grrrl gang manila is causing a feminist riot in the philippines
In a country where abortion is still illegal, the radical collective is fighting for tangible change — and screaming punk songs in Girl Scout uniforms.
Photography JP Talapian for Young Star
On January 21, 2018, the day after Trump’s inauguration, women participated in Women’s Marches around the world. There was one in almost every city in the U.S., in Germany, in India, in Africa; there was even one in Antarctica and another in the Gulf of Guinea. At the Women’s March in Paris, 37-year-old Mich Dulce was walking on the streets when she saw a sign that read, “Against Trump, Putin, and Duterte.” Instantly, she thought of her home in the Philippines, where there would be no march. “At that moment, I was just kind of like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’” she tells i-D. “That was kind of the trigger moment for me to be like, ‘Okay let’s do something.’ Instead of continuing to protest against Trump and for gender equality in the States and abroad, Dulce returned to Manila and started Grrrl Gang, a feminist collective that, according to their manifesto, aims “to create an accessible and approachable intergenerational space for girls and women to discuss issues that affect us on a personal level; a space that throws judgement out the window and makes us all feel comfortable.”
As a group, Grrrl Gang Manila uses art, activism and education to create a safe space for feminism in the Philippines, a country that, on the surface appears to be ahead of even the United States when it comes to gender equality, due to the fact that it’s had multiple female presidents and government leaders. But abortion is still illegal, and the country is just coming off a year-long ban on all contraceptives. The current president, Rodrigo Duterte, has made public statements against condoms and joked about rape. “Duterte epitomizes and enables the culture of machismo in Philippine politics that oppresses women, the poor, and the rest of society that the elite excludes,” explains Grrrl Gang member Mariah Yonic. “It's daunting and overwhelming, but we have to be brave enough to stand up against it.”
Through art exhibits, organized “Girl Meets” and Riot Grrrl-inspired gigs, in which Dulce and Yonic’s band The Male Gaze often performs clad in Girl Scout uniforms, the collective doesn’t just empower women — it encourages real, tangible change. “For me, marching on the streets, playing gigs, campaigning — those are all powerful ways to engage people,” says Dulce, “but there needs to be concrete social action. I believe that when you put together a group of girls and have guidelines to create a space that is extra empathetic and considerate of each other, you can do really amazing things.”
Watch The Male Gaze’s new “Someday” video, premiering on i-D below, as Dulce talks about using Grrrl Gang to transform the Philippines.
What is Grrrl Gang Manila?
Grrrl Gang is a feminist collective that aims to create safe spaces for women and girls in the Philippines. When we started, we quickly realized we didn’t want to be a group of girls who just gathered and had meetings — we wanted to create concrete action that could create social change in its own way. So, the idea behind Grrrl Gang is that it’s a safe space for people to talk to each other and ask questions, but also, participate in real social change. Every month and a half, we have “Girl Meets” and all of our events our free. There are about eight girls who do the planning, but everything is volunteer-run, donation-funded, and sourced from the community on what they want to hear, and what they want to do. We’re not an NGO, just a bunch of girls who want to make things happen.
Did you have any sort of background in feminism?
No. I wasn’t woke to begin with at all. I didn’t know anything, and I was just trapped in this bubble of privilege. My mom was very anti-activist and kind of kept me in this bubble where I didn’t know anything about the world. But right around the time of the Women’s March, I actually started freezing my eggs. For me, that whole experience of injecting myself with needles and all of the emotions that came with it, was really traumatizing, and it made me realize how important female friendship is. I was always that girl that was like, ‘Oh I only hang out with guys,’ but suddenly only women understood what I was going through. It was other women who had their eggs frozen, or women who had children, or trans women who were injecting themselves with hormones that were able to help me process, and that was a really special moment. So, I started thinking, ‘Why is it so hard for women to ask the questions they have about feminism?’
If you go on the internet you have all these people saying you’re not woke enough. It’s just a lot of judgement and negativity. But I really believe people need spaces to learn. And in the Philippines, you don’t have that space to make mistakes, to ask questions, where you can just discuss women’s issues. I mean, yeah, there are feminist groups that are doing really amazing work, but it’s intimidating. You get judged and you can’t really ask questions when you enter them. You already have to know about politics and know about everything going on.
What is going on in the Philippines right now? How would you describe the current climate for Filipina women?
