Last February 14, 2013 – as I looked at the huge crowd in Manila from the stage – dancing at our One Billion Rising Philippines event, and finishing with the song of revolutionaries “Do You Hear the People Sing” – I couldn’t help but cry. Our grassroots women leaders and groups, workers, migrant families, teachers, urban poor women, community women, indigenous women, Muslim sisters, were dancing and singing so passionately for freedom from violence and poverty – many of them holding each other, also in tears. I was moved not only because I knew in 206 other countries there were equally incredible risings taking place or about to take place that day, and I knew that similar satellite rising events were happening all over the Philippines. I was crying because it took me back thirteen years before when we first brought “The Vagina Monologues” and V-Day to the Philippines. The memories, struggles, victories, journeys – both political and personal, came rushing back in that moment. Looking at the people, dancing and rising, led by the grassroots and marginalised women’s groups, was overwhelming. I saw, like a picture, every step of our thirteen year journey in their fierceness, in their courage, in their generosity and love of our women and our country – as well as in their joy and insistence on hope. Every tear, every challenge, every deepening of love and sisterhood had come to this moment.
After having acted since I was 9, and putting up my own feminist, political theatre company in 1994 at age 24, I produced Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” in 2000 – because I believed theatre shouldn’t just entertain, but awaken, incite, inspire, educate and transform. But even in those early years, I felt that we could not do the play simply as artists – that we had to partner with the women’s movement, with our grassroots women’s groups, to contextualise the play for us in the Philippines – to give it connection and meaning for us as Filipina women. A year before, I was invited by the women’s group GABRIELA – an alliance of 200 women’s groups and the most political, militant, anti-imperialist grassroots women’s movement in the Philippines – to be their international spokesperson for the Purple Rose Campaign – a campaign to end sex trafficking of Filipina women and girls. It had long been my dream to join GABRIELA – and my father’s worst nightmare. He was a television and film star turned politician and was a Marcos man – and he could not fathom why his daughter would want to be part of the militant left. I had been an actor for so long, but my college years at the University of the Philippines – hotbed of activism, opened my eyes to our national issues and awakened my revolutionary spirit at 17. I led two lives – one as a neophyte activist, the other as an actor. For many years I struggled to find a way to marry my art and activism – then “The Vagina Monologues” and V-Day came along and changed the course of my life.
Producing the play and mounting V-Day events all around the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan in the succeeding years placed our political issues firmly at the forefront of each production – sex trafficking, justice for our comfort women – the first sex slaves of World War 2, militarisation, migrant issues, among many others. In partnership with GABRIELA for every production who became our resource group for political advocacy, information, and direct services – we used the play to not only empower women, but also to use the stories of the play in context with our own issues as Southeast Asian women – long subjugated and exploited by both Western powers and our own governments. The play became an important advocacy tool to raise awareness on both violence against women issues – as well as national and international policies that were keeping the violence in place. It also became a vital platform to raise funds for our grassroots women’s groups, particularly for the Purple Rose Campaign, and for our LILA FILIPINA comfort women lolas. Our journey was not without challenges. In the beginning, the media would not print the word vagina, and TV and radio shows would not allow us to say vagina to promote the show. No sponsors would touch us. The Catholic Church raised much opposition to our productions, and in a country where our militant political leaders get arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured by our police and military – there were always huge risks. But the power of the play brought the audiences in, and our belief in the merging of the play with our own women’s movement gave another platform for our grassroots women to raise their voices in another way. And my own political education deepened in this V-Day journey with GABRIELA – who exposed me to the issues, who brought me to the communities where we performed the play, and who opened my eyes and who continue to keep me awake.
There are so many moments that stand out in my memory of the last thirteen years. In 2000, when Eve Ensler was invited to perform at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal for Comfort Women in Japan and schedules did not permit her to come – she invited me to go in her place. Performing her piece “My Vagina Was My Village” (about the militarised rape of a Bosnian woman) in front of 250 comfort women from all over Asia, was the deepest honour, but also terrified me. How do you perform a monologue on rape that the women sitting in front of you experienced daily for years during the second world war – and of which they had not gotten any justice for? How do I serve the woman whose story this was? How do I honour the stories of the comfort women who are connected to this piece? For me it was a defining moment – a realisation that this was not just a piece, not just a play – but a catalyst for awareness and justice.
