by Jessa Jarilla
THEY risked life and limb and left their homes and families to become part of one of the most significant peasant movements in Philippine history. Yet not only have their contributions to that movement been often overlooked, they have also been blamed by some of its insiders as among the causes of its collapse.
In a new book by historian Vina Lanzona, however, the women who once played an integral role in the Huk rebellion are given a chance to tell their side of the story. Amazons of the Huk Rebellion in fact chronicles the experiences of Filipino women during the Japanese occupation, what made some of them join the rebellion, and how it was like living in the worlds of both love and war, fighting for freedom and reform while at the same time falling in love and raising a family.
The Huk rebellion actually came in two phases. The first involved a peasant-based struggle against the Japanese invaders during the 1940s that led to the formation of the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (People’s Movement Against the Japanese) or Hukbalahap. The second phase was during the postwar era that saw the new Philippine republic still under strong U.S. influence and with a strong intolerance of the Left. Determined not to let the Left establish a political power base, the government launched a series of actions aimed at delegitimizing the Huks and undermining their popular support. The Huks were thus forced to go underground and reorganize in the forests of Luzon to now resist the government – their fellow countrymen. The Hukbo ng Mapagpalaya ng Bayan was then established.
That women were part of a political and military movement during the Japanese occupation may be a surprise to many young Filipinos who have heard only stories about the so-called wartime ‘comfort women’. The Amazonas (as the female Huks would later be called by the local media) interviewed by Lanzona do confirm that women were most vulnerable to the abuses of the Japanese invaders. But they also said that such abuses – whether done to them personally or witnessed by them – were what propelled them to join the Huks and take arms. In most cases, a male relative would have already preceded them in joining the movement. But the women also took comfort in finding other females in a supposedly egalitarian yet still decidedly testosterone-dominated organization. Lanzona quotes a former Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas Secretary General as saying that about “one in 10 active guerrillas was a woman.”
Integrating female members to the Huk movement, however, proved difficult to the male-dominated organization and its leadership. Conventional attitudes and practices among Filipinos that remained prevalent inside the movement hindered the women to assume decision-making posts and were mostly relegated to the “usual” female tasks such as housekeeping, cooking, and taking care of the male cadres. A few, however, were given courier and organizer work. Then came the postwar government campaign against the Left, which had the Huks retreating deep into their forest hideouts – and intensifying personal relationships between the Huk men and women.
What the leadership would refer to as the “sex problem” would later be blamed by insiders as among the factors that ultimately weakened the Huk rebellion. The Huks, though, did attempt to create a “Revolutionary Solution to the Sex Problem,” which aimed to regulate the “abnormal relationships” of the members with the opposite sex and ultimately to prevent these liaisons to resulting to further problems. In a nutshell, the male cadre, citing “biological necessity,” would present to the leadership his problem and that he would really need to have another wife to function normally. If the leadership granted him permission, then he could take a “forest wife” provided that they would have no children; at the end of the war, he was also expected to settle with only one woman.
Lanzona, however, sees this as having “prioritized the welfare and needs of male members and reinforced the subordination of women inside the movement.” By allowing Huk men to have extramarital affairs with single Huk women, writes the professor at the University of Manoa in Hawaii, the Huk leaders gave more attention to the “needs” of the presumably frustrated Huk males so that they would be able to function well during combat operations.
But the “sex problem” wasn’t the only hindrance to Huk operations. There was also a “family problem” or the reluctance of Huk men and women to go on recruitment assignments beyond their stronghold in Central Luzon since this would mean being away from their families. In addition, some Huks resorted to embezzling the movement’s funds to support their families – or to buy gifts for female members they were pursuing.
While these were going on, the government was applying ever-increasing pressure on the Huks. Aside from massive operations and attacks against the Huks, the government began implementing amnesty programs to lure the rebels to the side of the state. With the surrender of its top commanders in the early 1960s, the Huk rebellion finally came to an end.
In all probability, the Huk women could have had a more positive impact on the movement had their skills been used to the fullest and their abilities properly recognized. A full integration of women in the rebellion would have also resulted in a wider range of perspectives that could have made the movement more responsive to what the Philippine republic needed at the time. Indeed, despite the flak the women received from their own comrades, Huk Supremo Luis Taruc himself had lauded the Amazonas for their contributions and involvement in the movement, in stark contrast to the views of those who saw the women as a hindrance to the Huks.
Obstacles notwithstanding, some Huk women had also managed to become commanders who led squadrons of men against the movement’s foes. Among the most popular was Remedios Gomez, a.k.a. Kumander Liwayway, who would led about a hundred men to battles and win them, even when other Huk commanders had already decided to retreat. Interestingly, Kumander Liwayway was said to have the habit of combing her hair, manicuring her nails, and applying lipstick before setting out to battle.
Long after the rebellion ended, many Huk Amazonas were apparently unable to let go of their urge to help those in need. Kumander Liwayway, for example, became part of the Executive Committee of the Huk Veterans Organization. She helped former rebels lobby for pensions from the Philippine Government without any payment. She believed helping them was a logical continuation of her responsibilities as a Huk commander.
Filomena Tolentino and Rosenda Torres, meanwhile, became prominent feminists during the ’70s and ’80s. Tolentino helped organize the Samahan ng Progresibong Kababaihan sa Pilipinas during Martial Law. Torres eventually became a professor in the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, establishing a literary group in PUP with her husband, former Huk intellectual Cesario Torres, and publishing a journal, Panday Lipi.
Celia Mariano who married American soldier-turned-Huk Bill Pomeroy was also one of the most important women in the movement. An intellectual, she was the only female allowed to join party meetings though she was a silent partaker during those times. She was the first to raise the issues on women and gender and the one to encourage other Huk women to also struggle for recognition and proper consideration from the male-dominated Huk leadership. She also became an active feminist after the revolution and continued to raise women’s rights by joining organizations.