When you tell people that you’re a woman traveling around the world on your own, there are some inevitable responses:
“Wow! That’s crazy! What about your family and friends back home?”
“You’re brave – Aren’t you scared?”
And “I would never let me daughter do that!”
Well, here’s a news flash to those purveyors of the last line: no one lets me do this. I choose to travel on my own and the people that love and care for me, choose to support me. I am extremely thankful for that; I feel that this is a lifestyle of the privileged. I am a young woman who comes from a relatively free world, where in most situations (back in the US, or England or Israel) I can dress how I want, go where I want, and speak my mind as I see fit. It’s not a perfect system: even in these modern, developed nations women are vastly underpaid compared to men (American women make ~80 cents to every man’s $1), we are judged constantly for how we dress, and given roles based on our looks as opposed to the brilliance of our minds. But still women have more choices and rights today than ever; in the developed world, we can be doctors and lawyers and businesswomen and yes, one day (soon) one of us will be President! There is still room to grow, but there is cause for celebration as well.
When I came to the Philippines, I expected things to be different… and indeed they are. It’s not uncommon that I hear from women that they can’t do something without their husband’s permission or that going to a bar (even just to dance or socialize and not drink) will make you that kind of woman. It breaks my heart when I hear women say that they don’t believe one of our gender is strong enough to be a leader or a President and that we need men to rule us and lead us. Breaks. My. Heart. But I try and keep my chin up; I laugh these comments off and say, ‘even if I had a husband, I would travel’ or ‘women can be just as smart or smarter than any man; and even stronger – we’re the ones that have the babies after all!’ Mostly people are a little shocked at my response and then come back with a chuckle and something along the lines of ‘oh, you Amerikanas are different, Filipinas want to care for their men’. Ouch. But there are small movements towards equality, women can get good jobs and men can stay at home and care for the children (an almost unheard of luxury in this poverty stricken world). And there are the women who go out to bars and have a good time with friends without being that girl—whoever that girl really is. These modern, open-minded women are out there in the Philippines, I’m still trying to find some and make friends with them, but I’m optimistic.
In the meantime, I’ve learned something else about women in the Philippines that brings a smile to my face: they follow the same code. Girl code: the unwritten law in which women protect other women. Why do we go to bathrooms together or ask for a text at the end of a late night saying ‘home safe’? We weren’t told to do these things; these were habits passed onto us from our mothers and big sisters so that we could watch out for each other. Habits that keep us safe from the preying eyes and wandering hands of strange men, habits that keep us from becoming some statistic on the back of an advice pamphlet. And I nearly floated from happiness the other day when I learned that, despite our different beliefs on the roles and rights of women, Girl Code exists in the Philippines.
Sunday morning while shopping with my Até (big sister) at an ukay-ukay (thrift stall) a man who was lounging in the store started asking my Até questions about me. In the Philippines, this is pretty common – rather than asking you directly, people will ask your companion for your name, your age, where you’re from… it’s really pretty standard and I’ve gotten used to it. While rummaging through piles of 10 peso dresses, my Até shouted to me over a handful of other shoppers “Stav, this man likes you, what do you think?” and I say “oh, no thanks, you know me – wa’y panahon [no time]” she laughed and reiterated my comment back to him. A few minutes later she shouted again, “Stav, he wants to know your name! Oh, Stav, haha. Whoops!” then turning to him “Her name is Christine”. All the women in the store chuckled a bit. We continued shopping and a few minutes later she shouted “He wants to know if he can come by the house and visit you!” to which I responded “oh no, you know me – very independente!” We chuckled again and kept shopping. A few minutes later my Até shouted one last time, “Stav! He wanted your phone number, but I told him you didn’t have a phone!” and I thought to myself, wow, this woman is amazing! Then I quickly silence my phone discreetly from my pocket. I was elated. This is Girl Code. We don’t have to be related, or old friends, or from the same country, or of the same generation, or have the same religious and spiritual beliefs, but we recognize when women need help and we protect each other.
I don’t know if Girl Code exists everywhere but I would like to believe that it does; women should always be there for other women. I’m hoping to start a women’s youth group during my stay here – a safe place to talk about the difficult subjects that are often ignored. Or perhaps just a space to help young women feel empowered and understand that they can achieve anything and everything that men can achieve. I think about how lucky I am to have such strong female leaders in my life – my mother, my grandmother, my friends, professors, teachers, and bosses – and that if I get the chance to be a role model for one girl here, it would be the most rewarding and wonderful feeling.
Here’s wishing you all a wonderful week from the Philippines. Go appreciate your mothers/sisters/daughters/wives/girlfriends/ and other strong women in your life!
As always, thank you for reading,
Oh, just an update so my mother doesn’t panic: nothing came of the man in the ukay-ukay, he never said another thing after my Até rejected him for me, and that’s that!
And if you would like to learn more about initiatives that the Peace Corps has done with helping women and girls around the world check out these initiatives here: