Confronting Split Women:
Using Asian Feminist Theology as a
Lens for Bi-Cultured, First Generation F/Peminists
Using Asian Feminist Theology as a
Lens for Bi-Cultured, First Generation F/Peminists
The Filipino people are the second largest Asian population and one of the three fastest growing demographics in the United States.1 Despite being second in number only to the Chinese, this population remains largely unknown and virtually invisible in the media and public eye. With is history of colonialism, the Filipino people have struggled to sustain its distinct identity, which is influenced, but not determined by Spanish culture and the United States’ long-term military presence.
The story of Filipino women, Filipinas, or Pinays, is richly unique and diverse. Women of Filipino blood face different forms of hardship and discrimination on separate continents, but demonstrate trademark resilience and strength in times of struggle. Under the suffocating blanket of extreme economic poverty, women living in the Philippines are highly susceptible to fall prey to the international migration of female labor – to become nannies, domestic workers, and sex workers around the globe.2 These women go to such measures for the survival of their families or to escape the economic oppression and lack of employment. On the opposite spectrum, other women who migrate to the United States do so for similar reasons, but under drastically different conditions.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 brought waves of educated and highlight skilled Filipinas to the United States. For whatever winds that brought them to North America, there are cultural characteristics embedded in Filipinas that become implanted in the soil of their new homes. Religion is one of them. Unlike other Asian countries which have various religions and practices, the Philippines is 85% Roman Catholic.3 For of Filipinos, religion is closely tied to cultural roots and practices – praying novenas and rosaries, and creating makeshift altars in their homes. For many immigrant Filipinas, their spirituality can be a source of strength and comfort as they face discrimination, sexism, isolation and a longing for community.4 Certain Filipino spiritual values, especially establishing a close community and extending and accepting hospitality, can assist Filipinas in dealing with these issues that stem from painful immigration, reports Thelma B. Burgonio-Watson, the first Filipina to be ordained as a Minister of the Word in the Presbyterian Church. These values can help Filipinas deal with “the more individualistic lifestyle of the mainstream American culture” as they strive to form their own identity.
First Generation, Bi-culturalism
Today, one in five Americans is either foreign-born or first-generation, the highest level in the history of the United States. 5 As Filipina immigrants have brought or continue to birth Filipina American children in the US, a new era of cultural fusion has begun. First generation,6 bi-cultural children are growing up in a world of schizophrenic messages and conflict of upbringing.
Due to the influx of Filipinos after the Immigration and Nationality Act, more Filipinas are being born on American soil with Philippine-born parents. This is the first generation of bi-cultured individuals inculcated with both eastern and western influenced lifestyles. These women vary in terms of geography, language, and class. As Filipinos remain a largely hidden people in the United States, and because Filipinos are subject to the same patriarchal oppression as the rest of the world, Filipino women and their complexity remain mysteriously unknown.
Isolation plays a large factor in their invisibility. This population of women and their families are isolated for numerous reasons. As the Immigration and Nationality Act encouraged highly skilled and educated immigrants, especially medical professionals, to work in the United States, the children of these immigrants were quickly moved into middle to high class neighborhoods. Unlike some ethnic communities who face socioeconomic hardship and live in close proximity for support and/or necessity, Filipino families, products of Immigration and Nationality Act that brought highly-skilled professionals to the middle to upper class of the United States, are often left isolated and are left to assimilate or survive on their own. Thus, a two fold problem occurs.
Immigrants themselves are forced to navigate the cultural conflicts with transitions while their children are silently marked cultural hybrids and are forced to find answers for themselves. In the privacy of their homes, Filipino ethos – collectivism, religion - are enforced. Outside the home, in school, or with peers, they may experience feelings of being ostracized, racial discrimination, or their heritage is ignored altogether.7 Ultimately, bicultured Filipinos may grow to resent or deny their own ethnic identity because it causes so much confusion and pain.
