Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Gabriela Rep. Liza Maza in Sunday Inquirer Magazine

Cover Story : The teeming ‘masa’ transformed this former ‘burgis’ into a Congresswoman worthy of her name
First posted 09:31am (Mla time) Mar 26, 2006
By Pennie Azarcon-dela Cruz

Editor's Note: Published on page Q1 of the March 26, 2006 issue of the
Philippine Daily Inquirer

YES, that’s her real name, her married name, Rep. Liza Largoza Maza says to skeptics who point to the almost cinematic aptness of her name to the sector she upholds as Gabriela Women’s Party list representative in Congress.

But by her own admission, Maza used to be a flighty and imperious burgis (petty bourgeoisie) who would have nothing to do with the sweaty coil of student demonstrators during her college days at the University of the Philippines.

She was also so quiet as a child that her mother thought she was autistic, adds Maza with a laugh. She is, after all, one of the Batasan Five, party list representatives accused of rebellion for their vocal attacks on the Arroyo administration. Put under the protective custody of the House after the Philippine National Police vowed to arrest them even without a warrant, “housemates” Maza, Bayan Muna representatives Satur Ocampo, Teodoro Casiño and Joel Virador, and Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano have been closeted in Congress since Feb. 27.

Being detained for masa-oriented sentiments was farthest from Maza’s mind when she was growing up in an upper middle class household. “My father, Antonio, was from Tiaong, Quezon, while my mother Alberta, a businesswoman from Bulacan, owned a grocery store in San Pablo City, Laguna,” says Maza, 48. They had land, rental apartments, a grocery and other properties. “We’re 10 siblings, all of us professionals. There are two doctors, two teachers and a banker in the family, while the rest have their own businesses or professions,” says this Business Economics graduate.

As part of the status quo, Maza did not take too kindly to the activists of the First Quarter Storm in the early ’70s. “Ang gugulo nila!” (They were so rowdy!) was how she used to describe them. It took Free Press and Graphic Magazines to change her mind, so that by the time she entered UP in the mid-’70s, she had hoped to become an activist. But the extent of her being anti-establishment then was, at best, self-indulgent, says Maza.

Women’s cause

“Everything came to a head when our dorm matron at UP threatened to expel me and a roommate from the Camia dorm for violating the curfew regulation and for going around the dorm in our nightgown. She said she wanted to talk to our parents. Ano kami, bata?” she recounts. Incensed, the two approached then Student Affairs dean Armando Malay, who successfully interceded for them. Maza’s complaint stirred up a virtual rebellion against the unpopular dorm matron, and her reputation as an agit-prop expert was made. From there, it was but a short step to the University Alliance which regularly visited depressed communities in Tondo. It was there that Maza saw another world vastly different from her comfortable background. After graduation, she worked as a researcher and later taught at the St. Scholastica’s College.

But Maza wasn’t quite ready to join the women’s movement, she had told then Gabriela official Nelia Sancho when the former beauty queen-activist tried to recruit her. “I come from a family of strong women and we never felt oppressed. My mother even single-handedly sent her siblings through school when they were orphaned. I also felt then that the women’s cause was too soft,” she recalls.

Things started to change after the assassination of Sen. Ninoy Aquino in 1983. Overnight, rallies supporting the Aquino widow bloomed in the streets, with Maza among the thousands of women marching. “That was when I met women from urban poor communities and heard about their oppression as women. I’d listen as they spoke of rushing through their work and their chores to attend the rallies and how they had to hurry back home because the children had been left alone.”

A research project among overseas Filipino workers in Hong Kong convinced her further of the gender dimension of oppression. “I interviewed domestic helpers and uncovered stories of rape, sexual abuse and maltreatment,” Maza says of her stay in the former British colony in the 1980s. One account she could not forget was that of a former teacher who needed money so badly, she agreed to a sort of “retail” sexual harassment. “First, she agreed to let her employer hold her hand for which she got a raise. Then she allowed him to caress her arms and shoulders; again a raise. From there, he progressed to her breasts, one at a time… and all along, she calmed her disgust with thoughts of how the money could help her family back home.”

Her own experiences as a survivor of similar sexual harassment incidents prodded Maza to become actively involved in women’s issues in the late 1980s. “I know how these are unwanted acts and how a woman’s first reaction is just to freeze. I vowed then to fight for a society free from all forms of violence against women,” she says.

In 2001, Maza was tapped to represent women as one of the party list candidates of Bayan Muna. The party won handily. Since then, she has taken up the cause of Filipino women as the principal author of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003 and the co-author of the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Act of 2004. She has also stirred up debates with such controversial bills as one legalizing divorce, another advocating reproductive health rights, and still another batting for equal sanctions between men and women when it comes to marital infidelity.

