The woman has the face of a saint. People call her a mestiza, porcelain-skinned with rosy cheeks. She is the feminine ideal: Shy, demure, modest, loyal, submissive. Her name is Maria Clara.
Key to lock, she gently enters the room that changes it all. Her long dark hair is tugged and used to drag her across the room. The fan she always carries around is no use in dodging punches. It is inevitable. Her now-swollen face is imprinted with his fist. Her rosy cheeks had turned purple.
The abuse of the woman who calls herself Maria Clara is not different from the one-fourth of the married women in the Philippines who have experienced at least one form of abuse from their husbands. Whether it may be one’s neighborhood or the far regions of the country, there are women—and even men—shouted at and beaten, abused both physically and verbally.
In a corner of the streets of Navotas City, two women, both teachers in Bungkalasi Elementary School, were abused by their partners. One had given up her hopes for a transformative ending to a narrative arch, while the other had clung to that bit of belief that her choice to stay and to love may be enough to save a person from himself.
The one who stayed
Jodelyn Arisgar had just broken up with her boyfriend when she bumped into her high school batchmate Fran Klin, whose name had accidentally split in his birth certificate. He had just broken up with his girlfriend too. They found each other randomly in the streets of Negros Occidental. Fresh from their breakups, Fran Klin started courting Jodelyn.
After two years, they started dating in the summer of 2011 even though Jodelyn had been getting red flags. She knew nothing about him, she said, but she decided to focus on the good things. Never mind the bullying rumors back in high school, the fights he got into, his short temper, or his drinking problem; for her, he will change like everyone does.
But he didn’t. She remembers when it specifically happened; it was the night of the 30th of January 2016, two years into their marriage with a one-year-old boy named Ian. Fran Klin was dead drunk, stumbling his way to the home they were renting. As soon as she realized he was intoxicated, which she always hated, she started yelling.
Fran Klin yelled back, spewing profanities at her. One thing she learned from their fights was how to shout them back at him. She never cursed before nor was she ever cursed at. This was something she had to adjust to after getting married.
Just when she thought it couldn’t get worse, Fran Klin pulled out a knife, the one she uses to cut meat and vegetables. He pressed it onto his neck, making a shallow cut. “Papatayin ko yung sarili ko,” he threatened, according to Jodelyn.
What is still embedded in her memory is what he said after. “Sige, papatayin ko na din kayo!”
When Fran Klin put the knife down, it accidentally made a small slash on the bridge of her nose; it created a scar that is visible until now. As she cried, her son Ian started crying back. He was traumatized, she believed, as he would always cry whenever he heard shouting for the next few days after the incident.
When he passed out from intoxication, Jodelyn packed her bags and, with her son, left. She stayed at her co-teacher’s house for a night and then moved to her sister’s house for more than a month.
Jodelyn reported him to the barangay officials; it was a decision that could’ve ended everything, but she had an epiphany when he visited them in her sister’s house. She remembered the look on Ian’s face when he saw his father. She started crying as she realized how much Ian missed his father. “Yung anak ko talaga [her reason to stay]. Kasi kung hindi, di na ako babalik talaga eh.”
And so she and her son moved back in with Fran Klin, despite the trauma that never left her since that night. In no time, everything seemed back to normal again, but for Jodelyn, a lot has changed. The trust that she had once given fully will never be whole again
“Feeling ko lang ngayong stage ng life ko naging palaban [ako], palaban na,” she declared. No longer does she accept the beating, both verbally and physically. While she silently hopes that he would change, forgiving him for that Saturday night, she has become a woman who knows her boundaries.
Jodelyn asserts, “Ngayon kung mali, mali. Kung tama, tama. Kasi noon kung mali, okay lang eh. Ngayon kung hindi, hindi talaga.”.
The runaway princess
It was a broken kingdom where Shirley Bermejo came from. After her parents got separated, it was her grandmother who took sickly Shirley under her wing, and treated her like a princess. And as they would say, a princess needs her prince. Shirley found hers in Ronel, who’s nine years her senior. Theirs was a whirlwind romance; they became a couple five months after being introduced and, in more or less one year, got married.
When Ronel got a new job, they transferred to an isolated farm in Batangas with no relatives or nearby neighbors to rely on. That’s when the princess’ fairytale plot overturned. Ronel would always get mad at Shirley and attempt to punch her for not doing any household chores—which he was warned of when he decided to marry her.
These were all just attempts, however, until he eventually landed his fist on Shirley one time. “Aba, mukhang nag-eenjoy,” Shirley recalled thinking in the midst of their fight. He must’ve really enjoyed seeing her helplessly cry and so, he did it several times in several instances, satisfying his emotions.
Shirley words were her only evidence so she didn’t bother reporting to the authorities. She prayed so hard with the hope that their relationship will be better for the sake of her kids. She knew how hard it was to grow up in a broken family and she didn’t want her kids to go through it. She felt that God, however, was telling her that what she was praying for wasn’t what’s right for her.
Little did the princess know that she had married an outlaw. Shirley later on found out that Ronel was a drug user. She had discussed it to him, telling him that once she learns and confirms that he’s a drug addict, no questions will be asked, no explanations will be necessary, she will leave.
“Papatayin kita kapag iniwan mo ako!” Shirley recalled Ronel’s threat. There she knew she had to be careful.
Shirley planned her escape wisely. She saved coins from Ronel’s weekly allowance until she had enough to pay for the bus. She had several attempts of leaving; she would bring her kids out of the farm with her, but always bump into Ronel on their way out.
The perfect opportunity came when her brother visited the farm. She told Ronel she’d go home to Navotas for a while and take her board exams to become a teacher. He allowed her without knowing that his wife was already leaving him for good. “Sinabi ko sa sarili ko na kapag ako nakatapak ng Navotas, hinding-hindi na ako babalik [to Batangas],” shares Shirley. And so, she never did.
It’s hard to leave someone you fear and harder to leave someone you love. Shirley had a share of regrets especially on the idea of her sons growing up in an incomplete family. Her experience may not be something that she is proud of, but she still considers herself lucky that she didn’t have to stay with her abusive husband for too long.
A princess doesn’t always need a prince charming. “Kapag no, no na talaga. ‘Wag ka na mag doubt kasi kapag inumpisahan mo nang mabuhay na wala siya, makakaya mo rin naman eh,” Shirley says as a piece of advice for women.
Shirley’s love story was not a happy ending, but it wasn’t sad either. The princess may not have ended up with her prince charming but she gained herself two princes—her own sons. And as long as she has them, she knows she will be happy.
The defiance of Maria Clara
There are millions of other voices muted by abuse that are waiting to be heard and if the Maria Clara that is the epitome of modesty were alive today, she would be a part of the one-fourth who were abused, just like Jodelyn and Shirley.
Maria Clara needs to learn how to be brave. She needs to be like Jodelyn who had built up a fence wherein her limits resides, no longer accepting the abuse she was given. She needs to be like Shirley who had run away without looking back, facing the fear from the threats she had received.
She would’ve been proud of a woman she have become today. Key to lock, she is entering a room of bright yellow light, facing the mirror as she wipes off her makeup, and this what she sees: Brave brown eyes, a bittersweet smile, and a bruise on her rosy cheeks—her battle scar.