March officially commemorates International Women’s Month, which raises awareness on women’s rights, issues, and impact on history. But while the rest of the Western world was vying for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century, the Philippines was already propagating female leaders in its pre-colonial phase. As early societies based on meritocracy suppressed women for their lack of earning power, more fluid ones valued female leadership in their cultures.
Pre-colonial Philippine society valued female leaders called babaylans as an integral head in cultural, medicinal, religious, and theoretical matters. The babaylan worked alongside the datu, not under him, on activities of social importance, performing her vital roles as a priestess, cultural guide, healer, and astronomer. And since then, matriarchal representation in Philippine society has always been ingrained in its people despite numerous attempts of suppression by colonizers. We listen to stories of Filipina revolutionaries and heroes but sometimes take for granted that the local matriarchy is already present in our homes – in the image of the eldest female in the household, the grandmother.
Matriarchy spearheading preservation
It is the same localized version of this matriarchy that has pushed the T’boli tribe of Lake Sebu, Cotabato to preserve their craft and pass it on to the generations to come. The late Lang Dulay, National Treasures-Gawad ng Manlilikha ng Bayan awardee, persevered to keep the traditions of her tribe alive. Each roll of T’nalak fabric painstakingly stripped from the abaca plant, coaxed, dried, dyed, and weaved, reveals a story of T’boli past. But more so, it reveals a vision.
Reserved for the women of the T’boli, weaving the T’nalak cloth is a meticulous process that requires “a strong back, a sharp eye for detail, nimble fingers to tie the knot, and most of all, dreams,” narrates the Cinemalaya 2014 film entry “K’na, The Dreamweaver,”where a young T’boli princess is chosen by the gods as the village’s next dreamweaver. And much like Lang Dulay’s discovery, the abaca goddess Fu Dalu reveals herself in the dreams of the chosen weavers providing them the designs of their weaves. And from Lang Dulay’s dreams alone spawned over a hundred designs including clouds, waves, palm tree leaves, and the like, each one showcasing an environmental motif that reflects the T’boli’s rich history and their deep connection with nature.
Thriving through commercialization
From her dreams, Lang Dulay weaved tapestries of sacred wisdom, keeping its process and patterns as close as she could to the T’boli tradition, and finally, passing this knowledge down to her granddaughters in hopes that they will do the same to the younger women of the T’boli tribe. The T’nalak continues to flourish, but the demand for modern designs from outsiders muddles its tradition and lore, endangering the very essence of the weave. And it is ironic that contemporary designs sell at a higher price despite being easier to weave. The question is: how can the T’boli women find a balance between culture and commercialization now that their matriarch has passed?
About Bea Celdran:
Bea enjoys traversing her own little side of the world with her daughter, bike and board. She's hungry most of the time and secretly squeals at kilig moments on her favorite telenovelas