Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002
Carolyn Brewer

Holy Confrontation:
Religion, Gender and Sexuality
in the Philippines, 1521-1685

Manila: Institute of Women's Studies,
St. Scholastica's College, 2001
xl, 437 pp; maps, illustrations, index,
ISBN 971-8605-29-0.

reviewed by Barbara Watson Andaya

  1. This important book is not merely a timely addition to the literature on the Philippines; it will also be a valuable resource for those working more generally in religious and gender studies. A revised version of the author's doctoral dissertation, Holy Confrontation focuses on the missionising efforts of the Spanish in the Philippines during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the long term effects on local understandings of 'being female'. A specific focus is the confrontation between the Catholic orders and the older women who acted as ritual specialists (termed baylan in the Visayas, and catalonan among the Tagalogs) in pre-Christian indigenous religious practices. While interest in the position of women in early colonial society in the Philippines has increased recently, this study is exceptional because of its strong theoretical framework, its exhaustive research, and its forceful and at times passionate argument.
  2. The introduction establishes the motivation and framework for the study. In reading the Spanish missionary sources, Brewer was struck by the contrast between the male dominance of Catholicism and importance of women (and of men dressed as women) as ritual leaders in Philippine Animism. Equally pronounced was the difference between the feminine ideal of chastity and decorum as projected in the image of the Virgin Mary and other saints, and the relative sexual freedoms Philippine women enjoyed. The success of the Christianising mission, itself fundamental to the colonial enterprise, would thus have necessitated a fundamental restructuring of indigenous ideas about gender, including the relationship of women and men. In contrast to most histories of Christianity in the Philippines (often written by clerics), Brewer argues that the restructuring process did not proceed smoothly; rather, it was often violently imposed and vehemently resisted, most notably by the women leaders themselves.
  3. The first section, dealing with Catholic attempts to reconstruct the female ideal, begins in 1521, when Magellan's small fleet arrived in Cebu. Although Brewer is acutely aware of the problems posed by her documents, almost solely the work of Christian Spanish men, the dexterity with which she has 'flipped' the material to expose underlying gender issues is impressive. Using potentially unsympathetic sources, she traces the ways in which Spanish missionaries attempted to promote Christian ideas of premarital virginity and wifely fidelity in a society where unmarried girls were usually free to engage in sex, and where extra-marital liaisons were condoned and at times encouraged, at least among the non-elite. Coupled with the Christian projection of the virginal maiden was another ideal, the nurturing mother, although this had more obvious connections to indigenous values. Together, these two images were powerfully presented in the veneration of the Virgin Mary, a cult which became the fulcrum for the conversion project. In passing, it is worth noting that men too were affected by new ideas about sexuality. Intrigued yet repelled by the male penis adornment or sagra, which they attributed to the 'carnal lustfulness' of women, the Spanish proscribed their use for Christian converts.
  4. We can only speculate about the mental shifts by which so many Filipinos began to accept new models of 'being female' and 'being male'. However, as Brewer shows, it is possible to identify the battery of tools used by the Church in the re-education process. New constructions of gender were actively promoted through Christian plays, songs, catechisms, sermons, biblical adaptations; priests also made good use of the confessional and compulsory church attendance to identify and condemn unacceptable behavior, forcing compliance by punishments and the threat of hellfire. Possibly the most effective tool was the censorship which Filipinos imposed on themselves, a new culture of guilt that was mostly strikingly manifested in self-flagellation. And although Filipinos showed a remarkable ability to integrate the language and images of Christianity so that they became 'local', this was always regarded with suspicion by Spain's church-state alliance. Those who appropriated Christian symbolism yet rejected Spanish authority were punished without mercy.
  5. The second part of the book focuses on the linguistic and conceptual shifts that occurred as the indigenous priestess, the baylan, was transformed into the Spanish bruja (female witch) and then localized into bruha (Tagalog). As Brewer demonstrates, Spanish Catholicism brought from Europe had specific ideas about witchcraft and the relationship of its practitioners with 'the devil'. In consequence, friars were particularly concerned to displace the elderly women who possessed ritual objects and presided over Animist ceremonies. Humiliation became a primary weapon, as young boys were recruited to locate sacred items and then urinate on them or perform other acts of desecration. Another means of depriving baylan and catalonan of their social and cultural function was to substitute Christian rituals and symbols. One example of this displacement was the Jesuit elevation of St. Ignatius of Loyola as the special protector of women in childbirth, a clear effort to undermine the position of the priestess as midwife. To counter the images associated with indigenous religious leaders, the Catholic Church provided its own model of female piety in the form of nuns, like Mother Jerónima de la Asuncion, who established the first convent in the Philippines. In the process of forcing the population into a 'two-sex, two-gender' mould, attacks were similarly launched against the asog or bayog, men dressed as women who also acted as ritual specialists.
  6. Part three takes as its departure point an extraordinary document, which Brewer calls 'the Bolinao manuscript', after the town of the same name in the province of Zambales. This document comprises a unique record of 236 Dominican interviews with suspected catalonan, most of whom were elderly women. Occurring between 1679 and 1684, the interrogations provide valuable details of the practices and paraphernalia associated with Animism, supplying clear evidence of the persistence of spirit veneration. More than a hundred years after the Spanish had established themselves in Manila the Bolinao material shows the extent of Anito involvement in all aspects of human activity, whether offering a cure for aching knees or bringing on the rains without which crops would fail. The manuscript also reveals something of interactions between individual catalonan and their group bonding as daughters, mothers and grandmothers. While pointing to the transmission of Animist secrets across generations, the material shows that the catalonan of Bolinao worked communally, exchanging ritual knowledge and borrowing instruments such as earthenware pots, fans and textiles from each other. Conversely, one catches a glimpse of the rifts which must have developed within families and kinship groups as sons and husbands disclosed the activities of female catalonan, located sacred shrines and surrendered to the friars the ritual instruments of Animist worship. For the women at the centre of this conflict, priestly adultery and sexual promiscuity could only underscore the hypocrisy of the Church's claim to be the guardian of morality.
