Machismo isn’t quite what it used to be. Backlash and hashtags now hold politicians accountable for their so-called locker-room talk in much of the world. Yet the Philippines remains a glaring example of how men use language and law to try to emasculate opponents and maintain power.
At first glance, Filipinos do well in terms of gender equality. We beat the United States in having a female president by at least 30 years. Our nation has one of Asia’s highest percentages of women in government. Women on average receive more schooling, and their life expectancy leads men’s by almost seven years. This year Filipinos even elected our first transgender congresswoman — a milestone anywhere.
Our male leaders, however, belie those achievements. While the Philippines officially aspires to egalitarianism, being a woman can still be a liability and misogyny is still an effective weapon in politics. That happens around the world, but in the Philippines that hypocrisy is worsened by our endemic inequality.
In my country, any kind of privilege cultivates impunity, the church influences the state and dynasties control an overwhelming majority of elected positions. These factors help institutionalize sexism and patriarchy into public policy.
It took more than a decade of vicious debate before the Congress passed a law in 2012 to help provide poor women with reproductive health care and contraception. One of its most vociferous opponents was Senator Tito Sotto, whose popular TV variety show features scantily clad dancers. “Reproductive health in the context of a true Filipina does not pertain to safe and satisfying sex,” Mr. Sotto said, as he tried to strike a provision from the bill. “When a true Filipina speaks of reproductive health, she means family, marriage, responsible parenthood, nurturing and rearing her children.”
Such domineering hypocrisy, paired with the political pull of Christian groups, also explains why the Philippines is the last country, aside from the Vatican, where divorce is prohibited. Many wives remain stuck with husbands who hold power and purse strings.
Our penal code even treats with particular leniency murders committed by “any legally married person who, having surprised his spouse in the act of committing sexual intercourse with another person,” kills those involved. The male possessive pronoun is telling, especially since the law also protects parents who kill “daughters under 18 years of age, and their seducer.”
The rights of homosexuals also remain controlled by macho politicians. Senator Manny Pacquiao, most famous for his boxing, has declared that “if we approve male on male, female on female, then man is worse than animal.” Other leaders readily disparage gay people to suit their agendas. Teddy Locsin Jr., the Philippines’ new ambassador to the United Nations, once derided those seeking to refurbish Manila’s decrepit airport as “homeless gays” bemoaning the lack of “kneepads in restrooms.”
How do our leaders get away with all this? Patronage politics ensures their immunity from their own offending words — and from much worse.
Congressman Romeo Jalosjos, for example, received a double life sentence for raping an 11-year-old girl. Yet from behind bars he won re-election twice. And the president commuted his sentence in 2009 — after only 13 years in jail.
Similarly, President Joseph Estrada, in office from 1998 to 2001, celebrated having many mistresses. His 2007 life imprisonment for corruption resulted partly from investigations into the mansions he provided them. He was quickly pardoned by his successor, to assuage pressure by his supporters and relatives in government. Mr. Estrada is now mayor of Manila.
Our new president, Rodrigo Duterte, seems to understand well how machismo and chauvinism can be spun as populist proof of shared veniality. This septuagenarian boasts of having two wives and two girlfriends, and his love of Viagra. He harassed a female reporter during a news conference. He infamously bantered about raping an Australian missionary.
All that is dismissed by Mr. Duterte’s supporters as proof of his authenticity, innocuous wit or frankness about the West and its values. Some prominent women’s groups even back him because of his laudable initiatives when he was a mayor. He established laws against harassment and discrimination, distributed contraceptives and is said to have spent his own money on lawyers for battered women.
Yet, he, too, has no problem playing on gender biases for political ends.
Recently, an opposition senator, Leila de Lima, led an investigation into the thousands of murders committed during Mr. Duterte’s drug war. The president described Ms. de Lima as “immoral” and an “adulterer.” He said that he had seen a video of the senator having sex with her driver, who, he alleged, was her link to drug lords.
That declaration titillated the nation. Like insecure schoolboys in the locker room, Mr. Duterte’s allies gleefully followed his lead. One congressman seconded the president’s remark that the video made him lose his appetite, adding that it was a “horror story” featuring “ugly performers.” Another congressman said: “The male performer is good.”
No charges have been filed against Ms. de Lima, and the video was debunked as showing a look-alike. Yet the tactic was the dirtiest of many that succeeded in discrediting her opposition to the president.
Such willingness to exploit gender for power has an insidious influence. Filipinos now emulate the methods of our leaders, with women all along the political spectrum threatened online with rape and criticized for their sexuality or their gender as a way to impugn their opinions. The perceived weakness of women remains an easy target.
In the Philippines, as elsewhere, our leaders pretend that they’re like the common people. That is their greatest lie and failing. Most are better educated, all enjoy enormous privileges and few lead by example worth following.
Mr. Sotto once blamed a contestant on his TV show for having been raped. “You were wearing shorts,” he scolded her, “but still you went and did shots?” And after Mr. Duterte spoke wistfully about not being first in the gang rape of the murdered Australian missionary, he shrugged off the outrage. “This is how men talk,” he said.
That may sometimes be true, but Mr. Duterte is also our leader. He, and all those we empower, should finally act like it.
Miguel Syjuco, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the novel Ilustrado and a professor at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi.