The President recently aroused public reaction by equating the essence of a woman to a functional vagina.
In front of more than 200 former communist rebels, the President said, “Tell the soldiers, ‘there is a new order coming from mayor. We won’t kill you. We will just shoot your vagina, so that… ‘If there is no vagina, it would be useless. Earning grins and applause, Duterte presented an augury of declining women’s value and hinted the authorized hostilities against all Filipinos with slits.
Women are inalienably important and Duterte needs more education on women’s rights. It will help him raise doubts about his unremorseful sarcasm, jokes and insults darted at women. It will establish his presidency as demonstrating a cultured and sensitive approach to women. And if these reasons come to him as too abstract, impractical and corny to be appealing, attending a women’s rights course may prevent the President from further embarrassing himself and the country.
But how should a course focused on women’s rights be organized? Topics emphasizing the irrefutable worth of women to society may well make for an introductory course.
Why Women Matter: An Anti-Liberal Account
An established womanizer, Duterte earned his first machismo infamy with the rape joke about an Australian missionary. This is part of Duterte’s honesty – the lewder, the better. His variant of misogyny is so proper that supporters find it amusing. It appears that without this occasional prejudice against women, Duterte’s manhood is incomplete; his Presidency losing intensity. This is women’s importance albeit in a nonplussed sense – a performative trope that is anti-pluralist.
Despite its practicality for Duterte, it instills an inappropriate outdated morality that decades’ old women rights movements have been striving to invalidate. It normalizes a behavior that is repulsive for its dangers in conditioning Philippine society’s attitudes and perceptions about women – a distasteful departure for a country known for satisfactory gender equality and for a tradition of strong women leading institutions, organizations and families.
In Women under Italian Fascism, author Alexander De Grand describes how fascist policies shape the roles of women. Fascist and authoritarian societies assign women positions of limited function and practicality. The pre-modern and feudalistic expectations effectively confined women to familial and household chores. A life of dependence and vulnerability condition them to accept their positions and value in society as inferior, subordinate and marginal. The relegation is outright exclusion of women from the people that matter. Women become unqualified to be ‘authentically and morally represented’.
The Disparate Capability of Women to Defend Democracy
Women have made significant and transformative achievements in politics. However, complete political parity is a work in progress barring the indispensable contributions of women in advancing development and protecting democracy. Women-hating was never a thing of the past; there is an on-going struggle against gender hierarchy. It accounts for the convenience of performing the systematic ostracism of women like the President’s nonchalant derogation of women.
We are known to have the smallest gender disparities in Asia Pacific, we have had two women presidents and we have a democracy that allows women to hold official positions though dynastic and clientelistic. The President even stated that women are heroes during the 2017 celebration of International Women’s Day. Are we just overreacting with the President’s innuendo committed against women? Or should we settle it as acceptably part of Duterte’s blatant criticisms and attacks against the New People’s Army?
However, the supposed safe societal positions and situations of women are very elitist or if not, too middle class in orientation. The bourgeois-inspired and modern depiction of women as rich, beautiful and powerful would have to reckon with the realities of women struggling against the patriarchal constraints and cultural hindrances on political, economic and social participation enormously felt in regions far from imperial Manila. This is where the pun becomes an issue.
Political Economy of Disrespect for Women
Women’s contribution to society has evolved from the colonial depiction of a nurturing and devoted mother or wife consigned to do household chores, to support the husband and to guide the children. Now, women have been entrusted transformative and public role assumptions which were traditionally exclusive for men. Irresponsible comments against women may not undermine the generational struggles and victories that have been achieved. However, it may exacerbate the norm of disrespect for women.
The Magna Carta of Women (RA 9710) upholds gender equality as pivotal in redressing productive resources and economic opportunities. Women bashing by the President provides justification for delaying reforms of political and social institutions that will preserve and forge through women’s autonomous interests. Institutional constraints on economic empowerment and associational participation of women erode insulations against discrimination, repression and marginalization.
A democracy absent of strong safeguards for the rights and liberties of women is risky. The trend towards populism, of anti-pluralistic variant, produces outcomes that will exclude the interests and influences of women. It will exacerbate the cycle of unresponsiveness by the government to gender-based violations of political and economic rights. The vulnerability of women takes a turn for the worse. Inevitably, they become conveniently subjected to malign and disrespect.
Expectedly, Duterte is not one to mince his words when it comes to talking about women. In fact, using women as a thinly disguised populist performative device or as subdued mnemonic to how fundamental misogyny is to his projection of leadership account for the charm that made him President. He is who he is; indelibly in his DNA. It is a tough call attempting to change the constitution of Duterte’s persona. But he still has his good side that women can engage. It is a shot worth trying.