Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Pinay First Lady of East Timor

She was called Jackie S. in the Inquirer report, which made me chuckle for the name clearly refers to Jackie O., as in Jacqueline Onassis, who, as Jackie Kennedy was one of the most glamorous First Ladies in United States history.

Of course, in the eyes of most politicians and other members of the Philippine elite, there was nothing glamorous about what Jacqueline Siapno did. What on earth was Siapno, the first lady of neighboring East Timor, thinking taking a public bus and then a tricycle from Manila to Pangasinan?

The Inquirer was right to contrast Siapno with the rich and powerful in the Philippines for whom political power means extensive protocol and traveling with an army of servants and assistants. But the attention Jackie Siapno attracted for her low-key homecoming should also extend to her own standing as one of the most accomplished Filipina intellectuals in the world, and an expert on a part of the world that Filipinos and the Philippines should really be paying more attention to.

I got to know her in the early 1990s when we were students at University of California Berkeley, where she eventually got a PhD in Political Science and we both got involved in a conference on the Philippines. She had moved to the US as a teenager and eventually pursued a career in academe, earning degrees from prestigious Wellesley College and the University of London before going to Berkeley. She speaks, writes, or reads eight languages: Pangasinan, Tagalog, English, Indonesian, Portuguese, and Acehnese.

And she has written a book on Aceh, “Gender, Islam, Nationalism, and the State in Aceh: The Paradox of Power, Co-optation and Resistance.”

These credentials may make Jackie sound like a highly-intelligent but boring egghead. But Jackie Siapno is anything but boring. The attention she attracted with the unusual bus rise to Pangasinan proves that. And one thing I’ll always remember from our days in Berkeley was her passion whenever she tackled a subject she felt strongly about, whether it’s the plight of the Timorese people, Indonesian culture, Philippine politics, or women’s issues.

During the Berkeley conference, she told the Malay folk tale of Putri Babi, the Pig Princess, who married a rajah who fell madly in love with her despite her being different. But the rajah wanted to change Putri Babi so he burned her skin and called a healer to turn her into his ideal wife. “In burning her skin,” Jackie relates, “she is transformed into a princess, identified with the aristocratic ruling class and hence no longer able to represent the Bangsa which she was supposedly to continue. In becoming identified with the aristocratic class, the representation of their own Bangsa is foreclosed.”

She continued, “The rajah saw an imperfection in her body, a sign that marks her difference and he wants to burn it to make her body more normal and to make it conform. The treatment of Putri Babi is symbolic control, symbolic of male control of a female body which he does not understand, so he kills her.”

I remembered her telling this story when I heard about the stir Jackie caused in taking a bus from the airport to Pangasinan. She’s had an unusual journey—from young Pinay from Pangasinan to US immigrant to academic to activist to Indonesia expert to first lady of East Timor. But while we haven’t talked in years, I have a strong feeling that her own transformations did not involve any skin burning. I suspect Jackie took on, absorbed, and incorporated the knowledge and cultures of the places where she has traveled and lived, and eventually built on all these without having to shed her past as a Filipino woman from Pangasinan.

Before telling the story of Pig Princess, she explained that “Bangsa” in Malay could mean race, sex, class, or group, but is now commonly means as nation. Jackie pointed out how the story was originally told in a language similar to Maranao. “Any of you who speak Maranao or Tausug, Indonesian or Malay will probably understand it,” she told the audience.

I can’t help but think of how much someone with her background and passion can contribute at a time when the Philippines is still wrestling with unrest in the southern part of the archipelago involving Muslims who have suffered for generations under Christian rule from Manila.

We last communicated via email a few years ago and by then we were both parents. Jackie spoke fondly for her son Hadomi. Hadomi, Jackie explained to me, means “love” in the East Timorese language of Tetum.

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