26 July 2020
More than four months after nationwide lockdown in the Philippines, millions of us Filipinos find ourselves unprepared for the new lifestyle forced upon us by COVID-19.
Staying home has become the new normal. But given our extroversion, especially among the millennials, and our inverted body clocks, when day is bedtime and night means time to go out, many of my friends feel uneasy, sometimes depressed and anxious as we seem to be losing all sense of time. On the upside, we are also developing more innovative activities: we have found new skills in cooking, baking, art making, and even gardening.
Home quarantine has been an extremely difficult time for many of us, including myself. So, in moments of boredom interspersed with fear, I console myself with the story I had heard from my cousin about my grandmother twice removed. She was supposed to have been home quarantined for most of her youth, and I figure that if she could do it, so can I.
Fausta Penacerrada Plotria of Panay was a Binukot, meaning confined, secluded, restricted. (The root word bukot means “being blanketed, or swaddled.” The Spanish called the Binukots ”encerramiento como monja” or cloistered like a nun). Neither my cousin nor I know anything about my grandmother as I was born the day after she died, and everybody who might have known about her, including her youngest son my father, has since passed.
Therefore, I made a bit of research about the Binukots of the central plains of Panay. It did seem that up to the end of Spanish Rule, the practice of selective confinement was rife in some indigenous communities in Panay. These secluded women did not choose such a lifestyle; rather, it was imposed on them by their families. Although scarcely mentioned in Philippine historical accounts, the practice was quite popular not only in Panay but also among various pre-colonial communities across the archipelago. (See Darangen, a Maranao legend about a Binukot)
This traditional practice would begin with the parents of a Binukot deciding that they wanted their daughter to be a “gem” in her community. Perhaps she was seen as especially beautiful or talented, so that at the age of around three to five years old, her parents would start to keep her in seclusion. In most Panay tribal communities like Sulud and Bukidnon, a Binukot had to come from a family of good standing in the community, preferably of noble birth. Whilst the child was kept inside the house, her every need was serviced. She was always accompanied by an apid or a female servant or, perhaps even a female relative, or her parents. Any male unfortunate enough to witness the activity/ies of a Binukot, was considered to have committed a crime. Needless to say, the more private the action, the graver the crime, extending to those punishable by death. The gravest offense was watching a Binukot being brought to an enclosure by the river to bathe after sunset.
Her daily activities consisted of entertainment and education facilitated by her elders or other former Binukots. She was versed in tribal lore and culture, music and dances, cosmology, weaving, and in some cases, healing. Because of these exposures, a Binukot usually became adept at tribal knowledge and oral tradition. As soon as she reached puberty, she was prepared for marriage. By then, she would be pale white as lily with flowing black hair reaching up to her ankles! As her beauty and mastery of traditional knowledge and skills spread throughout her community and beyond, she would bring not only pride and prestige to her family, but also a higher pangayu (bride price where the family of the groom paid their future in-laws). A married Binukot became Nabukot.
Looking at various records of Visayan stories, we see that strong Nabukot women figured in several instances, mostly as co-equals of heroes, warrior leaders, and even Datus, signifying their elevated status and role in the community. For example, in Hinilawod, a 29,000 verse epic uncovered by the anthropologist Felipe Landa Jocano in 1955, the hero Labaw Dunggon married three women from three different worlds, all of whom were former Binukots who then became Nabukots.
It would seem that we are the only Austronesian people in Southeast Asia and Oceania who had Binukots or their equivalents. Why this was so is not known as they fulfilled an important social function in societies with no systematic way of record keeping, especially true in illiterate tribal communities. By acting as valuable vessels and repositories of important traditions, passing on these cultural elements to the next generation, the Binukot women ensured their survival.
Although its origin is not known, the existence of Binukots have been documented up until the Second World War when it was reported that as the Japanese forces overtook Panay Island and many inhabitants fled from their homes, a number of frail Binukots were left behind, becoming “comfort” women to the soldiers.
Perhaps as stories of these World War II “comfort” women increasingly come to light, it is time that we likewise document and publicize what had happened to these Binukots during and after the war. This aside, I would like to know if the practice has survived to this date, perhaps in some remote areas of the Philippine archipelago?
Editor's Note: by Victoria Hoffarth. As I read through the research done by Jopy Plotria, I am reminded of the Sworn Virgins, still found in rural areas of some Balkan countries, notably Albania and northern Macedonia. In these extremely patriarchal societies, women do not have the rights of men. What to do therefore in families of all daughters, none of whom can inherit the farm? One of them can become a Sworn Virgin—a decision of perpetual celibacy sometimes made by the parents as soon as a daughter is born. Aside from swearing an irrevocable oath, a Sworn Virgin has to dress like a man, act like a man, and for all intents and purposes, become a man. She is then accepted in the community of men—she can wear a watch, carry a gun, drink alcohol, etc. but also is expected to do men’s work. As one can become a Sworn Virgin at any age, many women use this avenue to escape from what they feel are oppressive conditions in their societies. They become Sworn Virgins.
References: /1/Maria Bernadette L. Abrera, “Seclusion and Veiling of Women: A Historical and Cultural Approach”. Philippine Social Sciences Review (2008-2009); /2/Alicia P. Magos (1995). "The Binokot (Kept-Maiden) in a Changing Socio-Cultural Perspective". Edukasyon. UP-ERP Journal, UP Diliman; /3/Eduardo A. Makabenta, Binisaya-English English-Binisaya Dictionary (QuezonCity: Emandsonz, c1979); /4/Tomas V. Hermosisima, Dictionary Bisayan-English-Tagalog (Manila: Pedro B.Ayuda & Co., 1966); /5/Juan de Noceda y Pedro de Sanlucar, Vocabulario de la lengua tagala (1754),Reimpreso en manila: Imprenta de Ramirez y Giraudier, 1860; /6/Alonso de Mentrida, Diccionario de la lengua bisaya, hiligueina y haraya de la islade Panay (Manila, 1842); /7/William Henry Scott, Barangay: Sixteen Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 1994.
Serafin Plotria, Jr is a Hiligaynon writer and a researcher on cultural and historical subjects.