One of the most controversial, interesting, and popular subjects here at The Aswang Project is the discussion on articles about gender – particularly the role of trans women. It’s a concept that I have tried to understand for several years. Any valid study and research in the area seems to be set back by wildly popular, and inaccurate, statements like,“gender didn’t matter in the ancient Philippines”, or “the pre-Spanish Philippines was genderless”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I think these blanket statements come from our preconceptions of what defines ‘gender’ today, and a misunderstanding of what it meant in the early animist societies of the Philippine area. I am not posting this article as an authority on the topic, but rather as a starting point for an educational dialogue. Please share your thoughts so we can all learn more about this very misunderstood and important topic. I believe it is one of many important pieces as we put together the puzzle of Philippine Mythology.
Shedding Modern Gender Preconceptions
What were the gender roles in the pre-Spanish Philippines? Well, that is a subject where there is no consistent pattern or view. It depends entirely on the tribe, region, and outside influences through immigration and trade. What we have is a great deal of educated guesswork and academic speculation. I can , however, paraphrase one truth about gender in the ancient Philippines – “The social arrangements, regarding the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ were not primarily ‘about’ biological differences between the sexes in the same way that Western gender concepts are. Rather, in the relations between male and female, early (Philippine) culture seemed to be ‘anchoring’ in the physical world important aspects of any meaningful system – the relation between ‘male’ power of differentiation and stable order and ‘female’ powers of integrations and transformation.” One consistency that can be found while looking at any study of early Philippine culture, is that there was a balance between the two. For instance, the warrior ideal of the Ilongot male headhunter was balanced by the powerful role of the female ritualist.
One of the most difficult exercises in looking at pre-colonial gender roles is placing value on the social function rather than the sexual interests of individuals. Modern religious and patriarchal thinking has placed an emphasis on the sexual preference of gender and gender identity – forcing us into a perverse, and unnecessary, analysis of other people’s sexual preference as opposed to their individual contributing social function. This ingrained thinking, in my opinion, is the number one hurdle in understanding how and why trans women were so readily accepted in pre-colonial social structures.
Trans women rise to Shaman
Third gender, or gender variant, spiritual intermediaries are found in many pacific island cultures, including the bajasa of the eastern Toradja people of Sulawesi, the bantut of the Tausūg people of the south Philippines, and many other shamans of the pre-Christian Philippines. The Babaylan and Katalonan (shamans in the Visayan and Tagalog regions) were female, but were often trans women (sometimes called Bayoguin or Asog) who were assigned male at birth, but identified – and were socially accepted – as female. In regards to the Philippines, it is important to point out that the transgender shaman is almost exclusive to the areas that were influenced by the Indianized Kingdoms. The concept does not exist in early anthropological and ethnolinguistic studies done in Northern Luzon, the mountainous areas of Mindanao, and about the indigenous Negritos.
The Brahmic Influence
The “Brahman Period” of the Philippines refers to the Indianized Influence in the Philippine Area through the spread of Hinduism. In Hinduism, Brahman connotes the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe. In major schools of Hindu philosophy, it is the material, efficient, formal and final cause of all that exists. It is the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all changes. Brahman as a metaphysical concept is the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe.
The Hindu influence can be seen in terms and concepts like diwata (devata), aswang/asuang (asura), Bathala (Batara) etc. The Hinilawod and Ibalong epics have been connected to the Indian Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharta, as well as countless folktales. Why this influences is not taught as part of Philippine history will forever remain a complete mystery to me. Every reputable scholar, historian, and folklorist I have met in the Philippines, readily acknowledges and accepts these influences.
Hindu philosophy has the concept of a third sex or third gender (tritiya-prakriti – literally, “third nature”). The people in this category of sex/gender are called Hijras in Hinduism. This category includes a wide range of people with mixed male and female natures such as homosexuals, transsexuals, bisexuals, the intersexed, and so on. Such persons were not considered fully male or female in traditional Hinduism, being a combination of both. They are mentioned as third sex by nature (birth) and were not expected to behave like ordinary men and women. Their participation in religious ceremonies, especially as crossdressing dancers and devotees of certain temple gods/goddesses, is considered auspicious in traditional Hinduism. Some Hindus believe that third-sex people have special powers allowing them to bless or curse others. However, these beliefs are not upheld in all divisions of Hinduism. In Hinduism, the universal creation is honored as unlimitedly diverse and the recognition of a third sex is simply one more aspect of this understanding.
Here is where I contribute educated guesswork. The Hindu philosophy integrated beautifully into the existing animist balance of gender, and aligned with the emerging polytheistic religions and the more ancient, yet evolved, beliefs in the “skyworld”. As mentioned in “The Soul Book”, the trans shaman became even more important as “the intermediary between the two cosmological planes – earth and sky – also from the fact that they combine in their person the feminine elements (earth) and the masculine (sky).” This, coupled with the auspicious views towards the “third-sex”, made trans woman shamans a common and prominent practice in the Indianized areas of the pre-colonial Philippines. The “third-sex” shaman evolved without the prompting of Hinduism in other areas around the globe, but regionally, it does seem to align with its influence. There is little known about what happened to those trans women who did not follow the path to becoming a shaman. Were they simply accepted into the society as female and adopted into those societal functions? Unfortunately, that answer may never be known. No blanket understanding can be attached to the beliefs regarding trans women and “third-sex” shamans for the entire Philippines, as each tribe developed their own philosophy around it. I think that is an important point to remember when sharing information on this topic (or Philippine beliefs in general) – we must include the tribe and/or regions in our statements.
Contribute to the Conversation
The important take-away is to remember that gender in the pre-colonial Philippines played a VERY important function. The society was not ‘genderless’, but they approached gender more in terms of societal functions, than sexual preference. I would love to hear what your thoughts on this are as I am always learning, and always open to differing opinions.
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Conner, Randy P.; Sparks, David Hatfield; Sparks, Mariya (1998) Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit
Herminia Menez (1996) Explorations in Philippine Folklore
Himani Bannerji, Shahrzad Mojab, and Judith Whitehead (2001) Of Property and Propriety: The Role of Gender and Class in Imperialism and Nationalism
Fancisco R. Demetrio, Gilda Cordero-Fernando (1991) The Soul Book