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Girls Just Wanna Have Fundamental Rights

By Marla Darwin

Esquire 01

A version of this article was published in the November 2015 issue of Esquire Magazine.

I can still remember this year’s Twitter war between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj. Not only did that mark the decline of my Tay Tay fandom, but also the beginning of my education on intersectionality and white feminism.

It didn’t happen over a thoughtful conversation over coffee or a compelling body of literature though. I’ve been stepping up my knowledge about feminism through memes, Buzzfeed articles, and think pieces on my Longform app.

Feminism and the internet are clearly having a moment. It’s spawned by a culture of indignation crossed with a culture of sharing personal stories in condensed formats.

Which is why it made sense to create a local online feminist community. With Filipino women finding their voice on the internet, each new meme or hot topic circulating social media is now punctuated by personal anecdotes. These women are winning back their agency and for a lot, it’s finally allowing them to let go of baggage they’ve been so sick of carrying. The topics cover a wide spectrum, from being catcalled to putting up with abusive partners. Feminism isn’t a monolithic thing and all experiences, from different kinds of people inform and shape what we know it to be in this day and age.

It’s this moment that gave rise to the idea of Urbana.ph. The original idea was to put up a website with essays and articles written by a pool of writers. For one reason or the other (read: day jobs), it became a struggle to get the website going and instead we decided to develop an Urbana community instead. There are two Urbanas – the community page open to the public and an internal one composed of the founders. They are by no means experts on feminism, just a bunch of folks hungry for learning and discourse.

It’s through talking we were able to see how much we stretched our boundaries and where we draw the line. For example, we wanted to do away with the “angry feminist” stereotype and it was something we were all in agreement with. We believe in equity feminism, which is the ideology of pushing for equal legal rights and fair treatment between men and women, as opposed to gender feminism where the aim is to eliminate gender roles altogether.

“Urbana takes its name from Urbana at Felisa, a mid-nineteenth century book on feminine conduct written by Fr. Modesto de Castro, a Tagalog priest. The book contains a series of letters between Urbana, a young woman studying in Manila, and her younger sister Felisa who remains in the province. The letters cover a wide range of life experiences, both secular and spiritual, and dispense advice on the ideal conduct and behavior expected of a middle-class and Christian family. This book is a product of a traditional, conservative society where the law was determined and enforced by men and where women were generally perceived as followers, not leaders.

As feminists, we are extremely critical of these ideas about feminine conduct and have founded a community that seeks discuss manners and morals for the modern Filipina.” – Aissa Ereneta, Urbana.ph Founder

The public community page is where we hope conversations could happen, or at the very least be the medium for people to keep abreast of stories that are shaping gender-based discrimination. The interactivity still needs to pick up its momentum and at the moment, the page is looking more like a content feed.

The internal group, though, is where the magic happens. Because the group is private and limited to 15 people, this is where it became comfortable to make the theoretical personal.

We have a bunch of married women who didn’t take their husbands’ surnames and we have threads that detail the inane bureaucratic hurdles they have to deal with when it comes to their paperwork. It also opened up the discussion of the kind of unsolicited advice they’d get from family and strangers. “Isn’t your husband offended?” “What about your children?” “What do you mean you don’t want any children?!” (Note: It’s in our generation where we’re seeing the dawn of the “feminist husband” – the guys married to these women)

Often it feels like issues regarding your sexuality and place in the world hit a fever pitch when you’re a teenager/twenty something navigating relationships, identity, and purpose. Then maybe it will plateau and settle down some. In my case, as I was approaching my 30s, I realized that nope, there will still be baggage to be carried and ditched in a sinkhole. Maintaining an awareness of your rights is for life.

When I found out I was pregnant this year, the subject of my being woman took center stage more than ever. I knew that I would be the parent who will be staying home and who will have to put her career on hold. I stepped up to the role without any problem and while I know I chose it wholeheartedly, often I wonder if it was a result of years of programming and conditioning.

Then there was the biological aspect. I didn’t want to lose agency over my body just like that. I didn’t realize how many things I took issue with during my first few OB-GYN appointments. I worried about unnecessary interventions done on me. I was scared about being bullied into procedures I didn’t want. I never felt that way about my body until that season in my life.

One issue was how my doctor was very pro-episiotomy and her justification was that she wanted to make sure my vagina stayed “beautiful” when she had to stitch me up. (Side note: I ditched this doctor because I was bothered with tearing being such an eventuality with her. I ended up not tearing and not worrying about my lady parts when I did a water birth) I was confounded and I took to the group asking, “Why are beautiful genitals a thing?”

From there we got into a discussion about women’s bodies subscribing to the “doll parts” ideal where the pubic and unsightly are to be artfully and painfully eradicated for the sake of male gaze.

One member talked about her high school Home Ec teacher, who in the middle of teaching the baby care module, instructed them to pinch a baby girl’s vulva while changing her diaper so that she’ll have a nice looking vagina for her future husband. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the same teacher also told them to dip a baby boy’s testicles in a bowl of ice water so that they wouldn’t grow big and black and scare his future wife.

Many of us are products of Catholic all-girl schools and a feature of coming into adulthood is reflecting on the ridiculous sex education (or lack thereof) we were subjected to. Organized religion is a good introduction to the patriarchy and sexism. I have a hard time imagining boys’ schools having a baby care module, let alone an entire Home Ec subject. I also don’t see them being made to attend seminars on dressing modestly or forums entitled “Will Your Daughter Be a Virgin Bride?” (I wish I were kidding about the latter. The flyer is still somewhere in a box in my parents’ house)

Often the feminist awakening happens in the form of recognizing nuisances women have to deal with that men don’t. Only it’s not really a nuisance when it involves your body, your relationships, and your self-worth. It’s the reason why these issues can hit to the core of any woman.

This explains why even in the age of oversharing, women still need their villages. The “village” is the old timey concept of a group of women coming together as a support group in moments of vulnerability. You see in how women used to give birth, how the women in her community rally together to help manage the pain and to usher in a new baby. You also see it in how women gravitating together to vent or to gossip.

It’s interesting that most of us in the internal Urbana group met through one of the earlier internet communities: Livejournal. The friendships we forged in Livejournal have outlasted some of our offline ones and we don’t even hang out much “IRL.” We felt safe to talk about awful ex-boyfriends, breaking up with friends, and meltdowns at the workplace. The journal entries were locked in several levels of filters (where you can control who can see it) and created this protected space.

Going back to Taylor Swift, the idea of intersectionality is more important than ever because feminist issues are so much more than just women. Taylor Swift got a lot of flack for reacting to Nicki Minaj’s tweet of the MTV Video Music Awards ignoring her “Anaconda” video (who made allusions to other nominees). Nicki was citing race and sexism, Taylor took it as a personal attack and cited it as a violation of the rules of feminism and sisterhood. The latter couldn’t be any more wrong and showcased the faults of solely using your personal context to inform your worldview.

We can easily make the same mistake and there’s no escaping the fact that most of the Urbana founders are cisgendered, straight, educated, and upper middle class. The challenge now is to see if the conversations in the internal group can be replicated in a more public arena. In a way, it’s a social experiment to see if there can exist a space that can preserve the village model and still accommodate others who are coming from contrasting circumstances, especially the marginalized ones.

But maybe this is why the Internet proves to be such a promising venue. It seems like the language of cat memes, clickbait, and pop diva drama may be the forces that will level everything down.

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