Problems of Verbal Identity:
Pinayism/F/Peminism vs. “Asian American”
The benign nature of the term “Asian American” often generalizes and blurs the very distinct lines that exist between Asian cultures, especially Filipino culture. The term “Asian,” conjures up the more popular and familiar races of Asia: Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. For Filipino Americans, when swept under the term “Asian American,” they experience difficultly in maintaining an authentic identity, especially when the label nonchalantly groups varying peoples and practices under one unifying and non-specific label. When navigating the “Asian” and the “American” components of the label, it might be more accurate and appropriate to insert a hyphen between the two, to represent the merging of two worlds, two distinct globes full of historical roots, practices, and expectation.
Another semantic challenge exists even within cultural vernacular. Filipinas must confront challenge in identifying themselves in their chosen speech when using the letters “F” of “P.” In the seven major dialects of the Philippines, there is no letter “F” in the alphabet.8 This has led to an increasing debate as to whether identify as Filipina/o or Pilipina/o. With over 300 years of Spanish colonization in its history,9 to use the native “P” sound is an avenue of phonetic dissent to challenge the colonizer’s use of the “F” sound.10 Even in simple name, Filipinas must decide how they want to identify.
Pinay is slang in Tagalog, the main dialect of the Philippines, for a Filipina woman; to describe a woman with Filipino descent. This empowering word has evolved to mean many things, but in more contemporary times, it is used to affirm the Filipnas living in the United States.11 Pinayism is one of the first efforts to theorize the contemporary Filipina experience.
As feminism is largely thought to be consumed by White, liberal, middle-class agendas, many individuals across other races, religions, and ethnicity do not identify with the word “feminism” because of its assuming history of speaking for all women’s experiences and western political affiliation. As other critical voices, such as bell hooks who speaks about African American women, have emerged to widen the scope of women’s experiences, Peminism rises. In the echoes of third world feminist theory, peminism resonates with Gloria Anzaldua who advocates for “mestiza consciousness,” which calls for individuals to “[develop] a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity…She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in pluralistic mode. Not only does she sustain contradiction, she turns the ambivalence into something else.” This is particularly appropriate for first generation, bicultured Pinays who experience split lives in their daily existence.
Another strand of separation for Pinays stems from the mainstream, western feminist thought that has segregated the pivotal role and significance of spirituality from the conversation of feminism. A Filipina must seek out alternative tools to deconstruct and find meaning in her bi-cultured identity, which not only includes, but is heavily linked to her religious and spiritual experiences.
Asian Feminist Theology
“There is no one way to do Asian Feminist Theology, and Asian feminist theologians in recent years have increasingly paid attention to their differences, not just their commonalities.”12 This main tenant of Asian Feminist Theology stands as a critical feature for first generation Filipinas negotiating their spirituality, identity, and religious practice in the context of the United States. Asian Feminist Theology is based upon the Asian women’s perspective, but that perspective comes from all over the world, including Asians who have never been to Asia or their mother country.
In one vein, identifying with Asian Feminist Theology, with the forethought that it must come from women living in or having lived in Asia, could be problematic for first generation, bi-cultured Pinays who face discrimination for not being “Filipino enough” (speaking the language, regular visits to the Philippines) or completely American. Some first generation Pinays may not have ever seen land beyond their own state or country, let alone the Philippines or Asia as a continent.
However, an individual will soon come to understand that Asian Feminist Theology is an open invitation that pushes beyond sweeping terms; it is an arena that intentionally seeks a “multivocal” conversation.13 This conversation can withstand and even welcomes the differences of generation and citizenship. Identity encapsulates much more than birthright. It includes the overlapping layers of family history and migration. For split Filipinas who struggle between the individualistic western culture and the culture that promotes the centrality of family and community, Asian Feminist Theology remedies the notion that Filipinas must be one or the other.
There is no one true identity for first generation Filipinas. They exist on the peripheral, translating their own lives at the connecting door of two worlds. They are not just Asian or just American. They are both and more. Asian Feminist Theology may very well be the most hopeful space a bi-cultured Filipina may find in her efforts to find a place that can hold the natural tension of her duality.
