The Passing of Rice Spirits: Cosmology, Technology, and Gender Relations in the Colonial Philippines

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Historians agree that; in terms of gender relations; precolonial societies in Southeast Asia were remarkably egalitarian. Female autonomy and overall gender equality have been attributed to the cognatic; specifically bilateral; kinship system that had long prevailed across most parts the region. Studies of gender relations prior to and in the wake of the Spanish colonial conquest of the Philippines in the late sixteenth century have focused on the female shamans; known as babaylan; who were marginalized by colonial rule and whose fate was seen as emblematic of the decline in female status under colonial rule. However; others have pointed out that; comparatively speaking; women in the contemporary Philippines continue to enjoy elevated status; with Spanish Catholic symbols and mores having been absorbed selectively or even transformed to conform to local culture. In this context; if gender is to be a useful category for historical analysis; gender relations must be understood within a broad historical frame as a process that unfolds in history in dynamic interaction with a multiplicity of factors. As a case in point; this paper examines rice cultivation prior to and after the conquest. Rather than focus exclusively on gender; the paper's approach is to understand the wider context of rice production; particularly the cosmological beliefs within which all social relations in the preconquest world were embedded and subsumed. Within this broader social and cultural setting; the paper analyzes how other domains of social life exerted a profound influence on the colonial restructuring of gender relations. Along with the introduction of Catholicism; technological changes in rice cultivation undermined the old cosmology that underpinned rice production; resulting in the unintended reconstitution of gender relations in rice production; which today makes the Philippines distinctive in Southeast Asia.