More than a year ago, I watched a documentary about two Filipino young women, victims of sexual abuse, who wanted to know if there exist a society where women can live without any threat of sexual maltreatment or sexual violence. In the course of their search, they came upon the work of a distinguished anthropologist, Dr. June Prill-Brett, who, while researching in the 1960’s, found out that the Bontoc Igorot indigenous people of the Mountain Province (Philippines) have no known term for ‘rape’. Intrigued by this curious discovery, Dr. Brett, who herself hails from Bontoc, dug deeper and found out that indeed, in Bontoc, the worst crime against women – rape – had been an unknown phenomenon for centuries. The concept was foreign to the indigenous people, and they claimed that they had no incidences of rape!
The two young women followed-up this lead and went to Bontoc to investigate the truth of the matter. But alas, those who could validate the existence of such a rape-less society were only the elders (both male and female) who had witnessed a time in the past where girls and women were spared from any of fear of sexual abuse or violence. This means, what we have here (the elders interviewed in the documentary) are the last generation of Bontoc folks who, having lived in such a society, could attest to the existence of a rape-less society based on actual experience. After this last generation passes away, our information about a rape-less society will no longer be based on first-hand experience, as rape, in present day Bontoc, is not anymore an unknown occurrence.
Asked as to why they think there was no ‘rape’ before, the elders answered that it is simply unthinkable to force a woman to engage in a sexual act if she is not willing.
It must be borne in mind that in traditional Igorot society, women (and men for that matter) were well aware that they are the sole owners of their own body. A woman’s body is not owned or controlled by any “superior being,” say a god, a husband, a father or a brother (who could have the authority to give her away in marriage to a husband of his own choosing). Also, in traditional Igorot society, physical assault, whether directed to a man or a woman, a child or an elderly, is considered a threat to life. Any offense perceived as ‘threat to life’ was regarded a major crime. And major crimes almost often automatically call for a deadly vengeance.
We read in history books, we watch in historical or documentary movies, we see on T.V., we read in newspapers that not only killing but also raping, are what happen during wars. It is even widely believed that rape is a normal by-product of wars.
Not in Bontoc.
During the time of inter-village warfares, warriors did their best to avoid alerting women whom they found working in the fields. And if a warrior had to take an enemy woman’s head, the woman’s sexuality was never ever violated.
There is a very powerful supernatural explanation for that. It made any form of assault against a woman, whether sexual or not, a big no-no.
The following is an excerpt from my book:
Within the cultural context of the Igorot people, when a woman deliberately exposed her private parts in anger, protest, or defiance against a man, an Igorot man knows better to immediately look away and leave. It was believed that if a man looked at a furious naked woman who exposed her private parts with the intention to shame and curse him, he would be blinded and would meet bad luck. This taboo could explain why there were no cases of rape in the olden times in Igorot land.
Furthermore, according to Dr. Brett, the Bontoc elders claimed that in the experience of their people, each of the men cursed by women in the manner explained above, have had the bad luck of having their heads cut-off when they went to battle. This, they say, gave credence to the belief that assaulting women, particularly sexual assault, is an absolute taboo (lawa, paniyiw, inayan).
That was the way the Bontoc women defended against potentially offending members of the opposite sex. It must be noted, however, that such a practice was not limited to protecting oneself only. There are historical cases when native women in the region, thinking perhaps that respect for women’s status and sexuality is universally acknowledged, collectively resorted to baring their sexual parts to shame and drive away the mining companies and the destructive mega dam projects that threatened to destroy their land and lives.
Unfortunately, the proponents, workers, and military protectors of these mining companies and dam projects were outsiders and did not share the same indigenous values and worldview.
Naked But Not Asking For It!
What an interesting piece of history. It is so sad that we have literally deteriorated since those times in that not only is rape/sexual abuse/sexual expoitation/pornography etc alive in our communities, but we are still involved in senseless and brutal killings. Progress? Hmmmmmph! 😦
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Humanity has devolved. Perhaps we got to extract the good in the past, mix it with the good in the present, to “make humanity great again?” (tongue-in-cheek!)
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Wow, interesting. I am an Ifugao and I can relate to this article. I grew up taking a bath in streams and man-made faucets made using bamboos joined together and women go bathing topless and men would just look away or leave if women are bathing. I miss that kind of respect for women. I can also say that women are protected by men, no such assault can be done to a woman without the doer being punished by the male members of the family. Oh, yes, they will incur vengeance from a woman’s family if ever assault is involved.I miss my childhood days of innocence and women are respected. Of course, things have changed.And that is a sad thing. I am not that old, but I got to experience the time when we didn’t have to lock doors and not worry about assault and other crimes.
Thank you, Beth, for sharing your experience. I also remember when I was little and the people in Bontoc bathe by the river fully naked. There was no malice at all. When a woman is bathing and a man or men happen to go down to the river to fish or bathe, they go downstream so as not to disturb the woman or women bathing.