They say the Philippines is one of the best places in the world to be a woman. It ranks high up there, alongside European countries, in terms of opportunities in the workplace. The gender gap is narrow, relatively, because there are numerous women in influential positions in business, government and civil society, including the academe and the media. Did we not have two women presidents already, and was not the last man standing in the just-concluded vice presidential race, herself, a woman?
Despite these nominal gains, any woman living in the Philippines would know that genuine gender equality is still imperfect. The truth is, there remain stumbling blocks, mostly in the way people think, that make it difficult for women to assert themselves and achieve their full potential.
For example, being ambitious is definitely a virtue in a man, but when a woman is ambitious, there is an implication that it is synonymous to selfishness. A driven woman would not allow anything to get in her way, and this goes against the convention of being caring, nurturing, and self-effacing. A working mother is seen as always compromising her duty to the family.
When a married woman engages in an affair, she is branded as a whore, a bad woman, whereas men would normally brag about such conquests. Even the law makes a distinction between women who commit adultery and men who engage in concubinage. Likewise, a single mother is looked upon as kawawa, damaged goods, whereas men who bear children out of wedlock have proven their virility.
Educated women enjoy the privilege of knowledge and access to information. They are able to question and challenge norms, and assert what it is they want for themselves and for their families. Those who do not know any better, however, are preyed upon by an entire society telling them to serve their husbands, subordinate their needs to his, accept everything he has to dish out—be it unwanted sexual advances, the prospect of more children even when they cannot afford to raise them under decent standards, and verbal and physical abuse.
And if the woman refuses to accept the hegemony, she is branded as proud and arrogant. “Ayaw pasakop.”
Finally, there is the matter of rape and harassment. There remains a prevailing thought that a woman somehow asked for the violation she endured, by the way she dressed, talked, walked, conducted herself.
It is against this backdrop that more than 15 million Filipinos elected the loquacious mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte. The President-elect who says he abhors hypocrisy has never denied multiple amorous relationships with women. At various points during the campaign, Mr. Duterte has been known to stop and kiss a woman from the crowd, much to her surprise, fear or disgust.
Subsequent incidents have added to the notoriety. Candidate Duterte said he had wanted to be the first in line to have raped an Australian missionary in 1987 even as he emphasized he had punished the men who had actually raped and killed her. And then just this week, he whistled after a female reporter asked him a question at a press conference, and then two nights later denied he was whistling because of her. In the same event, other men—and, horrors, even some women—found the gesture amusing.
Apologists were quick to insist that these were taken out of context and that the next President’s whistling showed he was fond of women.
Many will continue to be indignant at Mr. Duterte’s “fondness” of the opposite sex. After all, women are not asking for any special privileges or preferential treatment. That is exactly what gender equality and sensitivity are NOT about. What we ask for is respect due any human being, to be acknowledged for our contributions, to be recognized for our strengths and to be treated without condescension.
There are several things a man must not get away with doing or saying. The struggle has always been real for women in this traditional, still-patriarchal society. A Duterte presidency raises the stakes and compels us to never let our guard down.