The following blog post deals with sensitive material that may be triggering for some readers. Sexual violence and harassment are some of the topics discussed. Reader’s discretion is advised.
In the Philippines, a new wave of young Filipinas are flipping the script on those telling them they’re too young to advocate for themselves. More importantly, survivors of sexual violence and harassment are carving out a digital space to debunk common misconceptions about sexual assault—it doesn’t matter what you were wearing and sometimes it’s at the hands of a person you trust.
#HijaAko started as a Twitter hashtag led by Filipina singer-songwriter Frankie “Kakie” Pangilinan after she clapped back on victim-blaming statements by a provincial police station and Ben Tulfo, a prominent broadcast personality in the Philippines. Tulfo proceeded to call her hija.
Hija or iha, a Spanish word adapted into Filipino, means “daughter” but can also refer to any “young lady”.
Quite literally, “hija ako” is a declaration: I am a young woman. It has become a rallying cry of defiant Filipinas who’ve been silenced because they’ve been taught it’s not their place to speak up.
On the surface, #HijaAko shares a similar spirit with #MeToo, #WhyIDidntReport, and maybe even the “Nasty Woman” movement, but it is also rooted distinctly in Filipino family culture and our notion of respect.
Speaking Up Is Not Disrespect
Hija is what some elders call Filipinas when they voice their opinions—on rape, on politics, on anything, really. In an effort to not seem offended, “Aba! Sumasagot ka na, ha, (Oh! So you’re answering back now,)” or smart-shaming, “Edi ikaw na matalino, (We get it, you’re smart,)” they condescend. The bottomline is neither reactions take you or your concerns seriously.
Calling women “young lady” enforces a power dynamic where they’re infantilized. The sentiment is “you are outspoken, but young, what would you know? You’re in need of guidance.”
Hija is used as a means of putting women in their place (quiet and obedient). Add a man who is clearly portraying himself as a “father figure”, then you can observe the patriarchy at work justifying how men diminish women and assert dominance over their bodies and lives.
I don’t have a story to tell. Not like the brave Filipinas who are now sharing their experiences through the #HijaAko hashtag. But, I have lived with the fatigue of always being on high-alert. Both for myself and the women around me.
I’ve been made uncomfortable by the actions of boys and men. I’ve crossed streets, I’ve bowed my head, I’ve shrunk myself to hide because that’s what I’ve been taught to do by experience, by older Filipinas, and by the world-at-large.
So, when someone I knew echoed Ben Tulfo’s sentiments, I felt betrayed. Let’s call him Abe. When I was in high school, Abe was in a position of power. He isn’t much older than me, yet he was someone I looked up to and never questioned would support a victim if harm ever came to anyone in my class—by supporting Tulfo’s problematic statements, I’m suddenly not so sure anymore.
Abe maintained he was coming from a brotherly place of concern. “Sexual offenders are obviously sick and should be punished. What’s wrong about gently encouraging girls to take extra precautions?”
My answer: I, like the many women who are angered by Ben Tulfo’s statements, don’t need to be told to be careful. We don’t need to be reminded about something we live with constantly. People who survive sexual violence need to know they’ll be listened to, not lectured.
The voices of my mother, aunts, and teachers echo in my heart with the many ways they’ve taught me, ever since I can remember, to protect myself from men. I didn’t tell him this last part, however.
Abe and I went back-and-forth in the comments section about rape culture—I wasn’t alone. Several women (some of whom I only knew by name in school) suddenly had my back, supplying articles about the different forms rape culture manifests itself. I also know Abe spoke privately with a friend of mine who was part of the conversation to learn more about what was wrong with what he originally said.
Obviously, I want to believe Abe’s heart is in the right place. But something done out of love or concern can still be harmful.
Intention doesn’t always translate to impact. We just have to look at the events that created the #HijaAko movement in the first place.
“Calling Me Hija Won’t Belittle My Point.”
On June 11th, the Lucban Municipal Police Station in Quezon Province posted on its Facebook page, advising women to cover up to avoid getting raped. The post read: Mahalin natin ang mga kababaihan at huwag [niyo] abusuhin ang kanilang kabaitan. (Let’s love women and not abuse their kindness.)
It continued, “Kayo naman mga ghErlsz, [huwag] kayo magsusuot ng pagkaikli-ikling damit at [kapag] naman nabastos ay magsusumbong din sa amin. Isipin niyo rin! (As for you girls, don’t wear such skimpy clothes then complain to us if you get harassed. Think about that!)”
After immediate backlash, the post was swiftly taken down and Lucban police chief Major Rizaldi Merene later apologized in a phone interview with Rappler. But it was too late.
Public figures, with massive audiences chimed in across social media platforms. One exchange in particular, between Frankie Pangilinan and Ben Tulfo, brought the discussion of rape culture to the evening news. It’s important to note that Frankie is 19 years old while Ben is significantly older at 65.
We’ll let their very public conversation speak for itself.
STOP TEACHING GIRLS HOW TO DRESS?? TEACH PEOPLE NOT TO RAPE. https://t.co/mERzlAqXBm— kakie (@kakiep83) June 12, 2020
With 205.7 thousand Twitter followers, 62.4 thousand likes on that tweet alone, plus the visibility that comes with two famous parents, Frankie’s tweet was the one that set it all off.
