CLIO TALKS BACK: Clio contemplates the gender of power: Filipino origin myths.

A colleague in Australia, Mina Roces, studies symbols of power and insightfully analyzes the gender (masculine/feminine) of power and its function in the Philippines:

“In the Filipino perception of power the concept that fuses both the practice of considerable power and the prestige that that power entails, is the concept of malakas. Malakas is literally translated as strong. In a political sense a person who is malakas is one who in a position of power would use that power unscrupulously to benefit his/her kinship group. One who does not want to use his/her position or power to help his/her kin group is mahina (weak). And to be branded mahina ka (you are weak) is pejorative. Thus, one's being malakas or mahina becomes a culturally-defined yardstick of a person's prestige, power and influence.

“Although the mythological origins of the concept of malakas is gender specific, (the Philippine myth of origin is that man and woman emerged equally out of a bamboo that was split, with the man called malakas (strong) and the woman called maganda (beautiful), it is non-gendered in practice. Both men and women can be perceived as having malakas status regardless of whether they possess official power or not. It is in this practice of palakasan (which one sociologist has defined as the competition for favours based on power) that a woman, denied access to the symbols of official power can in fact possess actual power. The malakas concept implies one's closeness to the powers that be (as well as the ruthless exercise of power). Power in the Philippines context is perceived to be tied up with the kinship group. The brother of the president is malakas just as the wife of the president is malakas. Even employees of the president are considered malakas. Power is not just concentrated on the individual official but perceived to be held in varying degrees by his kinship group. Malakas therefore must be interpreted in kinship alliance terms. And thus, it is through their kinship ties with male politicians that women exercise power.”

Clio adds: Roces’s insights apply particularly to the power women can wield in governance based on kinship ties. She considers the examples of Imelda Marcos and Corazon Aquino. The analysis she develops could also apply to Indira Gandhi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, and the mother-daughter team who attained high political office in Sri Lanka/Ceylon. It also illuminates the function of power in ancien regime France and certain other Western monarchies, where for centuries the male-dominated power structure worked hard to disqualify women from exercising formal power – except as regents for their sons. The gendered notion of malakas may also help explain the discomfort that exists in the USA around the power attributed to “First Ladies.” It can also help us understand why feminist demands became so much more intense in the democratizing West as individuals, not family dynasties, came to the fore as political players.

Source: Mina [Maria Natividad] Roces, “Can Women Hold Power Outside the Symbols of Power?” Asian Studies Review [Australia], 17:3 (April 1994), 14-23; quote pp. 17-18.