SHE TALKS PEACE: Women and Power

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 03 April) — We assume that when a woman is in power, she will be a champion of women.  Do you, dear readers, think it is true?  Are women politicians automatically champions of women’s rights and empowerment?

Dr. Aurora “Oyie” Javate de Dios and Dr. Socorro “Soc” Reyes, two vocal feminists, questioned that assumption during our conversation on “She Talks Peace.” Oyie and Soc pointed out that women leaders do not always fight for women rights. Women are not born with a consciousness of women’s rights, but are usually socialized with norms from their families, which can be difficult to transcend.  

Oyie shared that growing up in a conservative Catholic family, she was taught that marriage and motherhood was the future for a good Catholic girl.  She mused that women are probably influenced by their class and society – especially when they’re coming from very rich, elite, and politically influential families. Oyie pointed out that women are not born with consciousness of women’s rights. Women are groomed along traditional norms and values taught by our mothers and grandmothers. 

She recalled: “My grandmother was with us growing up and we had seven girls in our family.  We would have been a powerful party if we were taught that women’s rights were important to fight for.”  Instead, Oyie and her sisters were taught: “you better learn to cook, to clean, to do certain things appropriate for women, because all of you will get married and had better behave a certain way and don’t really socialize with the guys because that’s not good for decent women.”   She started to question those values when she went to college, as many of us in our generation have done.  

They gave examples of women leaders who did not fight for women’s rights.  Soc cited the track record of our two female Presidents, saying “not all women presidents are presidents for women.” She pointed out that during the administration of the late President Corazon C. Aquino, even though she is an icon for democracy, women’s reproductive and sexual rights were not really pushed because she was deferential to the Church who opposed any kind of family planning.  During the nine years of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Magna Carta of Women was passed and signed into law. But, according to Soc, “it’s one thing to sign bills into laws. It’s another to implement those laws,” frustrated that the Arroyo administration did little to support the implementation of the law.

Malaysian journalist Dina Zaman, my co-host, pressed on and asked: “Is it because for women, it’s more comfortable to work within a masculine framework, it’s nicer to be liked, instead of pushing against the grain?”

Male candidates are attacked during campaigns, but women are threatened in a very personal way, and that includes attacks on their whole family. Oyie said that women politicians are asked if they are neglecting their families and if their husbands are “under the saya.” Soc noted, “That’s the kind of climate female leaders must survive. So difficult. Alternatively, to compromise is easier. You can just be pliant, be quiet, look pretty, which is what’s happening in the halls of every parliament, women who parade around like a fashion show, because that’s what they’re good for, to look pretty, but I think no one has gone out to destroy those stereotypes except a few like Miriam (Defensor-Santiago), (Leila) De Lima. You can count a few that step up and say what needs to be said.”

Oyie believes that for women to enter politics and change the patriarchal system it takes a lot of courage, resources, and guts. She had asked local female politicians about the challenges they faced while campaigning. “They say your opponents will dig in your personal life, including sexual life, and spread rumors, misogynistic remarks against you, especially online.” Soc pointed out that during the hearings on Senator De Lima – where she was humiliated, harassed, and vilified – very few women legislators stood up for her. In fact, many joined in the ridicule. Rather than defend her, most were silent, and some were quietly sharing that they did not really like her. Did any woman leader say it was wrong to bring a senator’s sex life into the hearings?  I can’t remember.   And yet this was at a time when it was becoming okay for male government officials to publicly brag of sexual exploits.

And yet both Oyie and Soc are campaigning for greater women’s participation in politics. Given the trend towards a more authoritarian system, we see a rise in patriarchal politics.  They explained why they no longer obsess over numbers when it comes to women’s participation in governance but focus on quality over quantity.  Soc believes that women who embrace patriarchy, consciously or unconsciously, are the worst enemies of feminism.  According to Soc: “They are your biggest risks.”  

Soc, who has worked in women’s political participation for the past three decades, says that she is “already beyond numbers and getting women elected to office.” Even if they win, if these women are still influenced by patriarchy, they are the worst enemies of feminism. Beyond numbers, we must focus on the kind of women elected to office. 

Although they are disappointed that there are so few women vying for national office in the upcoming elections, they are hopeful with the campaign that Vice President Leni Robredo is waging. Both are impressed with the way people participated in the Robredo campaign, spending their own money and resources, recognizing that Leni is a leader who represents participatory, decent, and transparent governance.  They see hope in Leni, to usher in a style of government that is transparent and accountable, that can win back the trust and confidence of the people. 

Of Vice-Presidential candidate Sara Duterte who has publicly taken positions opposed to her father, Soc opined that she can be characterized as being more macho than her father. 

Come and eavesdrop on our fascinating conversation on women and power.

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(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro, peace, human rights, and democracy).