Love and Relationships

[DASH of SAS] Even after you leave, you are not free

Ana P. Santos

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[DASH of SAS] Even after you leave, you are not free
While lawmakers debate the subjective morality of ending a marriage, the grueling annulment process inflicts trauma on those trapped in loveless marriages

The courtroom looks a lot smaller than I remember. But, somehow, it seems cavernous in its emptiness. The lights give it a somber, almost eerie look. I remember it to be much more bright – no, blinding. Lit up by stark white lights that remind me of a police interrogation room. 

I am here to request a copy of the transcript of my annulment proceedings. It is the only reason why I would ever come to this place, after all these years. 

While waiting for the court officers to shuffle through a mountain of documents, I asked one if they could open the courtroom for me to take a look. The court officer, a nice, gangly government bureaucrat, politely declined, explaining that it was not allowed. The court was closed, and there was no judge assigned to this sala yet.

At my gentle insistence, he acquiesced. He could not possibly deny the seemingly innocent request of a smiling woman who probably reminded him of one of his aunties. 

He unlocks the door and I stand at the back of the room. I am uncertain if I would not have dared to enter further even without the court officer standing behind me. 

At the far end of the room is The Stand. I see them there.

The Judge in his black robe. Her in her white t-shirt, jeans, and grubby sneakers. 

Was she ever that young?

She doesn’t know. She can’t remember. Life stopped when she walked out on her marriage at 27. It took four years before she took The Stand. To testify at her annulment hearing. To defend her decision to end her marriage. To plead with the court to legally recognize her decision and set her free.

Those in-between years bled into days of living in a suspended state of not being married but still bound by the law to act as if she were still a married woman. The days were as long as the years. Everything was dark and confusing. 

On The Stand, she hunches in her nervousness. The Judge looms over her. He can smell her fear. 

He looks down at her from his perch and asks the first question, “So, what did you fight about?”

She blinks. Why does he sound like every annoying auntie and uncle wanting to know the lurid details of her marriage like it was gossip? 

She answers politely but he does not seem to like her reply. 

“Did you do everything you could not to anger your husband?” He asks again, becoming more insistent. She becomes more defiant in her agitation. 

From his elevated position, it is clear that this is not meant to be the questioning of a witness. It is an interrogation of a suspect, but she is already guilty. She is not a criminal. She is a sinner. And this is a public shaming.

She bursts out sobbing. She looks to her lawyer who is looking back blankly at her, but finds a sea of strangers staring at her. Some indifferent and bored. Some smug. Some astonished. All of them with their pity for her in their eyes.

The Judge looks away from her crumpled on The Stand, with disgust, with disdain. And something else. Is it satisfaction?

The Judge is dead now, they told me. After our heated exchange on The Stand, I lived in fear that he would deny my annulment. Paano na if that happened? I knew I would not have the money or the courage to go through that again. 

The Judge had died of COVID-19. How fitting that it was a plague that took him away. 

Did he suffer? 

I hope he felt his world closing in on him. Just as I did. 

I hope he desperately prayed to end his suffering. Just as I did.

I hope it was a slow and painful passing. Just as mine was.

Did he suffer? I wish…

STOP. You are not that person anymore. You have not been for a long time. 

“Ok na po? Hindi po actually p’wede ito. Kailangan na po isara. (Are you done? We can’t actually do this. We need to close the room now.)”

The court officer is still there.

Ah, oo. Ok na. Salamat ha. (Ah yes. It’s fine. Thank you.)”

The court officer closes the door and locks it.

The decades have dulled the pain but have not dimmed the memory.

Courtrooms are supposed to be sanctuaries to seek justice and the healing it provides. But in the Philippines, the only country in the world without divorce, courtrooms often serve as arenas for the public shaming of wives who dare to leave their husbands. – Rappler.com

Read the Rappler investigative series exposing annulment scams, fraud, and corruption in the judiciary in “The Annulment Business.”

Ana P. Santos is an investigative journalist who writes about the intersections of gender, sexuality, and migrant rights. She has a postgraduate degree in Gender (Sexuality) from the London School of Economics and Political Science as a Chevening scholar. DASH of SAS is a spin-off of the Rappler video series, Sex and Sensibilities. Follow her on Instagram.

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  1. ET

    Remember these words: “Courtrooms should be sanctuaries for seeking justice and the healing it provides. However, in the Philippines, the only country in the world without divorce, courtrooms often become arenas for publicly shaming wives who choose to leave their husbands.” If the anti-divorce Senators win, whether through voting or by delaying the process, this sad reality will persist, and many more wives will experience the same fate.

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Ana P. Santos

Ana P. Santos is an investigative journalist who specializes in reporting on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and migrant worker rights.