Excerpt from “FWN and I” by Marily Mondejar in DISRUPT. Filipina Women: Proud. Loud. Leading Without A Doubt.
One. A Successful Career Requires A Constituency and A Support Network.
In 1998, I was a volunteer for a friend who was running for city mayor against the incumbent. I was fascinated with the aspects of political campaigning, especially opposition research. Often referred to as oppo, Wikipedia describes oppo as a tactical maneuver to legally investigate the opposing candidate’s background. This information is used to compromise a candidate’s position on issues that may be critical to the candidate’s platform. My candidate attacked the incumbent mayor because of transactions that involved a mayor’s crony.
The goal was to frame the daily news headlines by providing reporters bits of information to slowly chip away their lead in the polls. I particularly enjoyed this game of strategy. Later I realized that I was participating in compromising a rising Filipina executive’s career to get to her boss. I wanted so much to reach out to her but I could not as I was on the other side. It was then that I started looking at her support network. Where is the Filipino American community? Where are the women? The Filipina women? Who is advising her? Why is she not responding to the media frenzy? Deep in my heart I wished I could have helped.
This was a learning moment. I watched her career decline and soon she resigned. It also firmed up in me the need for having a network of support. Your own advisory board. A sisterhood. The men have known this for years; the old boys’ network is there for the bro.
I could not stop talking about this incident with my friends. At that time, I was not involved in the Filipino American community, until a friend said, “What are you going to do about it?”
Two. ‘Filipina’ And the Internet
As the Internet became more available, my name somehow would pop up when one Google searches “Filipina.” One day I received an email from a stranger who wanted to meet Filipina women. He said he was looking for an Asian wife preferably a Filipina. He came across my name on an Internet search and found an article about me. He attached his very distinguished resume and invited me to meet him for dinner. He said he would show me his financial records if I would consider a relationship. Wow!
I promptly Googled “Filipina” and was I surprised at the results. The Google search yielded 3,770,000 results. Yahoo yielded 5,530,000. Ask.com yielded 565,800. The search results listed hundreds of website links to dating and matchmaking sites, ‘exotic’ and ‘sexy’ girls, and personal ads for Filipina wives.
These sites have defined Filipina women. Perpetuation of this “popular image” was at a “cultural icon” level, a much-desired status for which corporations spend millions of dollars to promote their products and services (Holt 2004).
I knew then that my work was cut out for me. I needed to develop a game plan to elevate the presence and participation of Filipina women in leadership positions in corporate America, public service and the government. I felt that it is not very often we get a chance to make a difference in other people’s lives. That email search was an eye-opener.
Three. The Vagina Monologues
When I met Eve Ensler in 2003 at a conference in New York, she had just returned from a trip to Manila where she met the Comfort Women at a production of The Vagina Monologues produced by Monique Wilson. I did not know what the Comfort Women was about. Eve encouraged me to put on the show. I ordered the script and my creative juices started pumping. What I thought was going to be a funny, revealing, provocative show with a cast of only Filipina women, turned out to be the most important campaign that FWN has ever convened.
When we announced the production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in 2003, FWN came under attack not only by the Filipino community but also by our own members. I was personally criticized through emails and phone calls for defaming FWN and the Filipino community, for being a bad role model, for being immoral, for daring to speak the word “vagina” and “puki” [vagina]. I became known as the ‘Vagina Lady’ or the “Puki Lady.” We lost members. People would turn away from me at Filipino gatherings. Some would not touch me. Some of our production volunteers feared for their safety and questioned the wisdom of FWN’s collaboration with Eve Ensler’s V-Day, the global campaign to end violence against women and girls.
I felt very responsible for what was happening. It was difficult emotionally to separate myself from the backlash. The resistance, however, challenged me and provided an opportunity for reflection and dialogue. I am an organizational change practitioner, after all. I felt there was something deeper to the hostile reaction and that somehow we have struck a chord. Why were people so threatened by a word?
The Vagina Monologues is a play that highlights the tragedy and comedy about women’s sexual lives. While at times funny, the play is graphic in its description and representation of women’s experiences. So we decided to hold weekly TV viewings of The Vagina Monologues at the rehearsals and at the homes of friends and FWN Members: to learn more about the source of hostility and anger, and to alleviate any uneasiness about pukis. We made sure that we had an experienced facilitator to conduct the discussion after each show so that every attendee felt safe and felt their opinions were heard. What resulted was unexpected. These home viewings and weekly rehearsals became community gatherings where women shared their stories of abuse, their secrets about rape and incest, and their recipes. It became a love fest and a food fest. We called them Vagina Love Brunches.
What we thought were meetings to assuage people about doing a play about vaginas and pukis turned into a realization that Filipina women needed a safe place where they can be themselves, where they can share their secrets, their experiences and challenges with other Filipina women, and where they can feel that someone understands their struggles.
At these community gatherings, we met Filipina victims and survivors of domestic violence sharing their hiya [shame]. They talked about their feelings about bringing domestic violence on themselves. That it was their fault. They talked about not talking about domestic violence lest they bring hiya to their families.
At these community gatherings, we found that many of us still think that domestic violence only affects other communities and that it does not happen to us. That domestic violence happens only to other minority people, to poor people, to the uneducated, to the TNTs [TNT is a pop culture term for undocumented; its Tagalog translation is Tago ng Tago].
At these community gatherings, we sensed helplessness. No one knew where to go for help. No one was familiar with what resources were available.
At these community gatherings, we found that community agencies organized to help women in abusive situations lack culture and language-appropriate resources for Filipina women. Existing community agencies cannot often relate to the specific complexities that Filipinas face in abusive situations.
At these community gatherings, we learned the meaning of fear. Victims of domestic violence are afraid for themselves and for their children. Their aggressors instill such fear and isolation that victims often feel that no one will listen or help. They do not know how to ask for help.
At these community gatherings, we heard about Claire Joyce Tempongko who was murdered by her boyfriend in front of her two young children. We heard about Marissa Corpuz and Giovannie Pico. Many stories of Filipina women still not ready to come out publicly to share their stories. I was one of these women.
At these community gatherings, we found a clear mission. Through the laughter, food, and storytelling, FWN launched the Filipina Women Against Violence Campaign. As the founder and president of FWN, I made it one of our organization’s top priorities-raise awareness and help end domestic violence. Two actions we took immediately:
1) Change the verbiage-we are survivors not victims, domestic violence is not the woman’s fault;
2) Publish the V-Diaries Magazine as an anti-violence resource guide to raise awareness about the cycle of violence that permeates our culture. The success of the campaign was achieved through coalition building. I promptly got myself appointed to the City of San Francisco’s Justice and Courage Oversight Panel, which was tasked to oversee San Francisco’s systemwide response to domestic violence. This panel was created because of the murder of a young Filipina woman, Claire Joyce Tempongko.
Today, FWN works closely with the City of San Francisco’s agencies including the offices of the Mayor, the District Attorney, Domestic Violence Victim Services, Commission on the Status of Women, the Domestic Violence Consortium and the Collaborative Against Human Trafficking. We have barely scratched the surface. There is still much work to be done.