This book by Vina Lanzona contributes to the history of revolutionary Cold War politics in Asia by highlighting the role of female revolutionaries. Focusing specifically on the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines, Lanzona attempts to reconstruct and examine women’s role in the rebel movement. This task is complicated by the loss of most archival documents in a fire in the 1960s, but she manages to piece together a narrative from oral histories of surviving former rebels.
Rather than simply detailing tales of female bravery and cunning in the guerrilla war (of which there are several), Lanzona unmasks the numerous contradictions that plagued the Huk rebels. The movement, which professed to follow marxist ideals on equality and classlessness, was in fact still riddled with machismo and actively sidelined women from frontline and leadership positions. For example, the vast majority of women in rebel camps were assigned traditional roles such as childcare, cooking and cleaning. Even more tellingly, Lanzona cites the case of Celia Mariano, a woman with university education who was allowed to join the male leadership’s strategic discussions. This indicates that sexist and elitist attitudes exerted a combined influence over the movement despite its proletarian ideals.
The book’s five chapters cover the Huk rebels’ wartime struggle against the Japanese, the post-war disbandment and reactivation of guerrilla forces, profiles of notable female rebels, ‘Love and sex in a time of revolution’, and finally the legacy left behind by female Huk rebels. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is Chapter 4 which chronicles the leadership’s struggle over the sensitive issue of intimate relations among the cadres. Issuing a document titled “The Revolutionary Solution of the Sex Problem”, the leaders attempted to codify sexual relations by allowing married men to take on so-called “forest wives” to avoid issues from “frustration”.
Lanzona expands on this sexual privilege to document how male attitudes towards their female comrades hardened as the tide of the war turned against them. Women were increasingly blamed as weaknesses who caused strategic failures. She also details the difficulties women faced in being pregnant, giving birth in remote jungle camps, and raising children.
However, Lanzona tends to portray the female Huk rebels as revolutionising gender and sexuality in the Philippines while simultaneously emphasising their continued marginality that replicated their second-class role in the wider society. She also argues that the rebels’ failure to control gender and family issues weakened the movement further while worsening abusive behaviour against women. But the actual cause might also be a reverse of this, with poor battlefield performance in fact leading to male cadres taking out their frustration on women.
The book raises questions not only about the role of women in revolutionary movements, but specifically on the effect of gender bias on the movements’ success or failure. It also provides an interesting comparison with the communist influenced Gerwani women’s movement in Indonesia that similarly engaged in revolutionary politics in Cold War Southeast Asia.