HIS joke starts with the generals. “The generals don’t even go to war anymore. They just call ‘OK, fight well’.” President Rodrigo Duterte is speaking before a roomful of military men and former communist fighters, of whom a good number are women. His joke hangs on an imaginary conversation between a general giving long distance orders to a subordinate in the field. He tells it in Visayan, in his boozy, bumbling old man’s voice. Duterte raises his hand to his ear and pretends to be speaking into a telephone. The audience titters. The President pauses, wipes his nose with the back of his hand, and the dialogue lurches on. “So how many dead? “Three.” Three?! Son of bitch! Make sure to get more than them. Are there women? Are they holding guns?” “Yes sir. Fighters. Amazons.” “Shoot them in the vagina.” Cue more laughter. But we haven’t yet reached the punch line. Here it is. The President directly addresses the women in the room. “The Mayor,” he says, referring to himself, “has a new order not to kill you. Just shoot you in the vagina. No more vagina, you’re useless.”
Duterte has confessed to being a womanizer. He boasts of a busy sex life: “I can’t imagine life without Viagra.” This behavior does not mean he respects women. Let’s be clear about this. Lechery doesn’t cancel out a deep-seated and profound callousness toward women.
Duterte supports the Reproductive Health Law and has ordered its full implementation. But has he done so out of a desire to give women control of their own bodies and decisions about childbearing? He seems driven more by his contempt for Catholic priests and their opposition to birth control.
Last month Duterte banned sending Filipino workers to Kuwait in response to reports of several women committing suicide. He loudly proclaimed his outrage. He asked the Kuwait government to improve working conditions and to safeguard Filipinos, as if it were their responsibility. He quickly organized the repatriation of all those who wanted to return home, by compelling the Chinese-Filipino tycoon Lucio Tan to lend out his airplanes. Then he read from a script. “Every unlawful physical injury inflicted on an OFW is an injury I personally bear as the head of this republic,” he said. “Every abuse committed to an OFW is an affront against us as a sovereign nation.”
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, whose defenses sound more tortured every day, wants us to see these actions as proof of the President’s priorities. This time Roque’s politicking is wildly off, and is exposed for what it really is, toadyish and unctuous. This once lauded human rights lawyer is now rightly reviled for being cretinous, hard-hearted and repugnant. Liezl Trus Hukdong was 33 years old when she died. Her corpse was returned home battered and butchered. She had been sliced open from her mouth down to her navel, her skull broken, and her chest cavity stuffed with rags. Her eyeballs, brain, tongue, kidneys and lungs were missing. Joanna Demafelis was 29 years old and had been missing for a year. Her body was discovered in a freezer in an abandoned apartment in Kuwait. She had been beaten and strangled.
The victims’ families want justice. Thousands of grounded OFWs need work. I don’t doubt the fact that Duterte was truly sickened by the reports. But beyond the usual band-aid solutions and indignant fulminations, he is clueless as to what else to do.
Duterte is a misogynist and his misogyny is imperiling the country. His countless disgusting, demeaning and disrespectful remarks toward women stem from the same malevolent, testosterone-filled mental cesspit that is spreading fear, enabling impunity and corroding our democratic institutions.
Just ask embattled Vice President Leni Robredo, who he trivializes and whose office he ignores. Just ask Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, whose office he harasses and threatens, or Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno who is fighting off impeachment, or Sen. Leila de Lima who is in jail, or Maria Ressa, head of Rappler, the online news site he derides as a “fake news outlet” and which is now charged with violating the constitution, or Loida Nicolas Lewis, the Filipino-American philanthropist whom he has accused of funding efforts to destabilize the government. Duterte has a problem with women, his sister Jocelyn has said. “He’s a chauvinist. When he sees a woman who fights him, it really gets his ire.”
Duterte’s “shoot them in the vagina” remark has dangerous consequences. In a statement De Lima issued to the press, she warned that the integrity and professionalism of the country’s armed forces would be compromised and manipulated. “They will… inflict the very same horrors that they have sworn to protect the state against.” She also warned that the President’s “brand of violence, brutality, and sickness” would become the “new normal.”
That point seems to have now been reached. When talk of sexual violence is passed off as jokey banter and elicits laughter, we’re at a disturbingly new level of desensitization, thinks the journalist Ana P. Santos. Whatever “traction our own #MeToo movement may have gotten has been muzzled by President Rodrigo Duterte,” she says.
Jhoanna Lynn B. Cruz, the award-winning writer from Davao also fears the effect of Duterte’s barrage of verbal abuse on our collective psyche. “I’ve been a feminist for 30 years, long enough to enjoy some gains of the movement as well as suffer its losses,” she reflects. “But today the Duterte regime has taken us back to square one.”
We buoy his popularity with our laughter and find excuses for his chilling lack of empathy, for his every assault on basic human decency. We cheer on his heedless regard for women and their right to dignity and respect. We enable Duterte and his cabal of self-serving suck-ups. Duterte may cast the nation into the abyss, but the real horror lies in our own moral regression.