OPINION: On Senator Sotto, sexist language and how we can resist it

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What does Senator Tito Sotto’s “na-ano” comment towards Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo say about the language we reserve for describing women, sexuality, and motherhood? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor's Note: Marrian Pio Roda Ching strongly identifies as a feminist, and is a writer and editor currently based in the Bangsamoro. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — So many of the words Filipinos use for women are gender-specific words regarding sexuality and motherhood.

We say “putang ina” and its many derivatives with hardly any regard for what it means; also, “puta.”  We call women who become pregnant out of wedlock “disgrasyada,” while men are told that it is best to marry a “virgin.”

Meanwhile, we barely have negative and gender-specific words for men who engage in sexual promiscuity, whether perceived or actual. Nobody uses the word “puto” except to refer to steamed rice cakes, while “disgrasyado” is merely an archaic way of saying “unfortunate.”

In her paper, “Wika at Katauhang Babae: Mula Mito Hanggang Panahong Moderno” (2009), feminist educator Ruth Mabanglo writes, “names and labels are important in any society. In many instances, it can be proven that these are used in garnering of power and strength towards a selfish goal.”

We do, however, use words like “macho,” a word that implies virility and desirability, but then use “napikot” in a way that implies men are cornered by women into marriage, especially when the woman is pregnant. The implication includes the assumption that the pregnancy is the woman’s fault, and men are at the losing end of the situation.

But yesterday, given all these words, Senator Tito Sotto ended up describing Social Welfare and Development Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, a single mother, as “na-ano lang.”

Despite the crude language, it was no less kwan.

 

A light moment

In videos of Taguiwalo’s confirmation hearing circulating online, Sotto is heard saying, “just on the lighter side, Senator Drilon and I were looking at the personal information about you, and you have two children; daughters ba o sons?  Two daughters. But you’re single?”

“Ah, ha, okay, my life has never been a normal one. I never had a father-mother-children kind of thing except when I was growing up in Bacolod. Remember, I graduated from UP in 1970. I did organizing work,” Taguiwalo replied.

“From 1972 up to 1986, it has been a life underground or in prison. So, well, uh, my story would be different from the stories of those who have gone through, you know t... UP, a corporation, et cetera.”

Taguiwalo’s answer makes it clear that her history is not “on the lighter side.” She was an activist during the darkest days of our country in recent history, fighting against a dictator whose regime meant the deaths of those who dare dissent.

 

Woman’s resistance

And yet Sotto cannot let go of the punchline to what he will later describe as a joke; he refuses to let the moment assume its full weight.

“In the street language, uh, when you have children and you are single, ang tawag dun ay ‘na-ano lang,’” the senator said.

And then comes what is possibly the worst part of it all — laughter from the audience.

Satisfied with himself, Sotto then said “thank you” as if to conclude his performance, and went on to express support for Taguiwalo’s appointment.

But Taguiwalo is not done, and what follows is a moment of light, of fire.

“Okay, Senator Sotto. I teach women’s studies, so we respect all kinds of families and that includes solo parents,” she said.

Taguiwalo’s message is clear for everyone to hear.

Let us speak out against those who speak of women, especially single moms, with prejudice. Let us call out gender biases when it comes to views on parenting roles, and remind each other that it takes a village to raise a child.

The intersections of gender, class, and power

The senator, who incidentally is the chairperson of the Senate Ethics and Privileges Committee, embraces his male privilege so well but fails to grasp the ethics of his office. Not to mention that the language he so easily described as “street language” has nothing to do with being out on the streets, but had everything to do with the patriarchal system from which he benefits.

His classist and prejudiced perspective is not new to our country. We have heard government officials speak of the masses asserting their rights as rude, crass, inconvenient. But what has been said about a colleague who is sexist, classist, and has no regard for human rights?

That the Philippines is among the highest ranking countries when it comes to gender equality says more about the oppression and marginalization women around the world have to endure.

In Lilia Quindoza Santiago’s “Ang Pinagmulan ng Kaisipang Feminista sa Pilipinas,” she writes that while women have retained some of their strength from a pre-colonial history of being highly-regarded community leaders, our society is still largely patriarchal and colonial due to centuries of colonization we have had to endure as a nation. While women have gained socio-political rights, the subordination of women and dated notions of womanhood are still rampant in different aspects of Filipino life.

If we are second to none in Asia and rank seventh in the world and still have the likes of Sotto in the government, then imagine what it must be like for women in other countries.

 

A study in contrast

Sotto’s disposition is divorced from the reality of the people he’s supposed to represent. Based on data released by the Philippine Statistics Authority in March 2016, more than half of all live births in the country in the year 2014 were born to unwed mothers.

Meanwhile, Taguiwalo knows exactly what single mothers need and the legislative amendments that need to be enacted as a response.

In September 2016, the DSWD secretary has marked amendments to the Republic Act (RA) 8972 or the Solo Parents’ Welfare Act as a priority legislative measure in the agency’s legislative agenda for the 17th Congress. These include more benefits for single parents, ranging from seven days of parental leave with pay every year to discounts on basic social services to an additional personal exemption from individual income tax amounting to ₱50,000.

RA 8972 was passed 16 years ago.

At least six bills seeking amendments to RA 8972 have already been filed in the House of Representatives, while three similar bills have been filed in the Senate — none of which have been authored by Sotto.

 

The language Senator Sotto so easily described as “street language” has nothing to do with being out on the streets, but had everything to do with the patriarchal system from which he benefits.

Points of unity

In March 2016, Taguiwalo said, “batid kong napakahirap ang maging isang solong magulang kaya dapat ding tumulong ang mga komunidad at ang pamahalaan na gumaan ang kanilang kalagayan.

Dapat ding mawala na ang ‘stigma’ o marka ng kahihiyan sa mga solo parents na karaniwang nagiging mga biktima ng pang-aabuso at pag-alipusta,” she noted.

Sotto and other legislators would be better off listening to Taguiwalo, and so would we.

If there’s anything we should have learned by this time, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all family setup that ensures well-adjusted children that can survive the toughest of times. Instead of judging single mothers, our time and energy is better spent protecting single mothers and their children, making sure that they are not left behind.

Let us speak out against those who speak of women, especially single moms, with prejudice. Let us call out gender biases when it comes to views on parenting roles, and remind each other that it takes a village to raise a child. Let us fight and change the system that makes single parenthood all the more difficult, instead of condemning single parents and leaving them to fend for their children’s lives and rights themselves.

Together, let us assert our right to quality healthcare, livable wages, and decent housing. If we feel so strongly about the rights and dignity of single parents, let's take part in the collective struggle for rights and dignity for all.

At the end of the day, what matters is whether or not a family matches our personal and preconceived — possibly also privileged and prejudiced — notions. What matters is that our government responds to the need of the oppressed, marginalized, and powerless, instead of nang-aano lang.