MAKIBAKA: The Legacy of Lorena Barros and Militant Feminism in the Philippines

"The group evolved to connect and intertwine the struggles of women to the larger national struggle. MAKIBAKA became one of the youth organizations that steadily denounced imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism as the main problems plaguing the Filipino masses."

MAKIBAKA: The Legacy of Lorena Barros and Militant Feminism in the Philippines

Maria Lorena “Lorie” Barros was born on March 18, 1948 in Baguio City, Philippines. From a young age, Lorie became aware of the harsh realities of inequality. She easily connected with the plight of the poor, as she had also experienced economic deprivation in her own life.

In the mid 1960s, Lorie entered the University of the Philippines as an anthropology student. During this time, there was a great deal of social unrest in the Philippines. Kleptocrat president/dictator Ferdinand Marcos was in power, and widespread protests were taking place in Metro Manila against his oppressive regime. The worsening conditions of Filipinos caused by imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism were brewing up a storm among students, youth, workers and farmers. There were protests on issues such as rising tuition fees, unfair work conditions, the Vietnam war, and police brutality.

It was during this time that Lorie became a student activist at the University of the Philippines. She joined the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (Democratic Association of the Youth) in 1969. Their goal was to use radical action to enact change in society. With the SDK, she joined rallies in front of the Malacañang Palace (Philippine “White House”) and the U.S. Embassy. She went on trips to become exposed to the lives of peasants and striking workers. Through this experience, she gained even more understanding of revolutionary politics and her role in the movement.

Student and activist organizations in the Philippines began to recognize the need for increased participation of women in the movement. A common phrase used to describe this necessity was “women hold up half the sky.” As women were increasingly empowered to join revolutionary organizations, there was still a lot of work to be done in addressing women’s oppression in society. Women’s bureaus were always a part of the structure of many of these organizations, but there was a clear need for a group specifically formed by women for the purpose of bringing women’s issues to light.

As a result, the Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan (Free Movement of New Women), or MAKIBAKA, was founded in 1970 by none other than Maria Lorena Barros. The first action of MAKIBAKA was to hold a picket in front of the Araneta Coliseum where the Binibining Pilipinas beauty pageant was taking place. The protest brought together women from various youth orgs to rally against the commodification of women.

It’s important to note the history of the commodification of women in the Philippines and its ties to Spanish colonialism. Society has conditioned Filipina women for centuries to strive for the image of “Maria Clara,” an unassuming, quiet and submissive beauty, or the traditional feminine ideal in western culture. Beauty pageants were and still are prominent in the Philippines because of these notions stemming from the colonial and male dominated view of the value of Filipina women. MAKIBAKA sought to fight against this narrative, chanting slogans such as “down with the commercialization of sex,” and “stop treating women as sex objects.” This event was significant because it was the first militant all-women action of the national democratic movement, and also the first time that they rallied for a women-specific issue.

In a piece published in the Diliman Review regarding her experience in MAKIBAKA, Rosa C. Mercado states,

“Joining the picket was for some of us a ‘thrilling’ experience, a kind of ‘explosion’ where all hell broke loose and we felt suddenly transformed. Here we all were, weighed down by years and years of constant drilling from all sources of authority that distorted our perceptions of our real selves. Makibaka unleashed the pent-up energies that were bottled up inside us. It became a rallying point to break away from the traditional cultural mold of a cloying, passive, suffering Filipina and from society-induced crutches like the need to look up to a man or to prepare one’s self mainly in the art of raising a home and family.”

It was then that MAKIBAKA was transformed from a loose coalition of women activists to its own all-women youth organization.

The group evolved to connect and intertwine the struggles of women to the larger national struggle. MAKIBAKA became one of the youth organizations that steadily denounced imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism as the main problems plaguing the Filipino masses. They argued that the semi-feudal nature of Philippine society was linked to the subjugation of women by men, and that the semi-colonial nature of Philippine society was linked to women being viewed as sexual objects. They studied Engels’ works on the origin of the family and state, and concluded that the roots of women’s oppression and exploitation could be traced to the period when the concept of private property came into existence. They also studied the stories of women in revolutionary struggles in China and Vietnam and took inspiration from the bravery displayed by these women. MAKIBAKA mobilized women from different sectors including students, workers, professionals, and peasants in militant mass actions. They made sure that women had a place at the forefront of all rallies, strikes and community work. They believed that women should not be relegated to the sidelines of the revolution, and they took on roles typically reserved for men such as marshaling during demonstrations, public speaking, writing manifestos, and managing chapters. They developed a strong cadre of women who were dedicated to the movement and who were proud of the work they did.

