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Can Mother of Young Kids be President? Roque's Miss World Q&A Sparks Outrage

It's more than sexist, analysts and netizens say.
by Ara Eugenio
Oct 4, 2021
Photo/s: Miss World Philippines

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque trended overnight  through Monday, drawing flak over his "sexist" question during the Miss World Philippines pageant.

Although he did not name anyone, Roque was specifically referring to a certain survey "frontrunner" for the 2022 elections, asking whether that potential candidate, who is a woman whose children are still very young, should run for the presidency.

“The frontrunner in all the surveys for the post of President is a woman. If she were to ask you, should she run for President even if her children are very young? What advice would you give her?" was Roque's exact question. 

Candidate no. 6 Shaila Rebortera of Cebu Province, who ended up winning the Miss Multinational Philippines title, responded by saying that modern women are strong and brave in different ways, and that they are also capable of becoming president while they are mothers. 

"In the modern times right now, a woman is strong and brave in different ways. Other women are strong and brave because they sacrifice their career for their family. And if our candidate would like to pursue becoming a President despite sacrificing time for their family, in exchange of serving the Filipino people, then I would definitely support that," Rebortera had said.

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Roque's question sparked outrage online, as netizens accused him of being sexist and misogynistic.

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Because first of all, where did that question come from? No man would ask that same line of questioning if the tables were turned, and the survey frontrunner being referred to were a man. Roque would not have raised that question as well, if it were a beauty pageant whose candidates shared the same gender as his. 

Politics is a man's world, at least, based on how traditional gender dynamics have it. The world has fallen victim to such view for so long until today, where men still hold majority of public offices despite the fact that women are equally, if not more capable, as argued by experts during the pandemic.

While women indeed embody traits that are opposite to men's typically "autocratic" personality, which has long been perceived as ideal when it comes to politics, women's "interpersonally-oriented" style that embodies democratic and participatory leadership turns out as more effective in managing a country, especially one that is in crisis. 

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of women presidents across the world, including Germany's Angela Merkel, New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern, and Taiwan's Tsai Ing-Wen have stood out for their relatively successful handling, compared to the hypermasculine and tough approaches of male leaders like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, then-U.S. president Donald Trump, and the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte. 

Often cited as the most notable example of this is New Zealand's prime minister Ardern whose open and empathic approach to addressing her constituents during the health crisis has made the Pacific country as consistently one of the best places to be in during the pandemic. Ardern is currently raising a toddler, who she gave birth to in 2018 and earned her the recognition of being the first world leader to take a maternity leave while in office.

In the Philippines, there's Vice President Leni Robredo, who is a widowed mother to the three children she shared with the late interior secretary Jesse Robredo. Despite the opposition being outnumbered in the current administration, she has been lauded many times for her capability to serve despite meager resources and her lack of a cabinet post.

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The bigger context of Roque's question

But Roque's question is a lot trickier than it seems, as the blanket response it generated defended all women, even when in reality, they aren't monilith and as with men, it matters to elect the right kind of women.

The way Roque phrased his question had the candidate defend survey frontrunner Sara Duterte-Carpio, the daughter of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte who is, of course, his boss.

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"I cannot really say that it means a lot for us to have these women presidents and vice presidents. I cannot say that we are at par, or we should be regarded as achieving quite a lot just because we’ve had them," political scientist Jean Encinas-Franco earlier told reportr, explaining how while compared to countries like the U.S., the Philippines has seen more success when it comes to electing women to the highest offices of the land.

The country has had Presidents Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Vice Presidents Arroyo and Leni Robredo. 

"You also have to think about whether they were elected based on the fact that they were women," Encinas-Franco had said, noting that Aquino and Arroyo were both products of nepotism in Philippine politics and did not really carry genuine women representation as advocacies in their campaign. 

For women politicians, appearing masculine tend to become necessary for them when in office to curry wider acceptance from the electorate. For instance, when her legitimacy was being challenged, Arroyo had to appear tough so she could "institute" a strong republic, donning power suits and fatigues, stiff hair and a poker face that journalists covering her just had to deal with. 

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The late senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, often dubbed as the best president the Philippines never had, was a tough one herself with her moniker of being Asia's "iron lady", a title she shared with her idol, Britain's longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, Margareth Thatcher. 

"Ang nangyayari, even when women are elected into office, they have to mimic the manner in which men lead, the standard which people are accustomed to," Encinas-Franco said, noting that in Sara Duterte case, "people will expect it from her, to act and lead like her father should she ascend to power". 

"We cannot assume that women in power will look after women's interests, because even the concept of women's interest is fragmented," sociologist Nicole Curato also told reportr before, noting that it's not enough that gender is used to determine whether or not a woman is capable of running. 

In the end, there is no doubt that Roque's question was sexist -- the anger it generated among people warranted as, of course, doubting a person's capability to lead on the basis of sex is a long-outdated concept.

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But given how his question was framed and the mileage it got from people who may or may not have intentionally defended the president's daughter, now tipped as his successor, whose political interests did the outrage end up benefitting? 

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