EDITOR'S NOTE: President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has recently been embroiled in controversy regarding cat calling a female reporter. This is not the first time the tough-talking president has been called out for disrespecting women.
Several of the president's supporters, however, brush off the issue by pointing out the incoming president's pro-women policies in Davao City. Weighing on in this issue is Sharmila Parmanand, incoming PhD in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies student at University of Cambridge and Gates Scholar. This is the view of the author and does not necessarily reflect the view of Kami.com.ph.
President-elect Duterte has been simultaneously hailed as a women’s rights champion and a misogynist. What gives?
As a feminist, I have come to accept that the battle for women’s rights is messy and complicated. We have to keep pushing for a new and better world while navigating the current social context to which we are tied. And so we pick our battles.
For example, during the struggle to pass urgent and overdue reproductive health legislation in the Philippines, some proponents emphasized that the RH law does not legalize abortion, but, in fact, reduces the need for it. This may reflect a genuine moral distinction between abortion and contraception or a strategic concession to secure more supporters among non-traditional allies. The abortion conversation is now being revisited.
We also sometimes find allies in unexpected places - religious leaders who preach against domestic violence; public officials who support access to artificial contraception because they think population management is essential to poverty alleviation; businesses that hire and promote women mostly because they think it is good for the company’s image; and people who condemn rape because every woman is someone’s ‘mother’, ‘daughter’ or ‘sister’.
In all of these cases, the actors involved may not share the same ‘ideological purity’ we have about women as inherently equal to men. The religious leader who condemns domestic violence may still oppose reproductive rights or divorce. The population management advocate may not appreciate women’s right to make informed and meaningful decisions about their bodies - even worse, his advocacy may fade when overpopulation is no longer a problem. Businesses that espouse gender equality primarily as a PR move may abandon it when there are no profit incentives, opting instead to cover up sexual harassment in the workplace and pass over women for promotion. Protecting women because of their relationships with men still upholds the patriarchal logic of women as male property, which is the basis of male control over how women speak, dress, and behave.
In short, all these allies who align with us for some issues may still threaten other goals that are also important to us. To me, this is an argument for caution, not outright rejection.
There are things Duterte has done that make me want to celebrate. And then there are other things that make me feel like women are in trouble under his presidency.
The good news
For instance, under Duterte’s watch, Davaoenos had access to free contraceptives even before a national RH law was passed. Davao was one of the first Gender and Development Local Learning Hubs certified by the Philippine Commission on Women, leading the way in developing best practices for other local government units to learn from. The Davao City Council passed the Women Development Code, an ordinance protecting women against discrimination. Notwithstanding a few overly paternalistic restrictions such as a ban on skimpy clothing for women in pageants, it offers a comprehensive, fairly progressive articulation of women’s rights and entitlements.
The Integrated Gender and Development Division, under the mayor’s supervision, built strong multi-sectoral partnerships for gender and development advocacy and even influenced budget processes. Davao’s 911 hotline receives and acts on domestic violence reports. The Davao City Government established Child Minding Centers for its working mother employees, later made applicable also to male parent-employees. Eventually, community-based Child Minding Centers were established to cater to parents not employed by the city government.
I also have massive respect for Duterte’s approach toward sex workers, which involves treating them with dignity and providing them with support instead of stigmatizing them.
All these efforts have tangible positive effects on women’s lives and credit must be given where it is due - both to Duterte and the Davao local government. I fervently hope these are institutionalized nationally.
Finally, given the Catholic Church’s track record of thwarting women’s rights in the Philippines by controlling educational institutions, shaping public policy, and holding public officials hostage, I think it is reasonable to say that a president who calls them out on their hypocrisy is, at the very least, indirectly, doing women a service.
The bad news
And then we have Duterte’s sexist macho language and behavior: he refused to respond to issues and questions from “lady candidates”, he joked about wishing he could have first raped a physically attractive dead rape victim, he justified a previous sexual harassment accusation by pointing to how the woman was so beautiful that it was impossible not to touch her, and he wolf-whistled at a female reporter who asked him a question. To add insult to injury, he has not properly apologized for these actions, citing his inherent nature and his right to free expression.
Regardless of Duterte’s intentions, his comments trivialize rape and violence against women. Wolf-whistling, which was defended by his spokesperson as a compliment and an expression of fondness, was a blatant and inappropriate assertion of his power over a woman. She was speaking in her capacity as a reporter and it was apparent that she sought an answer to her question. Duterte communicated that he did not take her seriously. To equate wolf-whistling with fondness is to tell females that they should seek affirmation on men’s terms. Should those who were unable to elicit a wolf-whistle feel less worthy?
He and his supporters have offered many excuses for his behavior - for example, his supposedly rough upbringing and unique Bisaya humor. I would suggest that sexism exists across all socio-economic classes and ethno-linguistic groups. Let’s call it what it is instead of insulting the poor or the Bisaya speakers.
Dancing with the Duterte
I support careful and constructive engagement with Duterte and his new team. At the same time, women’s rights advocates need to ask ourselves: Where do we draw the line between engagement and selling out? Between concession and cooptation? Between scoring some wins and significantly diluting your cause?
In this case, I would argue that Duterte supporters need to demand an apology and insist on more responsible language. It *is* possible to unequivocally condemn sexist actions and still support his presidency. It is not enough to acknowledge his mistake but still insist that we look at his “actions” instead of his “words”. Or to say that we need a doer, not a sweet-talker. Or that “political correctness” is overrated anyway. We need to set the bar higher. Words ARE actions. Words can make people feel unsafe. Words can redefine what is acceptable. His words will undermine his actions. Why would a rape victim report the crime if she expects agents of the state to act as their president does, making comments about her physical attractiveness?
No matter how many progressive laws we have enacted, we still live in a patriarchal culture that partially tolerates rape, shames victims, and imposes double standards on men and women. The gains we have made are so fragile - they can easily be undone by a president who unapologetically cracks rape jokes, blames victims for possible sexual harassment, wolf-whistles at female reporters, and dismisses ‘lady candidates’.
Duterte is no longer the underdog mayor fighting against the imperial Manila oligarchs. He signed up to be president, and he signed up for the power and responsibility that comes with the position. It is unacceptable to complain that he was ‘taken out of context’. The burden is on him and his team to always deliver clear and respectful messages, which is the mark of most great leaders.
If his actions can be interpreted as indicative of a low regard for women, he should apologize and make sure it never happens again. Even if he simply misspoke or intended to be playful, he must be held to a higher standard of accountability. He should demonstrate good faith along with this apology - sign up for gender sensitivity training, if necessary. If this is viewed as a call for censorship, then I am happy to ask the president to self-censor sexist language.
I would like to believe that he is sincere about serving the country and that sexism is not an essential part of his leadership anyway. Maybe he, too, has been unable to escape the patriarchal norms that unconsciously shape us. But if he wants all of us to buy into the change he brings, he must be willing to change his own bad habits. Finally, in the same way his critics must respect his mandate, his supporters must speak truth to power. Don’t stay silent and don’t make excuses for sexism.
Sharmila Parmanand took up her masters in Development Studies, specializing in Gender, at University of Melbourne. She is a former lecturer at Ateneo de Manila and University of Vermont and an incoming PhD student in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies at University of Cambridge. She is a three-time Asian debate champion and was Chief Judge of the World Universities Debate Championship in Berlin, Germany.