Running for Our Lives

Some readers write me that they find these blogposts helpful on the sanity front, but that they’re still exhausted, weary of fighting, and fearful about escalating struggles during next year’s elections. Oh, how I understand.

Sometimes I can get to feeling like an inane feminist version of a cheerleader, going rah rah, waving my suffrage-colors white and purple pom-poms, chanting We can do it, sisters! as if I were Little Ms. Positive Thinking. That is decidedly not moi. There are times when I throw my metaphorical pom-poms across the room, cursing a blue streak.

Then I come across something that puts my despair in its place.

This time it was an article by Mary Hui in the New York Times, about how migrant-worker maids—mostly from the Philippines—in Hong Kong have taken up trail running. They do this not only for the challenge but for the opportunity to be treated as equals in a society that exploits and discriminates against them.

These Filipinas, who add $12.6 billion to Hong Kong’s gross domestic product as a service economy, are mandated to live in their employer’s homes, which increases the risk of abuse. It’s not rare that they are made to sleep in bathrooms, storage rooms, or closets. They cook, clean, shop, wash and iron laundry, mind children, tend the elderly and the ill, run errands, do gardening, and are on call 24/7. Yet they find ways to turn their household duties into training opportunities, and they squeeze in training runs well before dawn or late at night.

“On weekdays, people say ‘Oh you’re a domestic helper,’” 30-year-old Fredelyn Alberto is quoted as saying, ”but on weekends, on the trails, they say ‘Oh, you’re a good runner.’” Jaybie Pagarian adds, “We are not just a maid. We’re not just poor people.”

It got me thinking back to time I spent in the Philippines, working with the women, learning from them about the vast expatriate labor force of Filipinas “exported” abroad. Then—connect the dots—I remembered that years earlier during a meeting in Jordan with a token high-ranking woman in the PLO—herself a Palestinian enduring statelessness, persecution, and misogyny—her housemaid, who brought in coffee, was a Filipina.

I thought of New York subways densely packed with night-shift nurses going to work in municipal hospitals for little pay and less respect, and they are Filipinas.

During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, most of the women raped and killed were Asian servants to Kuwaiti households—and most of the Asians were Filipinas. The survivors then spent months huddled in refugee camps at the Jordan border, trying to get home.

It was not until 1990 that the Aquino government formally outlawed the practice of contracting Filipinas in groups for labor as “domestics” abroad. In 1988 one could still see the women, each clutching her one suitcase, standing herded together with their “contractor” overseer at the airport, waiting to be shipped like cargo to Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, all over the world.

But although “expatriate labor” practices are outlawed, they continue in illegal black-market fashion. Three million expatriate laborers simply bring in too much revenue to be foregone. And the women go, supporting entire extended families back home by their round-the-clock labor and they endure being sexually abused by the men of the house, and by having no recourse. All this even before a foreign army invades (Iraq into Kuwait) and rapes and shoots and then another foreign army (Syria, the US, Russia) flies over and makes the sky look like firecrackers or you fight back against another boss-rapist but then you are arrested and sentenced to flogging or even death (Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia). All this and the dream of going home someday, of embracing family you haven’t seen in decades.

A recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary lists as a synonym for “maid, servant, domestic”: Filipina.

Reason enough to despair.

Yet today—in Manila, the Cordilleras, Negros, Mindanao, all across the Philippines—for some time a thriving women’s movement has made its presence known. Today, Filipinas in their labor diaspora are trying to organize across geographical borders. Today, in Hong Kong, migrant-worker Filipinas are running for respect.

If they can refuse to despair, surely we can.

After all, each of us is really running for her life.