However, this does not mean that MAKIBAKA did not experience any issues. One of these issues was that the organization concentrated its recruitment efforts on schools and youth spaces, which were places of heavy revolutionary activity. This meant that the majority of women they were recruiting were young women. Housewives and mothers were not initially attracted to the organization because they did not necessarily fit in, or felt that the org didn’t serve their needs. At some point, MAKIBAKA may have realized the untapped potential of these groups as they formed a Mother’s Corps, composed of the mothers of activists. They also attempted to combat the obstacles preventing housewives and mothers from getting involved in activism by setting up day care centers in poor communities, which were built and run with the help of parents. MAKIBAKA also implemented a class for mothers facilitated by a nurses’ group, and published statements on the pill and family planning.

A larger issue that MAKIBAKA encountered was male chauvinism in the movement, which was to be expected. Some men who called themselves comrades described women’s liberation as merely a “western construct” that was “dividing the movement.” They believed that women’s issues were not a priority on the level of the national struggle. Some of these men even sought to undermine and destroy MAKIBAKA because they felt threatened by a movement which specifically raised women’s issues. As a result of this kind of pressure, some women in the movement became hesitant to call themselves or be labelled by others “feminists,” because that came with the false notion that they were prioritizing their own personal issues over the national struggle. The actions of male chauvinists in the movement proved to be a plague on the organization and a hindrance to their work.

However, what truly set MAKIBAKA apart was their specific focus on the double oppression suffered by women in Philippine society. Lorie Barros described the double oppression of women on both an economic and a social basis. She explained that the broad masses of Filipinos must be liberated in order for any sector of the population, such as women, to be liberated. This meant that the exploitative relationship between imperialists/landlords/compradors/capitalists and the Filipino masses must be destroyed in order for new energies to be released which could eliminate other exploitative relationships and bring about a truly egalitarian society. She believed that liberation consisted of more than just a “change of heart” for either the oppressor or the oppressed, and that it is a change in material conditions that would lead to liberation. Along the lines of Frantz Fanon, this meant being willing to use violence to achieve liberation. She believed that liberation could not be granted to women by their oppressors, and that women must seize their freedom.

In “Liberated Women: I”, Lorena states:

“The new woman, the new Filipina, is first and foremost a militant…  And since in the cities, participation in protest marches means not only marching but also dodging police truncheons, evading precinct produced molotovs… expertise is hitting the ground whenever and whatever pig force starts firing... the new Filipina is one who has learned... to carry herself in these situations with sufficient ease and aplomb to convince the male comrades that they need not take care of her, please.

...The new Filipina is one who can stay whole days and nights with striking workers, learning from them the social realities which her bourgeois education has kept from her... More important this means she has convinced her parents of the seriousness of her commitment to the workers and peasants cause... a commitment which requires all sorts of behavior previously way beyond the bounds of respectable womanhood... She is a woman who has discovered the exalting realm of responsibility, a woman fully engaged in the making of history... No longer is she a woman-for-marriage, but more and more a woman-for-action.”

On September 21, 1972, the Marcos administration declared martial law in the Philippines. Activists and organizations including MAKIBAKA were criminalized and forced to go underground. This did not mean all members just went into hiding, as many activists, including Lorie, continued to organize and keep up the struggle underground. Lorie herself, after being arrested and becoming a political prisoner, escaped to the countryside and became a guerilla fighter in the New People’s Army. On March 24, 1976, Lorie was killed by the military after they had been tipped off on her location. The story of her last moments is that she tried to shoot the soldiers but her weapon had malfunctioned. It’s said that her last words were, “You are lucky to be alive, my gun jammed.”

Lorena Barros may have died that day, but her revolutionary spirit lives on. Because of Lorie and MAKIBAKA, several women’s groups, including armed women’s groups, have been formed in the Philippines, and women continue to be an integral part of the revolutionary movement. The spirit of MAKIBAKA lives on today in Filipina activists and in GABRIELA, which is a broad coalition of anti-imperialist, grassroots women’s organizations in the Philippines that aims to “liberate women through fighting for national sovereignty, democratic governance, land reform and basic services for the people; end militarization and discrimination among men and women; and build solidarity among international women’s groups to fight sexism, imperialism and militarism.” We must continue to unite women and other marginalized genders in this way, and learn from the experiences of organizations such as MAKIBAKA.

The word “makibaka” has even become the definition of the word “struggle” in Filipino. To this day, Filipino activists shout, “Makibaka, huwag matakot!” (Struggle, do not be afraid) as we echo the voices of our people. It is a message of solidarity and a reminder that our struggles are connected. We have a place in the class struggle and the national liberation struggle, and we have the power within us to enact change through radical action. This is why I will always strive to be like Lorie, a “New Filipina.”

  1. The Formation of MAKIBAKA
  2. A Glimpse into the Life and Times of Ma. Lorena Barros