[ANALYSIS] Contextualizing Sara Duterte’s courage

Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte has again been projecting herself as the younger, female version of her father President Rodrigo Duterte: bold, courageous, uncouth, uncontrollable. I say “again” because it’s hard not to remember that moment in 2011 when, in quintessential “Dutertista” manner, the presidential daughter punched a court sheriff in the face (not once but four times) for demolishing urban poor shanties in Davao City. I say “projecting” because it’s hard not to connect Sara Duterte’s high visibility these days to a Presidential run in 2022.

Since it’s international women’s month, I have been moved to ask what probably is on a lot of people's minds: What does it mean to be a “courageous woman” in politics? Is Sara Duterte the courageous woman leader that this country needs?  

Said question has become more compelling ever since Sara Duterte called another “courageous woman,” Vice President Leni Robredo, a “fake Vice President” with “fake courage.” The VP had claimed that honesty was a “huge factor” in determining a person’s integrity – obviously a criticism of Duterte’s pronouncement that honesty was not a requirement for candidates in the May 2019 elections.

The VP has also been known to have argued for “quiet courage” that she says has become a “rarity in these times.” But what exactly does "quiet courage" mean? Is the choice between "quiet" and "spoken" courage? Are we contesting ideas here or are we just pitting two women against each other?

Come 2022, the presidential race could, in fact, be between two women: Sara Duterte vs Leni Robredo. While it is premature to talk about the merits or demerits of choosing one over the other, it is not too early to discuss the fundamental dilemma of having two "courageous women" as presidential candidates: how do we choose?   

In this piece I argue that if we are to use the “gender card” in electoral campaigns, we should at least discuss the place of “gender” in (electoral) politics. What does being courageous in politics, as women, mean? 

Courage as dictatorship?

Dictatorship – particularly “strongman rule” – is making a comeback in politics all over the world. This is the fundamental context that we need to be cognizant of. Given the likes of Sara Duterte who obviously welcome strongman rule, are we to understand gender equality simply to mean the replacement of such a rule with “strongwoman rule”?  

I am not an expert on gender or feminist studies but this much I know about gender equality: it is not about “sameness” but about according the same value, and thereby the same rights, to both men and women.  A gender equal society is not one where women look, dress, talk, behave like men or vice-versa, rather, one where women are treated as seriously as men, that is, neither inferior nor superior to men.   

Gender equality is not about women becoming like men but about men and women reaching their full human potential. In this day and age where binaries are no longer sufficient to explain a variety of identities, the terms gay, lesbian, and transgender, in fact, have also to be configured into the notion of gender equality.  

We need to question ‘strongwoman rule’ if such is presented as a mere reflection of ‘strongman rule’.  From the vantage point of gender equality, the task is not to emulate strongman rule but to examine and critique it:  has strongman rule addressed the problems of social inequalities – including gender inequality – or has it exacerbated these problems?  

In this connection, we, as voters, have to challenge Sara Duterte as a woman offering herself as the country’s top leader:  is she simply intent on continuing her father’s strongman rule? Is she going to continue the drug war, the misogyny, the crackdown on political opponents? Does she have no critique at all of that kind of leadership? And what exactly is her vision of society?  

No doubt,  “Duterte” has become a political brand. Will Sara Duterte be challenging this brand or will she be merely offering the female version of it?  Will she be any different? And if yes, will the difference be positive?  

Courage is not synonymous with dictatorship or with being unilateral in decision-making. The link has been established in people’s minds, however, because courage and being dictatorial have been "performed" by the likes of President Duterte and Sara Duterte as being one and the same. Such performance has delivered favorable results, especially during elections. 

The courageous leader is now perceived to be one who will "eliminate drugs in six months" or "ride a jet ski to the middle of the West Philippine Sea carrying a Philippine flag.” In highly personalistic political systems such as ours, the “idea” of the courageous leader is what is most important. It doesn’t matter if reality doesn’t follow suit. It doesn’t matter that drugs have not been eliminated or that there has been no jet ski-flag raising ride to the WPS. What matters is that the notion that the courageous leader can and is willing to do all that is turned into a belief. 

Performance in politics is similar – but not entirely the same – as performance in show business. Both employ "acting" but the acting in politics is not just meant to evoke emotions but to mobilize, to move people into action. There is a power agenda involved as the task of the performing politician is to move people from point A to point B even if people do not want to go to point B.   

Thus, when Rodrigo Duterte says in dramatic fashion that "my god, I hate drugs," the desired result is for people to accept his drug war policy including the extrajudicial killings that go with said policy.  When Sara Duterte says that "honesty is not an issue in elections," the desired result is for people to vote for known plunderers and crooks.  

Leni Robredo's deficit

This is probably where the deficit of VP Robredo’s leadership lies: performance towards mobilization. This is probably why her "quiet courage" and laylayan narrative are not making a dent in the political landscape.

She is not mobilizing people where and when people need to be mobilized. While helping communities is a continuous task, the larger battle is in Malacañang, in Congress, in the Senate, in local government units, and VP Robredo is not seen as venturing into these arenas of battle. She has not been visibly mobilizing people to take action in these arenas. As a consequence, she is perceived to be playing safe rather than being courageous.  

It is not difficult to see that the VP is promoting the quiet courage of her late husband Jesse Robredo. The fact is, however, Secretary Jesse Robredo lived in a different political milieu where good governance was possible. The milieu today is de facto dictatorship where governance is being directed by a presidency bent on eliminating all opposition.  

To be the courageous woman leader that we need,  VP Robredo may have to do at least 3 things: she has to let go of the Jesse Robredo narrative; she has to create her own narrative, one that is suitable to the current political milieu and its challenges; and she has to "perform" her narrative to the extent that she is able to mobilize people.    

Courage as voice and collective action 

If we are to take the gender issue seriously, we should push both Sara Duterte and Leni Robredo to step out of the shadows of the influential men in their lives and become leaders by their own merit.  

Moreover, the situation is such that all of us are called to perform everyday activism and everyday heroism – to stand up against human rights violators in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our churches, our communities, our politics and in the larger society.   

I think the strategic task of female leadership is to create a critical mass of women that can sustain the struggle for gender equality in different arenas. Having a "woman president" will not be enough to transform society. This much we have seen in our history, having had two women already as presidents. The task now is to build and mobilize women’s movements, not just to elect women into public office. 

Viewing courage as collective action does not diminish the importance of individual agency. Politics is everywhere, given that power relationships are everywhere. Women have to make their voices heard in all of these relationships. The situation at hand calls for both personal and collective heroes.  

And who is my personal hero? Her name is Pia Ranada. She is a young journalist – only in her late twenties – who can stand her ground against dictatorial dirty old men. And this girl can also climb mountains, literally! – Rappler.com



The author teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University.