies).
[51]Perpiñan, ‘Preventing Trafficking and Rescuing the Trafficked’, and Perpiñan, ‘Empowering Marginalized Women’.
[52]Field Notes, Lola’s House, Quezon City, August 9, 2003.
[53]Susan O. Michelman (1999) Fashion and Identity of Women Religious, in Linda B. Arthur (Ed.) Religion, Dress and the Body (Oxford: Berg), p. 135.
[55]Interview with Mary John Mananzan OSB, Manila, July 17, 2003; interview with Helen Graham MM, Quezon City, August 1, 2003.
[56]Interview with Soledad Perpiñan RGS, Quezon City, August 28, 2003.
[57]Interview with Mary John Mananzan OSB, Manila, July 17, 2003.
[58]Interview with Soledad Perpiñan RGS, Quezon City, July 28, 2003; interview with Emelina Villegas ICM, Quezon City, January 10, 2005; interview with Amelia Vasquez RSCJ, Quezon City, August 19, 2003; interview with Leonila Bermisa MM, Quezon City, July 20, 2003; interview with Virginia Fabella MM, Quezon City, January 18, 2005; and interview with Helen Graham MM, Quezon City, August 1, 2003.
[59]Some nuns, like Tan, Fabella and Borres, were from the upper-class elite families while Mananzan was from an upper-middle-class family.

Gica Tam

Gica Tam is a designer by day and illustrator by moonlight. Architecture, food and people inspire her illustrations, and she has a liking for both minimalist and ornate details! She is a Partner at Cocomilk Studio and is based between New York and Manila. Website:; Instagram:; Twitter: