Long time ago and even until today the women are treated with great respect in the society. Contrary to popular belief, Philippine society was not always patriarchal. There was a time when women were treated as equally as men. The early law already recognizes their rights with the same privilege equally as men have. They played key roles both in and outside. Before the coming of the Spaniards, women were already entitled to inherit and own a family property, engage in a trade, to work according to her favorable occupation.
They could also exercise their right to name her child before anyone else and could divorce her husband. When she was of marrying age, a dowry would be given to her family by the groom as compensation for her family’s loss –- an amount agreed upon according to their means. The groom would give presents for the bride’s family, and would even do some services (called paninilbihan) for a given period. The bride did not lose her name after marriage. Among the Tagalogs, if a woman was from a distinguished family, her husband usually took her name.
Virginity was of little value, and women were not overly protected. Filipino wives enjoyed freedom in making decisions for the family, and as such were not confined solely to domestic affairs like having a baby. Precolonial women, especially those settled along the shore, did not like to give birth many times; they perceived it as being like pigs giving birth to huge litters of young. Because of this, they practiced abortion whenever the couple reached their desired number of children, as there was no concept of birth control then. In the family, husbands and wives were equal.
Husbands treated their wives as companions and not as slaves or whores. The wife was also financially independent since she retained the property she owned before marriage. Both the husband and the wife had the right to file for divorce since this was practiced. The grounds for divorce were childlessness, infidelity, or failure to fulfill obligations to the family. In the event of divorce, if the wife was at fault, her family was obliged to return the dowry; but if the husband was at fault, he lost his rights to the dowry. The couple would get equal custody of their children.
Even until today it was already a practice that wives juggled between managing the home, taking care of the children, at the same time helping her husband in earning the family’s livelihood. She often played a key role in the family’s economic stability and in improving the family’s finances by engaging in agriculture and trade with the Chinese merchants. The early Filipinas were often considered as reliable trade partners, thus, women’s signatures were often required to validate contracts. In fact, husbands cannot make any business dealings without the knowledge and approval of the wife.
Women of pre-colonial Philippines can take leadership roles, be priestess, healers, and even warriors. In fact daughters of the Datu (king) are part of the line of succession, thus they can inherit the throne. The Babaylan (priestess or healer) is a woman. Should a man take this role he needs to dress up like a woman in order to perform the task of a babaylan. And like any other culture before occupation or colonization by European countries such as Spain, France, and Britain, women are taught skills that possess economic, social, religious, and academic value.
Disrespect for women is taboo in pre-colonial Philippines. A man who does not show respect to women is regarded negatively by other men and society in general. This is something that everyone learns at an early age. The Spaniards saw the important role that women play in Philippine society, which for someone coming from a totally patriarchal society, they found threatening. Thus, the “malayang babae” of pre-colonial Philippines slowly became enslaved by the new norms and practices the colonizers introduced.
The “malayang babae” lost her voice, much like the land they called their home. The position of women in Philippine society took a drastic transformation upon the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The Spaniards brought with them their religion and their version of a woman’s place in society. The Spanish generals together with the friars banished centuries old of tradition. Indoctrinated the people and created the idealized and romanticized “Maria Clara”, which is the Spaniards’ depiction of a submissive, obedient and overly religious woman.