On the surface, the Philippines looks super gender-equal. We’ve had two women presidents, tons of women in the Senate, there are a lot of women in power. So, wage gap-wise, it’s not as big of a difference as in other places. But that’s where it ends. I mean, congress literally just said yes to the divorce bill a few weeks ago. So, there are just a lot of things that don’t exist in the Philippines for women. We still don’t have the morning after pill, because that’s considered an abortion, and obviously, abortion is still highly illegal, which in turn, makes it incredibly dangerous. I have a friend who got an abortion and she was dying, but they wouldn’t let her into the hospital because she told them she had gotten one. Literally, because she said that, they wouldn’t cure her. Then, last year, they put a total restraining order on all contraceptives. But also, it’s a lot of tip-toeing.
What do you mean?
There’s just so much stigma with everything. Like, to an extreme. So, we really have to choose our battles and fight them slowly. The strict Catholicism of the country really plays a big part in all of this, because all of the schools are all-girl Catholic schools that drill into us, ‘This is how you should act, this is how you should be.’ I mean, we still have subjects in school like home-ec and cleaning. Also, and here’s a little bit of Philippines history: our national hero is this guy, Jose Rizal, who wrote these subversive novels during the Spanish colonial period. The lead woman in this books, her name is Maria Clara, and she’s become basically the epitome of what a Filipina woman is supposed to be. She’s super submissive, does what she’s told, doesn’t look you in eye; she’s very shy, modest, and she’s super light-skinned. That’s the Filipino ideal. I mean, her name is Mary — she’s basically a saint here. So, that alone is a lot of work for us to deconstruct.
What about the current president, Duterte? Why has now been such an important time for Grrrl Gang Manila to form?
Because he’s really in the habit of making these crazy misogynistic comments, and that effects everyone on all levels. One time, he said something like, ‘Oh yeah, using condoms is like eating candy with a wrapper still on it,’ which is profoundly irresponsible because he’s the ruler of an entire country and people look up to him. So, for him to say something as damaging as ‘Real men don’t wear condoms?’ The Philippines has the highest spreading rate of AIDS and HIV in Asia right now. It’s a huge deal because people don’t know about safe sex, and now, we have a president saying that it sucks. So, right now, I think it’s really important for groups like us to speak up, because you can’t have teenagers thinking this is okay. It’s not necessarily about Grrrl Gang — it’s about people rising and being comfortable in their own homes and bodies.
So, what has it been like organizing as a feminist group under such an overtly misogynistic president?
It’s complicated in a lot of ways, because while I think feminism is political, we don’t want to ostracize anyone, and we want to give everyone a chance to speak up. We’ve had women who support Duterte, and we don’t want to be seen as this anti-Duterte feminist group that excludes a bunch of women who want to talk about their issues. It’s hard, because these two things obviously intersect, especially when he has this history of making such misogynistic comments. But there’s also this need to have a balance between informing the group that this is wrong and not ostracizing women who feel differently about him as a leader, which has happened before.
As a collective, one of the biggest ways Grrrl Gang seems to promote activism is through art. I know you’re in a Riot Grrrl band called The Male Gaze with a few other Grrrl Gang members. What do you think it is about art that makes it such an important form of feminist action?
The thing with art is that you get to engage people that didn’t necessarily come there for the activism. Like, a lot of people who go to Male Gaze shows just want a good Friday night out. They don’t expect me to go into some rant about how some artist harassed a woman in the Philippines. But suddenly, they’re confronted by the reality of what’s going on. So, for me, it’s just another opportunity to get someone thinking. That’s what art does — it engages you in an emotional way. And why shouldn’t it be fun? Kathleen Hanna always used to say that Riot Grrrl is the gateway drug to feminism. That was definitely true for me. So, if Grrrl Gang is the gateway drug to feminism for any of these girls, or if one or two people decide they want a gender equal world because of our gigs, or our shows, or our art exhibits, then that’s good enough for me.
How do you use The Male Gaze to communicate your and the group’s ideas?
When Mariah and I decided to start The Male Gaze, we decided we wanted it to be full-on feminist. We wanted to use the band as a space to talk about everything and actively tackle the shit situations that are happening through our performances. You know, music is how I learned about feminism — through bands like Le Tigre and Bikini Kill. So, even though people are always saying things to me like, ‘Yeah, Bikini Kill, what First World White Feminism,’ that always rubs me the wrong way. I mean, yeah, so, maybe it is to you, but I am a girl in the Third World who listens to these songs and whose life was changed by them. That’s why I chose to be a musician. Because if some girl I don’t even know in the First World could write these songs that spoke to me in the Third World, then think what a musician in the Third World talking to girls in the Third World, about experiences we share, could do?
