Culture | Taking back fashion

Filipino community organization fights oppression on the runway

On Saturday, April 3, fashion and feminism will fuse in “End the Exploitation! March for Liberation!,” a political fashion show happening in Pinoyville, Cote-des-Neiges. The show, organized by the Philippine Women Centre of Quebec (PWCQ), aims to raise awareness for the struggles faced by women in the Filipino community. Pinoyville is home to the highest concentration of Filipinos in Quebec, but the event will speak for Filipino women living across Canada. Most of these women are part of the Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP), a government-run initiative that provides foreign women with temporary work as live-in caregivers.  
Some say the LCP provides many people with opportunity: employment, housing, and perhaps, eventually, Canadian citizenship. But the PWCQ believes that citizenship is a “carrot on a stick,” used to attract temporary workers to jobs most Canadians would not dream of taking. 
Workers in the LCP must live with their employers for 24 months of their first 36 months and receive minimum wage. The LCP also requires that its workers have successfully completed secondary school or a Canadian high school equivalent. Many women, however, have college-level education, but their credentials aren’t recognized in Canada. Because they can’t seek an education while they’re in the LCP, women are caught in a cycle of receiving little pay with little hope of leaving the program. 
Often, Filipino women in the LCP become their families’ primary breadwinners, and must send most of their earnings back home. Many women work for eight years before they can reunite with their families. Consequently, it is not only the hardworking women who suffer under the LCP, but also their children, who grow up without their mothers. 
According to the PWCQ, the LCP “de-skills members of the community across generations, leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and forces them to live in slave-like conditions.” It is issues like these that will be incorporated into PWCQ’s fashion show. 
But why use fashion to address such inequalities? There are a variety of activities that lend themselves well to the feminist cause – talks, conferences, discussions, and protests all come to mind. How can a fashion show, something generally put on merely to showcase clothes, lead to liberation?  
“We wanted to do something different,” says Krystle Alarcon, one of the event’s organizers. Alarcon explained that the show challenges the objectification of women. Models will wear pieces that express the issues and emotions prevalent in the Filipino community. “There are dresses that speak of exploitation,” Alarcon says. One dress, blue with a long sash, engages in the theme of family separation. Blue is the overseas distance, and children hold on to the end of the sash, far from their mothers. 
The garments are designed by members of the community, and also incorporate materials of significant to a migrant group. There is one dress made up almost entirely of used phone cards, another that integrates transaction receipts and bills. But the event doesn’t only revolve around clothes. There will be theatre, visual montages, narration, and live performances. Alarcon describes cardboard constructions that will serve as symbols for the hoops many Filipino women must jump through just to provide for their families.  
“It’s also a story,” she says of the event. It’s not one woman’s struggle, but an all-encompassing tale that represents everyone. Most of the models are young Filipino women, but there are youth who are boys, older women who have been through the LCP, and young academic types who have become aware and involved.  
McGill graduate student Ilyan Ferrer is responsible for outreach for the show, as well as prop and equipment preparation. “I became involved because the PWCQ always prepares creative, educational, and innovative events…. I wanted to help showcase the most prevalent issues of our community and to ultimately question whether Filipinos are able to achieve genuine settlement and integration into Canadian society,” he explained. 
The was originally going to be held two days before International Women’s day, but was later rescheduled. Still, the show’s organizers and participants hope to channel years of feminist history and mobility into their struggle. “We hope to basically ignite the feminist movement again,” Alarcon says. “It seems to have died since the ’70s and ’60s. We want to speak out against a policy that creates systemic racism, but we also want to create awareness in our own community.”  
Jillian Sudayan, who is participating in many aspects of the fashion show (including modelling), became involved as a member of the PWCQ and Kabataang Montreal, a Filipino youth organization. “Being a Filipino woman myself, I have witnessed and experienced many of these issues. My understanding of these issues has helped me to look forward and empower myself as a coloured woman. Many women’s lives have been so negatively affected by demands to work overseas to help the economic crisis in the Philippines, whether it be working as domestic workers, being mail-order brides, et cetera. The reputation of Filipinas affects not just those who are experiencing these issues first-hand, but it branches out to even those women who were not born in the Philippines, like myself,” Sudayan said. The show is sure to remind us that while some women are freed from domestic work in Canadian society, others continue to be imprisoned and exploited every day.

“End the Exploitation! March for Liberation!” will take place at Studio LEVIER (4525 St. Jacques) on April 3.