In the effort of bi-cultured Pinays to sift through their catholic upbringing in the United States, Asian Feminist Theology stands as a flexible and essential body of re-examination. “Asian feminist theologians find that they have to reinterpret sin and redemption anew in the contemporary context. The traditional emphasis on the individual and spiritual dimension of sin proves to be less than helpful for women. Women are not just sinners; they are the sinned against too.”14
Even though many Filipinas must painfully co-exist with Catholicism and f/peminism, fleeing the Catholic Church is often not a viable or desirable answer. Theologian Rachel Bundang reflects, “I cannot help but see Allan Figueroa Deck’s characterization of Latino theology as similar to my own stance and project. He writes, ‘Among Latinos the unity of the Church does not revolve around the resolution of differences of creed or doctrine…the commitment out of which they write and teach is not so much the confessional…as much as the cultural and social class commitment of their communities, their gente, their pueblos.’”15
F/Peminist theologians must be able to find a place that can hold the exchange, where the goal is not sameness or resolution; where peace is the space that can withstand the action of living in friction. Rachel Bundang asserts, “Theologies and the study of Asian Americans’ religious experiences in the United States are not yet a point where they can even deal with trying to settle on a name like womanist, mujerista, or teologia de conjuto (collaborative Hispanic Protestant theology)…I do not think that naming, in this case, is as important as the struggle to articulate what is yet unspoken, unseen, unknown.”16
Moving the Unknown Forward
What is unspoken, unseen, and unknown is the contemporary spiritual Filipina experience. The American and European feminist movement in the 1970s called for the expansion of the women’s experience by expressing in the written, narrative form. As the attempt to validate Women Studies in the academic realm continues, many have suggested a cease to the narrative, or at least a decrease in using the narrative as a tool for credibility. The narrative, some feminists argue, does not offer empirical data for Women Studies to be deepened or theorized.
The bi-cultured Filipina has yet to be heard, or even asked about her experience. The limited space in which women of color have had for their stories is an outrage and a disservice to all those working on behalf of women’s liberation. Chung Hyun Kyung, an Asian woman theologian, writes, “Throughout my eleven years of theological training, I have written countless term papers and theological essays for highly educated people who were my teachers…I no longer want to write so-called ‘comprehensive’ theology seeking to answer question of privileged Europeans. I want to do theology in solidarity with and in love for my mother so as to resurrect crucified persons – like her – by giving voice to their hurts and pains.”17
According to theologian Rebecca Chop, ‘knowledge is itself always historical, always related to power and interests, and is open to change and transformation.’18 Asian Feminist Theologians argue that because their experiences have been left out of the theological reflection, they must do their own theology.19 For Asian Feminist Theology to advance the narrative cannot be over; it is just beginning.
For bi-cultured Filipinas to become a part of the theological conversation and to fight their own cultural and systematic oppression, they must put their own life stories forward and speak from the marginalized places in which they reside. They must distinguish themselves and affirm their rights to “do theology” by deeply contemplating and offering their split lives as theological testimony and join the Asian Feminist Theology movement to magnify the pieces of their brokenness and strength.
1 United States Census Bureau, 2000.
2 Ehrenreich, Barbara and Horchschild, Arlie Russell. Global Women: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy. Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Hochschild. 2002.
3 Root, Maria P. Filipino Americans: Transforming and Identity. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks. 1997.
4 Root, pg 328.
5 Fountas, Angela Jane. Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally. Seal Press. Emeryville. 2005.
6 The term “first generation” has been used to describe both immigrants and also those whose parents are immigrants. For consistency, the term “first generation” is used exclusively to refer or describe individuals who are born in the United States, whose parents emigrated from another country.
7 Root, pg 198.
8 Jesus, Melinda L. de. Pinay Power, Peminst Critical Theory: Theorizing the Filipina/American Experience. Routledge. New York. 2005.
9 Jesus, pg 14.
10 The Spanish colonizers named the islands “lasIslas Filipinas: after Philip of Spain. In 1898, with the American Takeover, the “F” sound was further enforced.
11 Root, pg 14.
12 Pui-lan, Kwok. Introducing Asian Feminist Theology. The Pilgrim Press. Cleveland. 2000.
13 Pui-lan, pg 10.
14 Pui-lan, 80.
15 Pui-lan, 66.
16 Pui-lan, 67.
17 Pui-lan, 28.
18 Pui-lan, 39.
19 Pui-lan, 39.