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What if Trudeau, instead of Duterte, kissed the woman?

Rappler by Nina Somera 06 June 2018

A lot of people are cringing over Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s predatory kiss to a Filipino migrant worker during his official visit to South Korea. But what if it had been Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who kissed the woman on stage in front of the cameras? The crowd might have cheered even more.

Trudeau was adored as an APEC “hottie” during his 2015 Manila visit. His clean look, boyish smile, toned body, and gentle demeanor create a sharp contrast to our geriatric, unkempt, foul-mouthed, philandering, and hard-hitting head of state, whose bloody anti-drug campaign has left thousands dead. But would the Canadian PM’s hunkiness have made the act less predatory?

It is the sense of entitlement that permits people to act in a predatory way. Some younger and more attractive men have also been accused of sexual assault in North America, alongside Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Charlie Rose. But there was probably a greater sense of disbelief when names of charismatic men like James Franco and Matt Lauer came up.

This is the danger when we stereotype, much less disregard gender-based violence, its perpetrators, and survivors. And abuse is especially problematic when it happens in otherwise safe and fun contexts; when it becomes a spectacle juxtaposed with beauty, charisma, and humor; when it takes place unexpectedly in public spaces.

Undermining rights and culture

The cheers for Duterte were quite telling. A majority of Filipinos overseas voted for him, encouraged by his Dirty Harry approach as mayor of his hometown of Davao City. Those cheers were an indication of just how easy a single performance can undermine rights and culture. While reports claimed that Duterte asked the Filipino migrant worker beforehand, who could refuse a man on whose power one’s life literally depends? What options does she have if her employer maltreats her, if Korean authorities arrest her, and if the Philippine embassy ignores her calls?

Although 2.3 million Filipino migrant workers are responsible for at least $28 billion in remittances, they receive little assistance and protection from the Philippine government, even in times of crisis. In 2018 alone, the increasing number of deaths of overseas Filipino workers pressured the government to temporarily suspend labor migration to Kuwait.

As it turned out, Duterte never actually asked for the woman’s consent. He was overheard saying, “Are you single? Are you not separated from him? But you can tell him that this is just a joke?” The President was essentially asking whether her partner would give his consent as though she was his property.

Official statements legitimized the disturbing action of the President and the deeply regrettable message it sent to generations who will be able to view the clip and read the Palace’s explanation that “it was a playful act in the culture of Filipinos.”

Indeed, Duterte has violated the Philippine Magna Carta of Women, including several laws on women’s leadership, sexual harassment, and other forms of gender-based violence so many times.

Duterte’s view on women

He was candid in admitting that he viewed women as threats when they are placed in leadership positions. He defended, rather than apologized for, his jokes about rape. He announced with conviction that female rebels must be shot in their vaginas. No accountability has ever been exacted for these discriminatory statements.

Phillippine laws on women’s rights and gender equality took decades of organizing, advocacy, campaigns, and research that significantly drew from women and girls whose lives were destroyed by their partners, parents, relatives, and other people who were supposed to protect them. But it took just a minute or so for one powerful misogynist and his spectators to undo these gains.

Women’s spirits are broken as spectacles and cultures are turned against us. Now more than ever, we need to keep our guard up. 

Nina Somera is board member of Isis International, a southern feminist international network, and the Foundation for Media Alternatives, which runs angpangako.net, a data map that collects the stories of victims and survivors of extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration. She is a Coady Fellow on Global Leadership of St Francis University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.