Arts and Culture

Redefining Filipina Femininity: José Rizal’s María Clara vs. Real Filipino Women in War

by Janica Favis

Everyone who has received education in the Philippines is familiar with the writings of José Rizal, the country’s national hero or bayani. His duology Noli me Tangere and El filibusterismo exposes Spain’s brutal governance and their heinous treatment of Filipino nationals. Through fiction, the mass atrocities of colonisation are made accessible (and digestible) to 14 year old students. 

But like most of my female peers, Rizal’s novels left me dissatisfied with the portrayal of Filipina femininity. María Clara de los Santos, Rizal’s mestiza heroine, represents the traditional, feminine ideal. She is the epitome of virtue, a devout Roman Catholic, modest, pure, and of course, prone to fainting. She is the love-interest of Rizal’s male protagonist, and she functions merely to wait for his return from a great adventure, hoping that someday her fidelity will be rewarded with a happy, fulfilled marriage. 

Influential Filipina writer, public servant, and feminist Carmen Guerrero Nakpil shares her frustrations with the character, claiming that María Clara was “the greatest misfortune that has befallen Filipino women in the last 100 years”. Ask any Filipina and they will tell you that they have been accused of lacking María Clara-like qualities. Usually, this comes in the form of not being mahinhin enough, i.e. shy, self-effacing, reserved, submissive, reticent. 

Modern day Filipinos still hold femininity to such unreachable standards, but Mrs Nakpil argues in her essay Woman Enough that real Filipino women are “vigorous”, “madly ambitious”, “determined”, and “ruthless”. She claims further that there are no limits to their intelligence and capabilities. Though these might seem like wide-sweeping claims, Filipino women across the history of colonisation have displayed remarkable valour and bravery. 

Many of these women were fighting alongside men. A famous example is Gabriela Silang (1731-1763), the first ever Filipina to lead an uprising against a foreign power. After her husband was assassinated, Gabriela took over his position as the commander of the rebel troops to continue the war against Spain in Ilocos. Unlike María Clara, who threatened to kill herself before fleeing to the convent upon hearing news of her lover’s death, Gabriela thrusted herself in the narrative and created a name that the Spaniards feared. 

Another figure that challenges traditional femininity is Henerala Agueda or ’the Tagalog Joan of Arc’. She fought gallantly as the only officially listed female general during the Philippine Revolution (1896-1898) and the Philippine American War (1899-1902). She is not written in many History books, and little is known about her life, but what we do know is that she was “the woman who fear[ed] nothing”. Many remember her as a brave commander dressed in white, riding on top of a horse, with a rifle in one hand and a bolo knife in the other, leading countless men to battle. 
Following the path these generals have paved for us, Filipino women refuse to hide their faces behind paper hand fans any longer. With bold strokes, we pronounce our own names, claiming we are not María Claraー we are real and we are here to fight, too.

Further reading: 

Our Founding Mothers: Lest We Forget (2012) by Queenie Ann J. Palafox

Woman Enough: And Other Essays (1963) by Carmen guerrero Nakpil 

Women in the Philippine Revolution (1995) by Rafaelita Hilario Soriano
Women of Distinction: Biographical Essays on Outstanding Filipino Women of the Past and the Present (1967) by Jovita Varias-De Guzman