  7. The conclusion summarises the overall argument; the Philippine material for the sixteenth and seventeenth century can be interpreted as a record of religious and cultural violence, especially against women, a confrontation which had been in operation from the very beginning of the Spanish encounter.
  8. The supporting material includes four appendices, the first of which provides the references for the nineteen illustrations, all of which are a helpful adjunct to the text. The second gives a glossary of non-English terms, the third discusses the 'miracle question', and the fourth lists the 'instruments' used in anito ritual and identified during the Bolinao interrogations. An additional section describing the primary sources consulted will assist non-specialists to appreciate both the strengths of Brewer's material, and the problems of interpretation. The bibliography is extensive and the index, which includes concepts and subdivisions, has been prepared with care. In this context, however, and at the risk of sounding picayune, I would like to comment that a stronger editorial hand might have resulted in a more streamlined manuscript. While the discussions and additional information provided in the notes are usually pertinent, they do seem unduly long and 'thesis-like', and their placement at the end of the chapter means they are difficult to read in conjunction with the text. The occasional repetition of whole quotes is obviously an oversight. Citations in the bibliography are not always uniform and it is hard to understand why the same article or thesis is included in the 'unpublished' section when the published version is already available (and is sometimes also cited).
  9. These matters aside, the rich detail Holy Confrontation offers will undoubtedly provide much material for future research, both on the Philippines and within a wider comparative framework, especially in relation to other non-European societies. For instance, Brewer's stress on the collaboration between catalonan can be juxtaposed with modern data on the nat kadaw ('spirit wives') of Burma, who also work together on ritual occasions. Similarly, ceremonies in which Malay midwives summon the 'seven heavenly midwives' to aid women in labour can be compared with the prayers offered by their Filipino counterparts to 'the first midwives of the world'. Nor should one overlook the potential for using the book in the classroom. Written in a clear and accessible style, the forthright and unequivocal argument could open interesting discussions on methodology and approach. For example historians are generally taught that sources should be considered dispassionately, and that personal emotions should not enter into academic analysis. If we have learned anything from post-modernist critiques, however, it is that there is no such thing as impartiality and that all reconstructions of the past bear the imprint of individual interpretation. Holy Confrontation is particularly valuable for student use precisely because Brewer is so engaged with her subject, and because her meticulous research is combined with a sense of outrage at the experiences of Filipino women under Spanish colonialism.
  10. Undoubtedly, the author will be prepared for disagreement, for there will be those who feel she has given insufficient attention to the positive aspects of the Christianizing process, especially the opportunities it offered for women to gain some kind of education. As Brewer herself points out, the values of Christianity and Philippines were not always in conflict, particularly in regard to the sexual restraints placed on high-ranking women. One can anticipate some lively debates in the Philippines, where church histories have tended to ignore the often traumatic experiences that underlie the process of what we term 'conversion'. In a sense, however, one could say a similar approach has been adopted in Southeast Asia, where ideas about the 'localization' of imported ideas (of Islam, for example) have been favoured over notions of 'imposition'. Some scholars may also feel that the Philippine case is made to appear exceptional, and that the wider context of Christianization in the non-European world could have been stressed more strongly, especially in regard to other Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Although Brewer does cite material from New Mexico, the American experience yields much comparative data on transformations of sexuality and gender which may elucidate the Philippine material, or at least throw up intriguing questions. Could one say, for instance, that confession and penance were more effective than trial and punishment in reshaping sexual practices among Filipinos, as was apparently the case among American Indians? It is also relevant to remember that during the sixteenth century the Church was similarly attempting to reshape female behavior in Europe. It could well be argued, indeed, that the sexual behavior of many European women, notably at the lower levels of society, was not so different from that of their Philippine counterparts. Premarital sex may have been common in the Philippines, but during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries between a fifth and a half of all English brides were pregnant at the time of marriage.
  11. In closing, I wish to emphasise that I gained enormously from reading this detailed and compelling book. Probing the intersections between sex, power and gender, it is an extremely important addition to our understanding of the way in which European and Christian ideas were introduced into the Philippines, and the long shadow which they cast over later history. Although I was familiar with a number of the sources Brewer consulted, I am probably not alone in failing to appreciate the cumulative significance of this material, or the import of the quotes which she uses so effectively. Indeed, the detail of the research is such that one reading is not enough, and I know this is a work to which I will return frequently (my review copy is already looking well used!). Holy Confrontation is certainly a book which many scholars will wish to own. Its publication in the Philippines is timely, but one also hopes that the planned American edition will appear soon so that this significant work will be more readily available for other interested audiences.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 18 March 2008 1031 by: Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright