[Dash of SAS] For Duterte, sexism is a political strategy

The latest display of sexism from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has him saying that a woman is not fit to be president because “the emotional setup of a woman and a man is totally different.” Duterte made the comment in reference to his daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, topping a recent survey where the public voted for their preferred candidate for the 2022 presidential elections. 

The Philippines has had two female heads of state. Corazon Aquino from 1986 to 1992 and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from 2001 to 2010. Both rose to power by overthrowing the sitting (male) president through a popular uprising.

Duterte is notorious for his rambling rhetoric that is often peppered with vulgarity, expletives, and antiquated sexism. His comment sparked a fury of global indignation – and rightfully so. However, the Duterte presidency reads like a masterclass on how to apply 1950s sexism (when Duterte came of age) as a mind game strategy to play on people’s emotions and generate a desired political outcome. In this case, his political goal seems to be to position the younger Duterte in the public radar in preparation for the 2022 elections.

Reuters reported that in response to her father’s comment, Duterte-Carpio declared that she does not intend to run for the presidency. “If the whole country does not want to believe (this) then I can’t do anything about it. Not everyone wants to be president. I am one of them,” said Duterte-Carpio. 

Netizens have reacted to Duterte-Carpio’s issues of denial with skepticism, saying that coy denials were the same political tactic her father had employed in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. Back then, in response to the call from his supporters to run, Duterte had announced that he was going to retire from politics and issued numerous denials – even calling for press conferences to announce that he was not running for the presidency. Duterte filed his candidacy a few months before the presidential elections. The play of suspense, media buzz, and online support catapulted Duterte to victory as a reluctant candidate who acquiesced to the public clamor for him to run.

Duterte’s statement that the presidency is not for a woman sets the political race in his daughter’s favor in two ways. First, by projecting her as an ambitious daughter whose aspirations are clipped by an overbearing father, she is recast in a familiar Filipino cultural trope and stokes sympathy and affinity. Secondly, it also softens Duterte-Carpio’s own tough image (she once punched a village official for not honoring her request to postpone a demolition), which often works against women courting the public’s approval – and votes.

Richard Heydarian, political analyst and author of the book The Rise of Duterte, recalled how Duterte used his presumed hesitation to run for president to promote his candidacy. “This is classic Duterte using overdramatic constant denial and feigned reticence to precisely promote a preferred political outcome. Now, he is deploying a similar reverse psychology to present his (Sara) Duterte as the most viable option to succeed him,” Heydarian told me. 

Indeed, it has become Duterte’s personal fetish to continue his family’s political dynasty that he started as mayor of the southern Philippine city of Davao for more than two decades. His son, Sebastian, a surfer who once disavowed political life, is second in command to his sister as Vice Mayor of Davao, and another son, Paolo, is Congressman. His Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo has floated the idea that Duterte may run as his daughter’s Vice Presidential running mate. Under the Philippine Constitution, presidents have a six-year term but cannot run for re-election.

Sexism as both weapon and political maneuvering

Beyond the indignation over his inflammatory rhetoric, Duterte critics must focus their righteous anger to see past Duterte’s braggadocio. Duterte is an expert political strategist who has wielded optics, incendiary language, and public sentiment to craft the “tough guy” persona that won him every single election he ran in, silence critics, and punish those who dare to question his policies – especially if they are women.

Duterte jailed his staunchest critic, Senator Leila de Lima, after she initiated a congressional inquiry into his drug war that has killed thousands of mostly poor young men suspected of being petty drug dealers. Taking their cue from Duterte’s lurid comments about De Lima’s appearance and personal life, his allies turned congressional hearings into a men’s locker room and exposed the details of De Lima’s private relationships to link her to illegal drugs. Three years later, De Lima remains in detention on flimsy but unbailable drug charges. 

Duterte has wielded sexism as a tool to discredit and intimidate women in government, in media, and in grassroots community activism. He is relentless in his criticism of Vice President Leni Robredo, once saying that he invited her to cabinet meetings to see her in a skirt. Recently, after soaring trust ratings reflecting the citizenry’s appreciation for Robredo’s initiatives to the dual emergency of the pandemic and catastrophic flooding, Duterte warned that he would make 2022 “a nightmare” for her should she run for the presidency. 

While tempting to say that Duterte needs an upgrade on gender politics for 2021, this is an overgeneralization. As Shebana Alqaseer, co-founder of the Young Feminist Collective, told me, “Making the same argument by saying 'all women are good leaders' is as wrong as 'all women are bad leaders.'"

As we move to pick up the pieces left by an economic uncertainty and social chaos the world has never before known, world leaders will be judged by their capacity for humanity and empathy as we reimagine development, social justice, and equity under our new normal. The core of leadership is character – not gender. And most certainly not who your Daddy is. – Rappler.com

Ana P. Santos writes about gender and sexuality issues. This column is a spin-off of the Facebook page, SexAndSensibilities.com, Inc (SAS). She is currently based in London and on hiatus from journalism to pursue graduate studies in Gender & Sexuality at the London School of Economics and Political Science as a Chevening scholar.