What makes a woman “desirable” has, gladly, been breaking out of the occasionally stifling range of unnatural skin tones and #fitspiring cuts and curves. This month, we’re celebrating the remarkable shift in how feminine beauty now more commonly includes “strong” and “smart” as two traits that define a more organic kind of beauty. And by saying “organic”, don’t panic—we’re talking about the kind that’s rooted in pre-colonial Filipino culture.
Below are 8 female figures in whom the fierce lie strong (Tyra reference unintended).
In the misty mountains up north, Buscalan, Kalinga has become a mecca for tattoo-centric pilgrimages. It’s home to the petite, beautiful, intricately tattooed 94-year-old Whang Od (also known as Fang Od) of the Butbut Tribe. Being the last mambabatok or tattoo artist in the highlands’ rich headhunting history, getting one of her traditional tattoos done is like acquiring a prized piece of permanent art (that thankfully, no longer requires Kalinga lineage or rolling of heads), although most say that the greater honor lies simply in getting to meet her.
On the topic of body modification, several tribes around the country such as the Agtas and Mindanao’s Bagobo, B’laan and T’boli tribes have actually been practicing the filing and blackening of teeth as a sign of beauty and importance upon coming-of-age. This sharp, blacktoothed grin is, in a way, like a wordless refusal of Western colonization and its notion of beauty at that time.
The pre-colonial Agta women certainly didn’t just belong in the kitchen. Decades-long studies show that our Agta women weren’t consistent with the general Man-the-Hunter and Woman-the-Gatherer logic of cultural anthropology, as they brought home the bacon almost just as much as their men did
They’re called Dreamweavers for the simple yet magical reason that is: the patterns they form in their distinct T’nalak weaves manifest themselves in dreams as bestowed by ancient spirits. This mystical artistry is passed through generations among the T’boli women of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato.
A neighboring tribe of the T’bolis, the B’laan (“B’laan” translating to “Opponent People”) are also known for the similarly vibrant manner of dress. This goes beyond sheer aesthetic value but also to assert their identity, such as through the tiny bells attached on brass belts and beadwork that the B’laan women proudly wear to signal their arrival even from afar. No excessive selfies necessary for self-affirmation here.
Courtship in the Teduray Tribe of Mindanao is largely influenced by the courting man’s mother, who leads the search for the perfect kenogon (young virgin lady). According to the NCAA, even the maternal grandparents help in finding the woman that ticks all the boxes of what would make “the perfect wife”. The women’s decision-making skills sure hold weight in this household.
Writing the Hanunó'o script of the Mangyan people is said to be, sadly, a vanishing one. This form of writing on fresh bamboo was the most popular form of exchanging love letters back then, and today, it’s one of the three indigenous scripts still being used. In one of travel photographer Jacob Maentz’ journeys, he discovered that only three people among the Hanunó'o Mangyans know how to inscribe it in writing. The elderly Nais (shown in photo above) is one of them.
A term broadly used to describe individuals (primarily women) gifted with supernatural healing or shamanistic powers (tambalan or mananambal in Visayan), this term raises eyebrows or uneasiness among those who associate it with the dark areas of the occult, the Yin to the Yang. But with the rise in alternative methods of healing today, the essence of the Babaylan is regaining a more positive relevance in healing society’s core illnesses by helping it recall its roots. In the words of Prof. Joycie Y. Dorado Alegre, head of NCCA’s Subcommission on Cultural Communities and Traditional Arts in NCCA’s “Light and Mystery” lecture in 2012, “The babaylan is always thought to be ancient, but she’s still here in our complex society. Anyone can be a babaylan. We have just forgotten, swallowed by the stresses of our lives.”
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