Let Us Attack Our Sexist Culture, Not Just Duterte

If we are really serious about women, we must go beyond attacking leading presidential candidate Rodrigo R. Duterte for his sexist remarks and behavior. We must also attack our sexist culture that shaped Duterte and all of us.

Duterte is a feminist’s worst nightmare. I cringe every time he plays his macho, womanizer role to the hilt. Yes, I say play a role because I know he only acts that way when he has an audience and nothing thrills him more than teasing and shocking people. Outside of the spotlight, however, he actually respects women and treats them as equals. He is a champion of gender equality and is strongly against any form of discrimination.

If Duterte is not serious about women, Davao City would not be the most outstanding local government unit in gender-responsive governance under his leadership with many landmark pieces of legislation and trailblazing programs protecting and promoting women’s rights and welfare. Duterte has ushered in many groundbreaking changes that improved the status of women more than any national or local leader in this country. Of course, he could not take all the credit for that. It’s largely because of Davao’s strong women’s movement. But, at the very least, that just goes to show that he listens to women and takes their advice.

But Duterte is also definitely a big flirt. It is his default mode when he sees women he is attracted to. But, as far as I know, he does not harass, coerce, abuse or take advantage of women. As a lawyer and government official, he knows he will be violating the law doing any of that. And as a “macho” man, he thinks it is an insult to his masculine pride if he needs to resort to coercion and violence to “get” a woman.

As a feminist, I would say that Duterte is definitely sexist and the criticism against his sexist remarks and behavior is warranted. But I would not go as far as to describe him as someone who hates women (misogynist) because that is definitely inaccurate. Duterte’s sexism is the type that is not hostile to women, but rather benevolent towards them. He does not insult women, but he compliments them based on stereotypes. He is what we would call a benevolent sexist.

The Ambivalent Sexism Theory distinguishes between hostile and benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism is an attitude that treats women as subordinate to men (dominating and controlling them); being of lesser value (having derogatory beliefs about them); and mere objects (thinking they exist just to serve and please men). It is the more common sexism we often see and hear about. Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, is an attitude that is subjectively positive (for the sexist) towards women in stereotypical roles such as the idealization of women (putting them on a pedestal, worshiping them); protective of women (keeping them safe, doing things “for their own good”); and desire for intimate relations (focusing only on their attractiveness and desirability for sex).

Many of us are guilty of having sexist thoughts, making sexist remarks, and exhibiting sexist behavior. And we are not even aware of it most of the time. A person is described as sexist when he or she discriminates based on gender and exhibits attitudes, conditions, and behavior that promote stereotyping based on gender roles. We live in a sexist culture. That’s how we’re socialized since birth. We take it for granted and accept it as “normal” and “natural” that it is a “man’s world” and “women are the weaker sex.” We were taught that at home, in school, in media, in church, in business.

Patriarchy — the social system that insists that males hold primary power and control —  is so institutionalized and internalized that we never challenge it. Under this system, we equate masculinity with power, privilege, and entitlement, including power over women and entitlement to their bodies. To be a man in this culture means you have to be dominant, in control, tough, aggressive, violent. Duterte is a product of this patriarchal culture so he defines being a man as such. And I think many of us define masculinity the same way without realizing that such thinking promotes inequality and injustice.

When we subject men and women to different set of standards (usually referred to as double standards), like a man who has many girlfriends is a stud while a woman who has many boyfriends is a slut, we are being sexist. Even our seemingly “gentlemanly” acts like opening doors for women, offering our seats to women, and protecting women can be perceived as sexist when they come from the belief that women are too weak to open doors or stand or keep themselves safe. When we characterize women as “more gentle, more compassionate, more nurturing” than men we are promoting sexist, stereotypical thinking. Both men and women can be all those things; they are human qualities, gender has nothing to do with it. When we insist on assigning the color pink for girls and blue for boys, we are being sexist. When we label toys such as toy guns and robots “for boys” and toy home appliances and dolls “for girls,” we are promoting gender stereotypes.

When we describe women as “beautiful and sexy,” that is sexist because we highlight only women’s physical appearance and attractiveness like that is the only quality women are good for. That is why when Duterte was asked why he would make vice-presidential candidate Leni Robredo his “assistant president” and he replied “because she is beautiful” (“kasi maganda siya”), that is definitely sexist. Robredo is an accomplished lawyer, legislator, and community leader. By making that remark, Duterte reduced her to someone who would get the job only because she looks attractive to him, not because she is competent, skilled, experienced, and, to quote Robredo, “the best woman for the job.”

I believe the recent sexist remark Duterte made while narrating how he responded to a rape victim years ago mostly stemmed from his attempt to describe just how desirable and attractive the victim was. He was actually complimenting the beauty of the woman and he was lamenting the fact that it’s such a tragedy it happened to someone so pretty (again, very sexist to think a woman is only valuable if she’s physically attractive and, perhaps, implying that it would be less tragic if the woman had been unattractive). That he added “dapat mayor ang nauna,” even as a joke, is totally offensive and unnecessary. And he deserves to be criticized for it. But did he mean to make rape as a joke? That may be debatable especially in the light of the fact that the rapists were killed (I don’t think that looks like he treats rape as a joke).

Duterte is only guilty of being a sexist, not a rapist. His remarks and behavior may promote gender stereotyping, but not rape culture.

Well, at least, Duterte is not a hypocrite. And he knows how to acknowledge his limitations and mistakes and to apologize for them when warranted. It means that he is open to constructive criticisms and he listens to the people (Exhibit A is Davao City’s outstanding gender-responsive governance, despite having a sexist mayor). Those are good traits to have in a leader.  Obviously, he has a long way to go in terms of his journey towards greater gender sensitivity and his understanding of how patriarchy influences his sexist comments and behavior.

The good news is sexism, because it is learned, can be unlearned. Duterte might argue that he is too old to change at 71. But if he wants to lead us in bringing about real change in this country, he has to learn how to liberate himself from sexist thinking.

So let us start helping Duterte by making this a teachable moment. Let us all challenge the patriarchy and attack our sexist culture, not just him.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, April 21, 2016