Another memory is performing the same piece at the International League of People’s Struggles (ILPS) first convention in Utrech, The Netherlands in 2001 – where anti-imperialist people’s groups from all over the world gathered to create and envision the charter of ILPS – and the emerging feeling that our stories, our struggles, were all one – all connected. But mainly that art and activism knew no boundaries, and how clearly it began to surface for me that this could be a bridge – not a wall. And that, to end violence against women, we needed to find the things that connect us, not separate us.
In 2002, after just having done the play for 2 years in the Philippines, our Gabriela Secretary General Liza Maza – already sitting in the House of Congress as a Congressional Representative, together with other women legislators, invited us to perform the play in the Philippine Congress and in the Philippine Senate – to help pass the bills on anti- sex trafficking and domestic violence. Both bills had been sitting for a decade on the Congress floor – and they felt they needed to be pushed and brought to light in a different way for the male legislators to really understand the issues of violence against women. We did both a Filipino and English performance of the play. A few months later the bills were passed, and the feedback we got was that, for the legislators, it was a different experience reading data on VAW issues, as opposed to hearing the real experience of a woman being violated. It made it more real, more tangible. And just like many of us who believe in the power of theatre to transform – once you are moved by what you see and hear, your heart, not your head, forces you to act.
In 2003, we decided to perform our V-Day event at our Armed Forces of the Philippines camp, in the belly of the beast. And we asked all the soldiers, the generals and their wives to watch. I will never forget Lola Narcisa – one of our comfort women, giving them all a fiery, emotional speech on the continued abuse of women suffered from the hands of men in power and uniform, as a hundred Filipina artists sat around her. People sat stunned in the audience – perhaps hearing for the first time, what violence does to a woman. But just as important, seeing a community of women up there on the stage with her in solidarity and support.
In Hong Kong, Singapore and London where we performed the play for all our migrant women, you could hear audible crying from the audience – and the women, mostly domestic workers, would share their stories after – the play forcing an opening and a power in them to speak up about their experiences of abuse. Bringing the play all over the Philippines, to urban poor, rural and indigenous communities – the experiences were the same. Breaking the silence, speaking up, fuelling empowerment, then taking political action. Today, college groups do V-Day events on campuses that once banned the play. Today, we can also say “vagina” without censorship. In 2000 we couldn’t say the word vagina on television, now our word for vagina – “puki”- also similarly banned at the start, is a huge part of our national consciousness in our fight to reclaim our rights as Filipina women.
In 2006, at the trial of the rape of our Filipina Nicole by Daniel Smith, a US serviceman – the guilty verdict was read as the clerk of court repeatedly mentioned the word vagina as the desecrated source of humanity and dignity. One of our Philippine senators sitting beside me in the court room, who had once questioned me in the beginning for doing a play that she thought was “vulgar”, now was thanking us for bringing the play to the Philippines – because she said she had never thought this moment would come in the history of our predominantly Catholic country – that the word vagina, and the violence being done to it, would be spoken so openly in court, to highlight the gravity of the violence of rape.
These are only a few snapshots of an incredible 13 year journey with the play, which naturally led to the next level of our advocacy – One Billion Rising.