You said you learned about feminism through bands like Le Tigre and Bikini Kill. What was it about them that inspired you so much?
I was always really into Left Eye from TLC when I was young, especially the way she sat. I would watch her on MTV and she would sit in the chair in this kind of like, squat, with her legs open. I just thought that was super cool. One time, I remember my mom walking in and she said to me in Filipino, ‘Why is she spreading her legs? That’s not ladylike.’ My whole life, I had been raised to be this prim and proper submissive lady whose ultimate goal was to get married, and I remember that was the first time I was really like, ‘Why? What’s so wrong with her sitting this way?’ So, when I started listening to bands like Bikini Kill, I was like, ‘Whoa! This girl can do anything she wants! She can scream, she can jump around, I don’t have to be this prim and proper, shy girl,’ which is never what I felt like anyway.
I also found feminism through Riot Grrrl and bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Now, with things like the Women’s March and #MeToo, girls, at least in America, don’t have to search for feminism very hard. But that also makes me worry that people are only engaging with it because it’s trendy, or on days like International Women’s Day. How do you think we keep resistance alive 365 days a year?
I was just thinking about this after the Women’s March because it really didn’t bring about any actual change. I think now that it is so trendy, people need to realize that being a feminist is not just about talking — it’s not about saying, ‘Oh yeah I’m a feminist’ — it’s about actually creating change. That’s the mentality of Grrrl Gang. That for everything we talk about in our group, we need to talk about it further and cascade it downwards, because otherwise, if you’re just angsty and there’s no action that follows, then what’s even the point? You have to have some kind of concrete goal. It can be as small as you telling off the person you heard tell a rape joke. But just practicing that small act of resistance, or educating someone who thinks that they are funny, that’s already significant change.
I interviewed Nadya from Pussy Riot last year and we talked about the same thing — how feminism in the U.S. has become a lot more visible. I started to voice some concerns about how that could affect the movement and she immediately cut me off. She was like, ‘Honestly, I wish feminism was mainstream in Russia. Feminism is still so rare here, I can’t even think about that.’
Yeah, I mean, it’s the same here. Feminism is still a dirty word. I do think Grrrl Gang made it a little cooler, and that was really our intention. That’s why it’s not called ‘Feminists of the Philippines’ or ‘Manila Feminists.’ The idea was really to make it a non-intimidating space because the word feminist is still very scary in the Philippines. A lot of times, you’ll hear Filipina women say, ‘No, I’m really not a feminist.’ Even my best friend says stuff like, ‘No, I’m not a feminist because I like when guys pull my chair out for me.’
Right. I still hear that a lot, too. But that’s not what feminism means — at least, not to me.
Yeah. I love men! I fucking love penis! I think the problem is when feminism is misunderstood and marketed as this stupid kind of girl power. Of course, I understand how that can be damaging. But I think it’s different in the Philippines. So, if people go to Grrrl Gang meets because they think, ‘Oh my god, it’s so cool to be a feminist,’ but when they get there, we’re talking about reproductive autonomy, then that’s amazing, because it’s opened up more people to these conversations.
Yeah, I mean I think the concern is that when feminism becomes trendy, it becomes digestible, and if it’s not radical, does it make it inherently impossible to create actual change?
Well, the Philippines is very, very influenced by America. So, once feminism is big in America, it’ll definitely be on the upper-class radar. But there’s a huge divide between the upper and lower classes, and the middle class is just tiny. I mean, most people in the Philippines don’t even know who Beyoncé is yet, let alone anything about feminism. That’s why we think of Grrrl Gang almost like a feminist training camp. That’s also why Grrrl Gang is called Grrrl Gang Manila — because we wanted to create a kind of framework of the organization so that in the future, hopefully it will spread. The Philippines is like 7,100 islands. We want women to think, ‘Oh I want to start Grrrl Gang Davao’ or ‘I want to start Grrrl Gang Cebu.’ One of my bandmates from my first band, Death By Tampon, wants to start Grrrl Gang Singapore. For me, that’s the goal — for people to start communities everywhere.