[OPINION | Dash of SAS] Why Pia Cayetano’s defense of Duterte is personal

Ana P. Santos
[OPINION | Dash of SAS] Why Pia Cayetano’s defense of Duterte is personal
Her refusal to again denounce President Duterte's reprehensible language and constant debasement of women was not only disappointing, it was disgusting

During one of the heated debates on the reproductive health (RH) bill when policymakers (mostly the men) were in a squeamish and incredulous tizzy about including the phrase ensuring “a safe, satisfying sex life” in the law, Pia Cayetano was calm and unfazed. 

With just enough tacit snark, Cayetano asked her fellow lawmaker, “Well, what kind of sex life would you like to have?”

Cayetano voiced out what so many women wanted to say: they had a right to decide over their bodies and enjoy those choices. She did what so many women wanted to do: graciously tell off a man and properly put him in his place. 

She wasn’t slut-shamed for it either. Opposers of RH law did not try to dismiss the public health and social justice issues that are at the core of the RH law by zeroing in on the heathen pursuit of pleasure. (The late senator Miriam Defensor Santiago was on the same level, but that is a whole other story altogether.)

As senator, Cayetano personified the dignified and gracious comeback to the crippling double standards that have stalled women’s advancement in the workplace and their right to body autonomy. 

Her educational pedigree was evidence that a woman can be both attractive and intelligent. She spoke candidly about her personal sorrow like her failed marriage and the death of her son, and utilized her personal experience to understand the plight of others, especially mothers. She deflated the perception that a women’s rights advocate is merely a bitter man-hater. Her measured responses like the one during the RH debate showed that a woman can be unwavering in her stand without being a bitch or a bully. Her advocacy of a healthy athletic lifestyle was the icing on the cake of her well-rounded image. 

As senator, Cayetano had the elusive qualities of being both aspirational and relatable.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, when Duterte cracked a joke about raping an Australian nun and catcalled a reporter, Cayetano’s silence was at first quizzical. 

As her brother, Alan, was running as Duterte’s vice president, Cayetano was understandably put in a tight corner. But still, many hoped that as a legislator whose political career was  built on advancing women’s rights, Cayetano would offer a sensible and enlightening perspective. 

Auspiciously enough, it was at a women’s conference in March 2017 that it became clear that Cayetano held Duterte to a different standard.  

A young woman from the audience asked how she could advocate for women’s rights and stand up for herself in light of President Duterte’s violent rhetoric. Cayetano answered by going into a long-winding singsong response about how “boys will be boys.” She gushed in her defense of Duterte, saying she “loved him to death” and people shouldn’t pay too much attention to his words but focus on his actions.

Full disclosure, I was one of the 5 women on that panel along with Cayetano. It was an awkward moment when I, along with another panelist, challenged Cayetano’s position. After, I spoke to the young woman who posed the question and she admitted that Cayetano’s response was confusing and more than that, disappointing. 

Cayetano was silent

To fully understand why, we must take into context the series of events that had unfolded around the time that women’s conference took place. Duterte was already president, and the public was exposed to his profanity and toxic masculinity on a near-daily basis. At the time, his target was Senator Leila de Lima.  

Building on Duterte’s relentless vilification, De Lima was charged with drug trafficking, and congressmen slut-shamed De Lima on nationwide television with despicable glee. Details of her personal life were laid out and devoured like tabloid gossip. An alleged sex video of De Lima was to be exhibited as evidence. Women’s rights activists were enraged and banded together to protest the attack on De Lima’s reputation. It was blatant sexism and harassment. The women succeeded in blocking the viewing of the alleged sex video and started the #EveryWoman movement. But De Lima was still arrested on drug charges and remains in detention to this day.

Cayetano was silent throughout the De Lima episode.

Listening to Cayetano defend Duterte at the women’s conference was like watching someone shed their principles while trying to mask it with demure and flippant justification. 

President Duterte has not changed his rhetoric since then. If anything, he has become more graphic and violent like when he told soldiers to shoot female rebels in the vagina because they are nothing without it. During the Marawi siege, he encouraged soldiers to rape 3 women and he would “take care of them,” implying that they could do so with impunity.  

It reaffirmed what we already know. As President, Duterte’s words carry the weight of marching orders. They have the power to sanction the environment under which they are carried out. 

Duterte’s words also affirmed his character of being a sexist misogynist. His actions like kissing a Filipina migrant worker on the mouth during a visit to South Korea reinforced it.  

Rappler reporter Paterno Esmaquel II asked Cayetano about that kiss when she filed her certificate of candidacy for another run as senator.

Cayetano refused to answer the question by saying that she could not speak for the President because she is not his spokesperson. When pressed for her own opinion as a self-professed women’s advocate, Cayetano again refused to answer, insisting that her track record could speak for itself. 

Cayetano is not Duterte’s spokesperson but during her tenure as senator, she had successfully and effectively positioned herself as a spokesperson of women’s rights.  

Her refusal to again denounce Duterte’s reprehensible language and constant debasement of women was not only disappointing, it was disgusting. And it carried with it a tinge of hurt and betrayal. 

Cayetano may have refused to answer the question, but by now, she does not have to.

The message came across loud and clear. Cayetano’s championing of women’s rights from a position of solidarity and understanding was more a matter of political strategy and convenience rather than principle. – Rappler.com