Hija @kakiep83 , a rapist or a juvenile sex offender's desire to commit a crime will always be there. All they need is an opportunity, when to commit the crime. Sexy ladies, careful with the way you dress up! You are inviting the beast.— Ben Tulfo (@bitagbentulfo) June 13, 2020
A figure controversial for his outdated views (and public statements) on gender, Tulfo responded to Frankie on Twitter, Facebook, and on his radio show warning “Sexy ladies, careful the way you dress up. You are inviting the Beast.”
- rape culture is real and a product of this precise line of thinking, where the behavior is normalized, particularly by men.— kakie (@kakiep83) June 14, 2020
- the way anyone dresses should not be deemed as ‘opportunity’ to sexually assault them. ever.
- calling me hija will not belittle my point. https://t.co/bLbtEDVGBn
Thus, #HijaAko was born.
This exchange inspired Filipinas to share their experiences from their twenties all the way back to when they were ten years old.
I was 10 when a man slipped his hand inside my clothes. I was wearing sweatpants.— Tina B. 🏳️🌈 (@inaurner) June 14, 2020
I was 17 when a man touched my chest while I was sleeping. I was wearing a long sleeve shirt.
I was 18 when a man slipped his hand in my pants. I was wearing jeans.
Stop. blaming. women. #HijaAko
Rape Culture & Victim-Blaming In The Philippines
In recent years, the provincial police offices of Pangasinan (Ilocos), Angono (Rizal), and Banaue (Ifugao) published similar posts advising women to dress conservatively to prevent rape. And yet, we still hear stories about women being exploited for sex during a health crisis and slain for reporting their abuse (#JusticeForFabel).
Over and over again, when incidents reignite the public conversation, we as cis and trans women have to defend, argue, and assert our humanity on all fronts.
The question of what a victim is wearing when they were assaulted assumes that if we all covered up like the Filipino epitome of modest femininity, Maria Clara, we would be safe. Well, as some high school students have reminded us who may have forgotten Jose Rizal’s works, “Spoiler: Maria Clara was raped.”
The artwork says, “Magdamit Maria Clara upang hindi mabastos? Spoiler: na-rape si Maria Clara. (Dress like Maria Clara so we don’t get harassed? Spoiler: Maria Clara was raped.)”
It’s not all 1800s, all the time. People in the Philippines are now protected by new legislation against sexual harassment. So long as the needle moves forward, bit by bit, there is hope.
In 2016, Quezon City introduced the “Anti-Catcalling Ordinance,” making it the first local government unit in the Philippines to penalize street-level harassment of women.
A few years later and we have the Safe Spaces Act of 2019. The law punishes sexual harassment in the form of wolf-whistling, catcalling, misogynistic slurs, and unwanted sexual advances among other forms of harassment in public places. This includes online spaces!
On every occasion, Ben Tulfo positioned himself as a concerned elder—ama (father), even—by calling Frankie hija or reminding her of her youth. “Batang-bata ka pa para malaman mo ang mundo, (You’re too young to understand the world,)” he said in a June 13th Facebook post.
Well, the hijas are not backing down. They’re young, brave, and sick of the victim-blaming.
Maybe it’s because we’re all at home and glued to our screens, or maybe it’s because this attack targeted a younger, tech-savvy generation. Whichever is the case, #HijaAko emboldened a wave of students in the Philippines to call out sexual misconduct in their schools and universities.
They’re demanding safe spaces, the punishment of perpetrators, and protection for survivors (#ProtectOurStudents or #____DoBetter).
The abuse victims had gone through can never be undone. It is disheartening to see institutions sweep it under the rug instead of taking accountability. We ask for justice. Prove that the core values you’ve instilled in us are what you believe in.#HijaAko#ItStartsWithUs pic.twitter.com/sBYOQyVOVO— UST Hiraya #ItStartsWithUs (@hiraya_ust) June 27, 2020
A major university in the Philippines investigated one of their faculty after the student body brought up a problematic post. In it, a professor targeted a female senator who criticized the original Lucban police station post. He suggested she be thrown into prison to teach the inmates not to rape. “Closed-door session.”
The teacher was let go.
Keep #HijaAko A Safe Space
When asked, Frankie tweeted she had no current plans to organize #HijaAko into a bigger movement, but rather will keep it a safe space for survivors to share their stories.
Every day, the hashtag still flows with new tweets from individuals sharing their stories, advocacy groups voicing solidarity, and student groups clamouring for justice. There’s also a fourth type of content littering the Feed: trolls.
Anonymous accounts have tried co-opting the hashtag because Frankie and her senator father vocally criticize the current administration. These tweets are fewer and farther in between now, drowned out by the outpouring of support by those who have not stopped proclaiming, “Hija Ako.”
We mustn’t lose sight of what this movement is really about—the women who are calling for respect as young Filipinas and bravely speaking out against their abusers in a culture that has long kept them silent.
Twitter is just the start.
Powerful things happen when we share our stories. If this makes us bastos (“disrespectful”) or walang hiya (“shameless”), so be it. Know who’s really bastos (“perverted”). They’re the exact people we’re trying to bring to justice.
“Batang-bata (too young)” will no longer diminish our human rights.
#HijaAko reminds us that by telling our tales, we expose misdeeds as a first step towards justice. We rewrite harmful narratives that don’t serve us. We create a space for another person’s shared experience to be told. We let healing begin.
Have you been called “hija” or belittled for speaking up? How have you pushed back?
Cover photo by Jasmin Chew.