When I was asked to be the One Billion Rising Philippine coordinator because of my long history and relationship with the play and the V-Day movement – I did not hesitate. Just like our experience with “The Vagina Monologues” I knew that GABRIELA and the other grassroots groups – MIGRANTE, KILUSANG MAYO UNO (workers union), among many others – would need to lead it to give it what we felt was a necessary and urgent political life – and to have the grassroots women who have long been fighting for their rights, be at the forefront. Because it was an escalated campaign – the groups brought in neo-liberal policies that keep our women violated on various levels, sexual, economic, environmental, developmental – Rising against rape, domestic violence, incest – but also against US foreign intervention and militarisation, sex trafficking and sexual slavery, forced labor, state impunity, forced disappearances of our women leaders and human rights defenders, economic exploitation, mining and the plunder of our environment by foreign corporations that rape both our land and our women. We took our government to task – holding them accountable for the numerous state instigated violence being done against our women. The Risings around the Philippines and around the world led by Philippine migrant groups was colourful, feisty, artistic – we had our own Rising song and dance in our own language using our own indigenous instruments – and it was also extremely political. Artistically militant, exposing the truth, courageous, but full of hope and a vision of a future we were demanding. In the months leading up to February 14, 2013 – we traveled to communities in the deepest mountains of the Philippines, to mining sites, to relocation sites where families were being forcibly evacuated to, met trafficking survivors, spoke to families of our migrants coming home in body bags from suspicious deaths abroad, met with indigenous communities, with our Muslim sisters, with the urban poor, with fisher folk and peasants. Hearing all their stories fueled the rising and soon the whole country, led by Gabriela chapters in every province, in every city, was dancing.
This year, after 12 years of doing voluntary work for V-Day as an activist and organiser, I was invited to be the Director of the One Billion Rising campaign, which is now One Billion Rising for Justice for 2014. It was a huge decision to make, leaving a postgraduate theatre course for international students in the UK that I had headed for five years, but one that my heart was so sure about. I was always deeply grateful for the chance to serve the women of the Philippines through V-Day, over so many incredible years.
Being the Director of the campaign I have been able to work with over 40 global One Billion Rising coordinators around the world – themselves women and men do the most amazing work, often unrecognised, inspires and energises me daily. I am in awe of their generosity, their selflessness, their compassion, their fierceness and their courage in the face of every adversity and challenge.
Recently I went to Myanmar to hold One Billion Rising workshops for the amazing women of Akhaya who led the rising in Yangon. They wanted me to share insights about the women’s movement in the Philippines, how we organise, how we stratagise and implement our campaigns, how we rose, how we do our alliance building work, how we engage local authorities to work with us for women and to rise with us. We also talked about the importance of mentoring – of passing on our activism to the next generation of young women activists who will carry on the work – and of the importance of honouring the activists and feminists who came before us who have paved the path we stand on to be able to rise today. After Myanmar, I went to Bali Indonesia where One Billion Rising for Justice Southeast and South Asia protested against the World Trade Organization (WTO) which was holding their conference there, and where we used the One Billion Rising platform and solidarity to fight against developmental, economic, and environmental injustice, and to loudly protest against the continuing US and foreign economic and military interventions in the Asia-Pacific. After Bali was an incredible two and a half week tour of India with Eve, to Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and Himachal – where our India OBR coordinators and organisers mounted the most inspiring and amazing Rise for Justice events, panel discussions, sit ins, cultural events and community sharings. In event after event all over India, women and girls would come up to Eve and myself and talk to us about how “The Vagina Monologues”, V-Day, and now – One Billion Rising – have changed their lives, have empowered them, have given them a community, have helped changed laws and social barriers and structures. It was intense, emotional and deeply inspiring. In every Asian country and community I visited I saw the power of community, of women coming together, of the collective struggle. Not of divisions and fighting, but of trust and love and sisterhood. In our context, as countries in the global south gravely impacted by imperialist and capitalist policies – our risings for justice for women have taken on a different meaning. There is clarity in who our oppressors and subjugators are. In the aftermath of the terrible storm Haiyan that hit the Philippines, we were moved by the immense strength of the One Billion Rising global solidarity community – where V-Day and One Billion Rising activists around the world raised more than $200,000 US dollars, through the V-Day fund, to help the survivors of the storm. That global solidarity has supported the efforts of GABRIELA, who are leading the women’s missions in devastated areas, to not only give necessary relief goods, but also do psycho-social support work and rehabilitation, particularly for women and mothers. Now, with six weeks to go – our women are rising stronger than ever – preparing for our Rise for Justice events in the Philippines, which will see our grassroots women’s groups protest and gather outside places where we have been denied justice – the US embassy, the Supreme Court, our Presidential Palace, mining sites, corporations- where we will be holding women’s courts, political rallies, marches – and where we will be dancing and rising for justice in celebration and defiance.