Public debates

“Our role is not just to pass laws, but also to challenge the very foundation of mainstream and traditional thinking by engaging in public debates,” she says. This is why she was so aghast with President Arroyo’s declaration of 1017 that put the country under emergency rule and allowed warrantless arrests, says Maza.

“1017 is political persecution of the Left,” she says. “It puts into question the party list law whose objective is to give space to marginalized sectors. It also tests the sincerity of the system in giving us space in the free marketplace of ideas. It raises the question `are we really ready for free and progressive discourse?’ ”

Apparently not, if her near-arrest on March 6 were any indication.

“We were warned that we’d be arrested once we stepped out of Congress,” Maza says of the Batasan Five. But on that day, she had to attend a bicameral conference on the Juvenile Justice bill at the Senate. As one of the bill’s principal authors, she said she wanted to argue for the merits of placing minor offenders 15 years and below under the care of the Social Welfare department. “As things stand, young offenders are put in jail with hardened criminals even when they’re as young as 7!”

A House resolution questioning her arrest without any preliminary investigation however prevented her arrest, and so did her formidable chaperones to the Senate: Representatives Cynthia Villar, Joel Villanueva, Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel, Timmy Chipeco, Gilbert Remulla, Mayong Aguho, and Rene Magtubo. The group’s convoy from the House was composed of 30 cars. The Senate provided her security going back.

“After all, I was only performing my responsibility as an elected official of the land,” says Maza.

But there was little she could do on March 8, celebrated world-wide as International Women’s Day, when she had to stay put at the House instead of marching with the other women. It’s something that she has done every March 8 since 1987, and what she missed most during her House arrest, says Maza. She also misses her two sons, aged 21 and 15, who can only visit her on weekends.

Except for those emotional contretemps, Maza continues her advocacy for women with the same zeal as perhaps only a former street activist can muster and maintain.

“She’s doing a very good job,” says Las Piñas representative Cynthia Villar of her colleague. “She always takes charge of all photo exhibits and cultural activities for the Women’s Month and any other event that seeks to promote consciousness and responsiveness to the cause of improving the quality of life among Filipino women.”

A firm stand

Villar also approves of Maza’s performance as a legislator. “A legislator’s performance may be measured in two ways: the projects they are able to deliver to constituents, and their ability to take a firm stand on issues they consider vital to the integrity of our nation.” Maza, she says, has made a “positive contribution” through the second option.

Meanwhile, life inside the House for this women’s representative has settled into routine past the 20th day: up at 6 a.m., yoga, then breakfast. This morning, the fare was eggs, dilis, plain rice, coffee and corned beef with potatoes. Then Maza reads the papers and does her ablutions. By 9, she’s at her office for a series of radio interviews. “I eat interviews for breakfast,” she says, smiling. Sessions start at 10 and can last until 10 p.m. By 11, she treks off to the conference room where she and the rest of the Batasan Five sleep, some with their families.

Maza, who has never been detained even during martial law, finds it ironic that her first and only jailer would be another woman, “who put the supremacy of the police and military above that of an elected branch of government.” The situation seems to put into question a favorite issue among women advocates: that of putting more women in governance.

“But the case of President Arroyo and former President Aquino shows that the issue of women in politics goes beyond gender,” says Maza. “Politics is an interplay of forces and that includes the background of the candidate. Both Cory and GMA (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) come from elite, privileged backgrounds. We also need to look at their motive for running. Are they governing with the interest of the people at heart?”

She continues: “We’re here to connect the government with the people. Under traditional politics, the voters are forgotten until the next election. But under the party list system, there’s constant consultation with our constituents on what agenda to push. We can’t leave the people’s movement outside the halls of Congress. That’s how we avoid being co-opted by the system.”

Personal pursuits

Although her days are filled with visitors (“Mostly mothers from the communities”), press conferences, interviews, and endless bills to study, Maza has found time and space for personal pursuits inside the confines of her gilded cage.

“I can’t live without books,” she says, waving a copy of Gioconda Belli’s “The Country Under My Skin,” her current leisure reading. There are also volumes by Paolo Coelho, Isabel Allende and poetry by Pablo Neruda. There are music tapes galore on her desk—from classical to rock, and they help fight the ennui of the sameness of days. At times, she imagines herself back in her kitchen, whipping up her specialty dish: kaldereta. “I also miss my cats,” she reveals. “Right now, we have 12!”

But despite the deprivations of her House arrest, Maza says she has no regrets. “Wala akong masyadong angst (I don’t have much angst). I want to be a perennial student so that whatever mistakes I make, I can treat as lessons learned.” She adds: “I’m a very positive person. If I were not such a positivist, I doubt if I’d survive the negative things happening to our country.”