Opinion

Duterte Era to Women: Put Up or Shut Up

Has government embraced a policy of undermining the authority of women elected into positions of power?
ILLUSTRATOR Sasha Martinez
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During the public commemoration of the third anniversary of Typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban City, President Rodrigo Duterte publicly criticized the length of Vice President Leni Robredo’s hemline, joked about checking out the Vice President’s legs, and asked her about rumors that he claims to have heard about her “love life.” The President defended his objectification of the Vice President, saying it was necessary to “make people laugh.” Vice President Robredo herself dismissed the matter, saying that, although the remarks were inappropriate there were “larger and more urgent issues we confront as a nation”—mainly, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow former President Ferdinand Marcos to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Shouldn’t we take the President’s conduct toward Robredo more seriously? During his state visit to China, the President was accompanied, not by Robredo, but by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who had lost the vice presidency to Robredo and currently occupies no government post. The son of the dictator, Marcos Jr. has a pending electoral protest against Robredo. In China, the President told an audience of Filipinos in Beijing that if Marcos, Jr. wins his protest, “maybe we’ll have a new vice president.”

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To be a woman and occupy public office is to have one’s body parts ogled at by the other men in the room, or be dismissed as a joke. To be a woman in public service is to risk having one’s private life being trotted out and discussed salaciously if you say something out of line. The message is: put up or shut up.

Likewise alarming is the manner in which government is conducting its investigation into Senator Leila De Lima’s alleged links to the drug trade. The ongoing investigations in the House of Representatives, where President Duterte’s party has secured a “super majority,” are an embarrassment and an outrage. At last Thursday’s hearing, congressmen asked demeaning questions focused on De Lima’s personal affairs and private life, and not on her alleged drug links at the New Bilibid Prison.  We must not forget that it was the President himself who announced that he had a sex tape of Senator De Lima and a former member of her staff. Nor should we forget that this announcement was preceded by a Senate probe on extrajudicial killings, which De Lima had initiated as chair of the Senate Committee on Justice.

All these suggest a pattern of behavior that demeans women to undermine their presence in the public realm and ultimately, exclude them from it. To be a woman and occupy public office is to have one’s body parts ogled at by the other men in the room, or be dismissed as a joke. To be a woman in public service is to risk having one’s private life being trotted out and discussed salaciously if you say something out of line. The message is: put up or shut up.

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Sadly, the highest leaders of the land, appear to have modeled this behavior all too well.

Last November 18, several young women and girls who protested the burial of former President Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani were targeted by netizens supporting Marcos, Jr., and those who supported President Duterte, who had ordered the burial to proceed. These supporters reposted the women’s photos with lewd and lecherous comments, many expressing the intention to commit sexual violence—all because the women had dared to express an opinion contrary to theirs.

At least one of the men has apologized, and his view of the situation is instructive. Interviewed by ABS-CBN News, “Gerard” blames the number of lewd comments left by other men on the photo of the women in question for his action. “Parang na-carried away ako sa dami nang nagko-comment nang bastos.”

One need only scroll through the offensive comments to feel the palpable glee with which Gerard and other commentators reply to each other’s salacious commentary—each anxious to describe what they can and will do to female bodies. The exchange is an occasion for Gerard and the others to reassert and reaffirm each other’s masculinity.

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The challenge, therefore, is for women in politics to claim and defend their space; resist the attempts to exclude and coerce them into silence; and with their allies, imagine how the current order can be otherwise.

For this reason, Gerard does not appear to have given the young woman in the photograph—her intentions, thoughts, and feelings—much thought. “Di ko [nga] siya kilala eh,” he says in a post apologizing for his behavior.  On the one hand, this seems to support the proposition that Gerard did not really intend to hurt the young woman in the photograph. Hence, this is a relatively insignificant matter, one that can be corrected by a simple resolve to do better next time. “Isipin mo muna ang sasabihin mo, iko-comment mo, bago mo i-post,” Gerard advises. His resolution? “Magbe-behave na po ako.”

But this is no simple matter. What is at stake, ultimately, is a social order preserved through masculine dominance.  Any increase in the power of women and of LGBTQ that challenges male privilege and the patriarchal state will likely be met with violence—violence that is made possible by gender relations. It is the same violence that is deployed so that the current order  of dominance and subservience might continue to exist. The challenge, therefore, is for women in politics to claim and defend their space; resist the attempts to exclude and coerce them into silence; and with their allies, imagine how the current order can be otherwise.

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Christine Lao
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