The octave of women’s voices

By: Sen. Risa Hontiveros - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | March 08,2023 - 09:15 AM


I always smile when I hear someone humming, because it means they are relaxed and at ease. Humming is such a private, genuine, and spontaneous joy. I indulge in it every chance I get, in between meetings or while getting ready in the morning.

Humming is freeing and disarming, but it is restrained. It is the least one can do, when one would like to sing, to use our voices, but for whatever reason, cannot. We should consider ourselves privileged when we can hear another person’s humming.

My dear friend Melay retold me a fond memory recently: We were in UP for a concert. I had arrived earlier and was escorted to the VIP section. She called me but couldn’t find me, and there were so many people. She sat on the ground instead and told me she’d meet me after the concert. But what is the point of a concert if one is not in the company of good friends? The music is sweeter together.

Women must battle through an unkind world every day; when we are together, we disarm. My closest friends and allies have always been women; I also have as many sisters as I do daughters. I have shared my most vulnerable experiences with them, and they with me. There is a mutual understanding that no other people can access. It is, in a way, a sound only we women hear.

When I was an Akbayan party list congresswoman, my mentor, former Akbayan representative Etta Rosales, taught me that we should reject the notion that legislation is simply a numbers game. Even if the odds are against you, the most important things must be said. There are consequences to any one story left unheard, any constituent made invisible. And so, keen as my listening already was, I made my hearing even sharper. I wanted to hear even the softest hums and whispers.

When I went to Marawi again last year, five years after the siege, I listened firsthand to the stories of women who had lost everything. A timeframe of when their lives could continue was not promised. No one could give them an answer with finality. All they desired was to go home again. I knew these from the reports, but to hear it straight from them was a different kind of heartache.

My office has received cries for help from pregnant women who had to go to the expensive hospital near them, even if they had no money. It was a coin toss between furthering themselves in poverty, or risking their death or their baby’s. Hospitals would detain them, refusing to release both mother and child, until the payment was settled. The bill was running every day. I’ve had to read stories of lesbian women who are raped by their own fathers or brothers, so that they can “cure” them. Truth is more terrible than the most gruesome fiction.

Even writing these stories down fills my heart with grief; absolutely nothing compared to living them. They are painful, but they must be front and center. They are often denied, but they must be shared. They are why I filed the Marawi Seige Victims Compensation Act, the Anti-Hospital Detention law, and the Sogie Equality bill. Every bill my office has filed since my first day at the Senate is often, but not always, the experience of men, but it is always the story of a woman.

There are so many avenues to speak and ways to be loud. How does one speak up amidst all the noise? Is it possible to still hear each other? I honed a skill of grace and firmness while raising my daughters to use the power of their voices. There must be a balance between the strength of your voice and your ability to listen.

The habit of speaking over others impedes on one’s humility to learn. Women know, better than anyone else, what it is like to be caught dead center between people who think that the only way to win an argument is to talk louder. Calmness is clarity. Humility is necessary. It has not mattered that I am one of only two members of the minority. I am steadfast in advocating for the stories and rights of invisible women. These are virtues that I try to maintain, even in the toughest debates on the Senate floor. The humility of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s resignation is a lesson for all people and all generations. Here is a woman who did the best with the power she was lent, while juggling her responsibilities as a mother. She did what was asked of her and more, and now it is time to pass it on.

We are not meant to occupy the seats of power forever, but we are meant to transform the spaces we are let into. Take every chance to include as many women as you can, wherever you are. There will be another Jacinda Ardern. I believe there will be many more. Because there is no real power of one, there is only the power of the people. We all have a stake in each other. This is what equity means. We should not stop at embracing equity; we must become it. It must be who we are. It is the way we keep our ears open, and our hearts soft to feel all the pains, and joys, of womanhood and sisterhood. That day in UP, I looked for Melay instead, and we sat on the grass together. Whenever I hum the songs from that concert, they are tunes of friendship.

The octave of women’s voices is so special, sometimes it’s a melody only we women can hear. It is a sort of magic or superpower we are born with, but must choose actively every day. If only others could hear it. Woman, man, nonbinary person: I hope we can listen out for it. I hope we can hum it together. It is quite beautiful.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros is chair of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality.

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