PHILIPPINES: Is the #BabaeAko Movement Really About Duterte?

PHILIPPINES: Is the #BabaeAko Movement Really About Duterte?
Photo Credit: Zena Bernardo / Coalition for Justice

What you need to know

The #BabaeAko movement grew out of anger with the misogyny of President Duterte - or so we thought. Many Filipino women resent efforts to politicize their struggle for equality.

“They didn’t show interest in me when I offered a free tattoo session because I am a woman. And one tattoo equipment seller didn’t sell his machine to me because he didn’t think I deserved it because, again, I am a woman.” – Roxanne Araniador, 30, tattoo artist

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ignited a global controversy when he kissed Bea Kim, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW), on the lips at a June meeting in South Korea. Back home, about 1,000 women took to the streets to protest Duterte’s misogyny in a rally organized by a powerful campaign called #BabaeAko #LalabanAko, or ‘I am a woman. I will fight back.’

However, Kim, the woman with whom Duterte shared a kiss, told the government-run Philippine News Agency that there was “no malice” in it and she was happy because “it’s a once in a lifetime experience.” In fact, her husband, a Korean national, was there, sitting in front of the stage.

The ideology of feminism has always made for rancorous debate in the Philippines. Men tend to look down on women out of a belief that girls should stay home and take care of the family. Men, concerned that familial structure might be undermined if women were to carry out greater societal responsibilities, originally disagreed with the idea that women could step out of the house and stand on equal ground.

But despite these deep misogynistic undercurrents, the Philippines has long been recognized for a promising tradition of high-level gender equality. The country had its first woman Supreme Court Justice in 1973, Cecilia Muñoz Palma, followed by two consecutive female presidents: Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The #BabaeAko movement traces its roots to a governmental controversy. In May, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, a frequent drug war critic, was unceremoniously ousted from her position. Days later, Duterte flippantly remarked that he did not want a woman to replace Sereno. Out of the ashes, #BabaeAko was born.

Despite its political genesis and its frequent branding as anti-Duterte, a #BabaeAko representative told The News Lens this movement is not about politics – it is simply a matter of fighting for the voice of women.

And, indeed, many women still struggle to experience unfeigned economic, social, personal, and emotional equality in the Philippines. Many are still victims of sexual abuse, falling into the hands of cold-blooded perpetrators.

“I trusted him. My family knows him, and I treated him like he was my Manong (older brother). The next thing I knew, he forcibly undressed me. Yes, he tried to rape me. What’s more disheartening was when his brother also attempted to do the same thing to me.” – Anne, 34, entrepreneur

Human Resources Director Chary May Bacong, 34, believes that women have gained empowerment in society – although she admits it can be a drag sometimes.

“Women nowadays are empowered … [but] there are still too many who are left behind,” she said. “Working women who are feeling the burden of wanting to be at par with the rest, but just can’t step up. Women who are struggling emotionally and wanting to feel the freedom of trying to let others see their worth, of trying to know their purpose. Women who openly say they know what they can do but have apparently failed to assert their rights.”

Some women, said Bacong, “still want to be frail and believe that harassment, both emotionally and physically, is still a sacrifice for love.”

Photo Credit: Zena Bernardo / Coalition for Justice
Women's rights advocates hold signs in support of the #BabaeAko movement at the June 12 #HINDIpendence Day rally. Despite its political genesis, many women see #BabaeAko as transcending politics.

The #BabaeAko campaign is agitating against misogyny in the Philippines, so it comes as no real surprise that the country’s president feels personally targeted.

Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go said in statement that the #BabaeAko movement is “clearly political” and “to say that President Duterte is not pro-women and looks down on women is truly unfair.” He added that the President has created programs for women’s rights when he was the Mayor in Davao City such as the Women Development Code as well as the Integrated Gender Development Division.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque added that several women were given key posts in the government, such as Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, acting Social Welfare Secretary Virginia Orogo, and Election Commissioner Socorro Inting. Roque believes Duterte’s recent remarks on women only echo his frustration over the fallout from Sereno’s ouster.

But when female advocates hear Duterte’s trusted aide and his spokesperson proclaim that the president is pro-women – and contrast this with, say, his on-stage shenanigans in South Korea – all they feel is a swift kick in the teeth.

The #BabaeAko campaign is the brainchild of the Coalition for Justice, a multi-sectoral organization in the Philippines that defends the Chief Justice, and came to fruition with support from the influential women's coalitions World March of Women and GABRIELA Philippines. The movement was formed shortly after Duterte declared he was not interested in having a woman replace the departed Sereno as Chief Justice.

