Written by Lyz Tab

On the 4th of June, President Rodrigo Duterte courted controversy for kissing a woman on the lips during a press conference. His actions were slated, with critics stating that they were inappropriate as the leader of a nation, and Filipino female activists expressing their dismay at his disrespect and misogyny. The women’s party Gabriela stated that his actions ‘makes sexual advances against women look right’, while Senator Risa Hontiveros claimed it was an abuse of power.

His actions could be said to reflect a country that has sexist beliefs and policies, such as refusals to legalise abortion and divorce, and imposing strict controls on contraception.

Respectability politics

One of the key reasons that 16.6 million Filipinos voted for him was his status as a common man. He spoke frankly and seemed to not hide behind political idioms. His blunt responses to other world leaders garnered praise and respect from an often internationally-belittled nation. He has charisma, inspiring devotion from his followers.

However, this support is a two-sided coin. His war on drugs has inspired many vigilantes to take the law into their own hands, often resulting in deaths with unexplained reasons and a lack of substantial evidence. Corpses have been found with nothing but “drug addict” written on a piece of cardboard, and there have even been reports of minors being caught in the crossfire. Despite all this, latest surveys indicate that 70 percent of Filipinos were still satisfied with him as president.

The aforementioned press conference is not the first time that he has acted inappropriately against women. Other examples include his recent disparaging comments against the capability of women in the police force. In particular, he questioned the appropriateness of women for police work due to their ‘prim and proper’ natures. Statements such as these reinforce beliefs that a woman’s rightful place is in the home.

Another issue with the press conference kiss is that Duterte and his supporters stated that it was just a ‘gimmick’. The president has often been slated for making light of women’s issues, as seen in his controversial jokes regarding rape. For example, he has made them towards Miss Universe, and more worryingly, towards women in the conflicted area of Marawi. He joked that soldiers in Marawi were permitted to rape ‘up to three women’ in martial law areas and that he would claim responsibility for it. It has been reported that women who sought shelter during the conflict were threatened by soldiers with rape.

Although he may see it as a joke, ordinary citizens could be inspired to act untoward women as seen by the actions of the vigilantes and the soldiers in Marawi. Not only that, rape survivors already have to contend with the misogynistic tendencies of victim blaming. Victims could be more unlikely to report rape if the leader of their country treats it as merely a joke.

Sexual Politics

Coined by Kate Millett in 1968, her ideas regarding politics and gender roles were originally seen to be radical but are pertinent to the Philippines today. In particular, Millett writes about how women are treated as objects of lust from a male perspective, and are often deemed unimportant. In a sense, it could be said that President Duterte’s actions – particularly the press conference kiss and the abuse of authority – reflect Millett’s descriptions of ‘sexual politics’.

The President receives a multitude of opposition from both men and women, and a substantial number of critics and politicians who have been imprisoned or ousted from their positions are female. This is not just in the political sphere. The women mentioned in the article are strong propagators of human rights, which Duterte is known to be a critic of.

Women such as former Secretary of Justice Leila De Lima, and former Chief Justice Sereno Maria Lourdes are some of his loudest critics. Additionally, they are some of the most prominent women in Filipino politics who happen to be strong advocates for human rights. Included in this list of female opponents is Vice President Leni Robredo, a lawyer and human rights activist, who recently faced a recount of the election results. The President has often undermined her in public, with statements made in May questioning whether she really was a Vice President.

Leila De Lima was previously the Chairperson for the Commission of Human Rights Philippines. She was also awarded the Prize for Freedom from Liberal International for her devotion to human rights, being the second Filipina to have won it after former president Corazon Aquino. She is currently imprisoned on charges of involvement with illegal drugs.  Other women who have been threatened with impeachment include Chief Justice Sereno, and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, with Sereno eventually becoming forced to leave her post.

Not only that, rape survivors already have to contend with the misogynistic tendencies of victim blaming. Victims could be more unlikely to report rape if it seems that the very leader of their country treats it as merely a joke.

Their strong support for human rights and vocal opposition could be the reason that the President threatened them with impeachment or removal. He does the same for other male critics such as Senator Antonio Trillanes, although he remains free for now unlike De Lima.

On another note, powerful Filipino women are not the only ones that he has disrespected or threatened with arrest. Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court’s Chief prosecutor was warned to avoid the Philippines due to the ICC’s desire to investigate Duterte’s Drug War. Another example occurred in April 2018, when the President ordered the arrest and deportation of an Australian nun who criticised his regime, although no legal charges were made. He also made inappropriate comments toward Christine Lagarde, the first woman appointed to be the Head of International Monetary Fund. Duterte stated he could change her mind with ‘a kiss’, reducing one of the most powerful women in the world into an easily swayed object of male attention.

The situation of Filipino Women

What do President Duterte’s attitudes mean for the current context of Filipino women? At present, one of the most prominent issues revolves around reproductive health. The Philippines has a steadily increasing population, in spite of the extreme levels of poverty. Many have called for an increase in sexual education, the availability of more contraception, and the removal of stigma against its use. Duterte has commented that he supports the idea of contraception, with the exception of condoms which he claims ruins the ‘feel’ of intercourse. With his ‘jokes’, comedic attitude and lack of seriousness towards an important issue, how can women rely on his support and expect any policies to change within his presidency?

As a whole, the President’s actions and remarks about Filipino women in politics casts doubt over their legitimacy. This may deter Filipino women to be critical of his presidency, or to enter politics. If the President does not see or treat them as equals, with his supporters clinging to his every word, we could potentially see a decrease in the participation of women in politics and the worsening treatment of everyday Filipinas.

Lyz Tab is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Department of Education and Social Justice at the University of Birmingham. Their work focuses on decolonising influence in the UK and the Philippines. Alongside academia, they are a dedicated activist, having taken part in multiple diversity campaigns and was a member of Stonewall’s LGBT+ BAME role model programme. Image Credit: CC from Wikimedia Commons

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