Dan Inosanto in his book The Filipino Martial Arts paid tribute to the many women warriors of the Philippines, “The Philippine had a ‘Queen Elizabeth’ in the person of Princess Urduja. She was considered the mighty warrior queen of ancient Pangasinan. It is said that she ruled her people wisely and had commercial trade with various countries like Java, China and India. She knew several languages and took part in many battles.
Princess Urduja was only one of many female leaders during pre-Spanish times. There were Princess Sima, Princess Pangian Inchi Jamila of Jolo—the best swordswoman in the Philippines, Queen Maniwantiwan, Lela Men Chanei, the princess of Sulu who invaded and conquered Manila in the 15th century and Josefa Gabriela [María Josefa Gabriela Cariño Silang] who took full command of her husband’s army during the rebellion against the Spanish. Gabriela was called the Ilocano ‘Joan of Arc.’ There were General Agueda Kahabagan, Tuamba-locam the sultana of Jolo who led the Muslim warriors against the famous Spanish General Coequera in 1637, Teresa Magbanua was a general whose exploits are still remembered by living survivors of that stormy era from 1896 to 1901. These are but few names in a long list of heroines in Filipino history.”
While women in precolonial Philippines were often designated to the venerable position of the babaylan, it is not an uncommon occurrence for them to pick up arms and become warriors.
Female warriors were mentioned in Philippine ethnic literature. The three most worth mentioning are Matabagka from the Bukidnon olagingon, Bolak Sonday from the guman of the Subanun, and Emla from the Northern Kalinga gusumbi. Olagingon, guman and gusumbi are different ethnic terms for “epic.”
In ancient epics as well as real history, a close observation would reveal that the Filipino women’s participations in wars were not mere attempts to reverse gender roles or to bust sexual categories but a natural manifestation of their actual potency. The challenge of their transition though always lies in the change of battlefield—from the spiritual to the physical. The ritualist now must leave the fires of the altar and pick up the sword to plunge into the heat of mortal combat.
The shift from ritualist to warrior is not that so farfetched if one would consider that the babaylan is not by any means docile in characteristics and appearance. William Henry Scott in Looking for the Prehispanic Filipino wrote, “Babaylan were shamans or spirit mediums, given to seizures and trances in which they spoke with the voice of their diwata or other spirits and acted out conflicts in the spirit world, brandishing spears, foaming at the mouth and often becoming violent enough to require restraint. They were also called daitan, befriended in recognition of their patronage by particular diwata. They could be either male or female or male transvestites called asog, but were most commonly women.”
With the coming of Spain and the advent of Catholicism, the babaylan tradition was nearly snuffed out. The roles of Filipino women during colonial times became more subdued adapting to the patriarchal societal structure of their conquerors. Mysticism, similar to the ways of the babaylan of yore were still valued but now pursued through the perspective of Catholic faith.
Fresh from conversion to Christian faith, the Philippines easily caught up with the metaphysical trend popular in 17th century Europe. Soon enough, a movement similar to that of the European metaphysicals began in Manila. Women who were drawn to this pursuit were called beata (the term means blessed).
The most known beata of that period and credited for starting the movement was Hermana Sebastiana de Santa Maria (1652-1692). The Hermana Sebastiana was known to the rich and poor of Manila as a healer, clairvoyant and miracle worker. Much like the babaylan of precolonial times, her advice was sought after by the influential and the powerful people like the highest officials of Church and State.
Though meek compared to their babaylan predecessors, the beata of the 17th century made a remarkable stand against the norm of that period. The late National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin in his book Manila, My Manila wrote, “Moreover, they [the beata], could not go on living in community because the social law at that time was that every woman should be under male authority—that of her father, husband, brother or son. But women could not live under female authorities of their own choosing, as the beatas were doing.”
And then the Philippine Revolution of 1898 broke out. Drawn to the brutal realities of war, a number of Filipino women realized that besides prayers and piety they too must pick up arms and engage the enemy. The ritualist once again, must transform into a warrior.
On this, Barbara Watson Andaya, in her essay Gender, Warfare and Patriotism in Southeast Asia and the Philippine Revolution wrote, “By the same token, the appearance of Filipina ‘women warriors’ in the interstices of masculine conflict has been interpreted by some Philippine scholars as a return to the babaylan tradition with its echoes of the ‘malelike’ woman.”