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Zena Bernardo, a representative for the campaign, told The News Lens that they decided to form this organization to encourage women that they must speak up because “we are not ‘just’ women, we are women.” The group – which is composed of lawmakers, journalists, activists, as well as a former Cabinet member – set off the social media campaign with the hashtag ‘#BabaeAko Lumalaban” (I am a woman, fighting).

Bernardo added that the movement must have damaged the Chief Executive’s ego because Bong Go responded to it shortly after the campaign went live on May 20. She denied that the campaign is political. “I am not from the red (leftists), not even from the yellow (the Aquino political family). We are an independent group,” she said. “Oo, babae ako. Anong problema mo?” (Yes, I am a woman. Do you have a problem with it?)

She said that the group, which has been named among TIME Magazine’s 25 most influential people on the internet in 2018, has been brainstorming to make the campaign move creative. There will be more protests taking place soon, including one of the biggest events they have planned during Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 23.

Bernardo said that they plan to march on that day, urging women to wear their favorite female superhero costumes. “This is going to be interesting and fun at the same time,” she said. “It’s like a cosplay rally.”

Photo Credit: Zena Bernardo / Coalition for Justice
Women's rights advocates march in support of the #BabaeAko movement at the June 12 #HINDIpendence Day rally. For some Filipino women, #BabaeAko is about more than the misogyny of President Duterte.

Of course, many women in the Philippines believe they are competent and skilled enough to do the same things as men. And many insist that the President’s unsolicited comments on women do not reflect on their abilities to soar high.

“Women are being treated equally in my workplace. I can’t think of an instance that there was a gender gap throughout my employment. In fact, our director is a woman, which proves that women are as powerful as men.” – Genevive Gorpido, 31, government employee

In the milieu of feminism in the Philippines, women have enjoyed gender equality, especially when Filipino culture and standards are considered. Case in point: the Filipino women’s right to vote and run for office has been well-practiced since the 1930s, when more than 400,000 women voted directly in favor of women’s suffrage.

The Philippines’ low rate of gender disparity casts it as a country of strong women, especially when compared to its Asia-Pacific neighbors. Filipino women excel academically, financially, and at the highest levels of government. Many mothers have shed their traditional expectations and seamlessly juggle work and home life. Several BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) industries in the Philippines have placed women in the highest position, which is the precise target of a movement like #BabaeAko.

“What men can do at work, women can definitely do the same. It’s just the same with business. Women are creative, and as a baker, I believe we have an edge.” – Andrea Mae Gabales, 31, device analyst and baker

For some women, #BabaeAko is not a movement opposing President Duterte’s alleged misogyny. Instead, it is a device to uplift Filipinos of both genders, and to enshrine the protections for women guaranteed by the Philippine Constitution.

Elizah May Llera, 33, a banker and entrepreneur, said that for her, the campaign was not exclusively for opponents of Duterte. “I consider this movement as a women’s contribution to their fellows to rise even better despite the whistling noise that some people make against the government,” she said.

Llera believes that women are well-respected, especially in her workplace. “Women deserve the respect that they need as we are one of the biggest cornerstones in the success of society,” she said. “As a female entrepreneur, a banker, and a single mom – everything is not easy, but because women were born to be survivors in all aspects, I believe that there is nothing we can’t do.”

Educator Johanna Thompson, 43, also expressed an optimistic view. “Based on my observation as a high school teacher for 15 years, feminism in the Filipino classroom is very strong. Gone are the days when girls were looked down as the weaker sex. School kids, both males and females alike, are now enjoying an era where there is equality in both sexes.”

Photo Credit: Zena Bernardo / Coalition for Justice
Filipino women protest behind a police barricade in front of the Manila Post Office at the June 12 #HINDIpendence Day rally.

As the world watches the #BabaeAko campaign, it would do well to remember its composure of thousands of unique, distinct voices who may not march in lockstep political agreement but are bonded through a shared struggle for empowerment.

Anne, who was abused by a close male confidant, has not lost hope in men, especially as the person who rescued her was her ex-boyfriend. (To protect her family, Anne requested that her name be changed for this story.) Although she is still terrified when she thinks of the past, she has moved on with her unwavering beliefs that noble men still exist these days. With her resiliency, Anne is now a successful restaurateur.

Araniador, who struggled to gain recognition as a tattoo artist, resigned from her job as a nurse in a public hospital to focus on tattooing. She now has a sturdy client base and is one of the most famous artists in her area.

When asked whether women deserve the same work responsibilities as men, Thompson snapped back, saying: “Women are now empowered, and whatever tasks or responsibilities that were once delegated to men can now be expected from women.”

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TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall