Filipino flirting culture
Sanne van Oosten
While hopping from country to country within Southeast Asia one expects to encounter variation in cultures, however, I had never expected the attitude towards women to be so vastly dissimilar from one country to the next. When travelling in Indonesia I had gotten used to the woman’s role of spectator instead of participant. Whenever being talked to, one usually turned towards my male partner and whenever a hand was extended to either of us, he was more often than not the one it was extended to. Generally I just went with the flow, knowing that that is the way it goes.
When going from Indonesia to the Philippines I had expected it to be pretty much the same way. How wrong I was. Whereas I was practically shunned for being a women before I was the centre of attention now. Head-turning when walking by, men extending a friendly hand to me while my male partner was ignored and Filipino’s calling me miss sexy despite the fact that my male partner was right beside me. The weirdest incident happened when a child I would guess to be about 7 years old walked by me and said: hey sexy (by the way, what do you reckon, nature or nurture?) Nevertheless, and most importantly, both men and women talked to me, maybe even slightly more than to my male partner.
I soon learned that this was not the only peculiarity of Filipino gender relations. In the country where divorces are prohibited and polygamy even more so, numerous men exclaimed that even though they did have a wife or a girlfriend, they would like another one. And the funny thing is, while stating this, they didn’t come across as macho at all. No, even though Filipino men are known to flirt with everything and everyone, I have yet to encounter a hint of macho attitude in them. To the contrary, your typical western man would severely question their masculinity and sexuality.
For example, we could hardly stifle a giggle when our male taxi driver proudly stated that he loved to do baking in his spare time. Also, whereas a visit to a Filipino barber shop would make a man brought up in the west doubt his sexuality, this is not the case for Filipino men. A haircut can easily go together with a manicure and pedicure. I personally hate cutting my nails, so I don’t blame them one bit. No matter if you’re a man or a woman, who doesn’t want some neatly manicured nails, right? But most importantly, we noticed a large number of transsexuals in the Philippines. At first encountering a transsexual on the street made me want to look twice, but at the end of the trip it was almost as normal as seeing anyone else walk by. Both male to female and female to male transsexuals are quite normal in Filipino city life. I searched the internet for what the sociological explanation is to this, but found no satisfying answers. Maybe since gender categories are more blurred this allows transsexuals to be more open about their true selves than in Europe? All I can do is guess.
Even though I prefer the Filipino gender roles over the Indonesian ones, I am not saying that the one culture is better than the other. Even though transsexuals are able to be more open, they do lead a marginalized existence as there are many cases of sexually related violence towards transsexuals in the Philippines. And on the part of women, in Indonesia I experienced women to be objects of chastity whereas in the Philippines I noticed women to be viewed more as objects of sexuality. Both having crippling implications for women’s functioning in society. The point I want to make is quite different from that. The comparison between the Philippines and Indonesia showed me that gender roles are not cast into stone, even if society might tell us the opposite. What is considered to be appropriate conduct between and for men and women can be completely different from one country to the next.
In one country certain practices are completely accepted whereas that might not be the case at all in the next country. Isn’t this a confirmation of the fact that the differences between what is accepted for women and men are, for a large extent, culturally grounded instead of features of our unchangeable nature? Now we continue our travels this conjecture is proven once again as we found ourselves in yet another distinct cultural situation. After the Philippines we travelled to Malaysia and found this to be a happy medium between Indonesia and the Philippines in terms of how much women are talked to in public. In the travelers daily life, I’m pretty much treated the same as my male partner. Nevertheless, in Malaysia gender categories, once again, seem to be set in stone. But seeing with my own eyes how much gender categories can differ, I now know that gender categories are much more fluid than one would think.