Rape and the "othered" woman
By Gina Mission

She is Karen Vertido, 42, married, mother of two kids, and, until her rape on March 29, 1996, a successful career woman. Being raped, she said bitterly between sighs of fury before a group of women advocates, was not a choice. She was forced to it. And even if she was the victim, she got the raw part of the deal. Between her and her rapist, she is the "bad" person, the "whore", the "adulteress", the "extortionist", as the media in her own hometown of Davao have called her. In the words of French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, between her and her rapist, Karen is the "othered" woman.

   It was Beauvoir who first discussed the concept of "other" in relation to women. In her book, The Second Sex, she talked about how, other than those that are so blessed by man, everything else fades to insignificance. This, Beauvoir wrote, is indicated in the common use of "man" to designate human beings in general. "You think thus and so because you are a woman," is a classic manifestation of this "othering" process according to the feminist.

   Such statement, Beauvoir continued, leaves the woman in a defensive mode and say: "I think thus and so because it is true." While seemingly logical, such declaration, she argued, removes the subjective self of the woman from the argument. She has to go beyond just being a woman, to assert herself. On the contrary, the author added, it is totally out of question to reply: "And you think the contrary because you are a man," for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity. He is it; the woman is the "other".

   "Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him…She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is he Absolute – she is the Other," Beauvoir wrote.

   This concept of women as the "other" operates at different levels in Philippine law. Or so Atty. Evalyn Ursua, executive director of the Women’s Legal Bureau, said in her keynote address, The "Othering Process" in the Legal Profession: Implications on Women’s Rights Advocacy. She delivered her speech at the recent weeklong First Alternative Law Conference: Lawyering for Public Interest held at the College of Law of the University of the Philippines, Diliman campus.

   The "othering" in Philippine law, Ursua said, manifests in at least four ways: in the construction or definition of legal rules according to the generic male standard; in women being considered as the deviation from the norm and thus have subordinate rights or status; in the construction of women and their sexuality from the male point of view; and in the trivialization in law of women’s concerns, issues and activities.

   "The authority in law is male – whether the character be of a male lawyer, a male judge, a male legislator, or a male litigant," Ursua said.

   For instance, only four of the 24 senators are, and 25 of the 206 congressional seats, are women. Women comprise only roughly 18 per cent of the total judges and justices in the entire judiciary. In the Supreme Court, only two of the 15 justices are women. As of February 1999, no woman sits in the Shari’a District Court and Shari’a Circuit Court.

   With this composition, it is not surprising then, Ursua concluded, that men’s values and ideas dominate legal discourse. "Their court decisions and legal commentaries define legal theory. All the erroneous assumptions about women in law are male assumptions about women. Their priorities define the legislative agenda," said Ursua.

   In the case of People vs. Novales, (102 SCRA 86) for instance, a woman was abducted by three strangers who poked a bladed weapon at her nape, hustled her into the back of a waiting Mercedes Benz, and took her to a house where she saw two other men – believed to be a servant and a friend of the owner of the house. Her abductors raped her in succession. But a male justice, Ramon Fernandez, ruled that that the failure of the rape victim to escape from or plead with her rapists could only mean that she gave her full consent, and that she prostituted herself.

   Another male justice, former Chief Justice Enrique Fernando, ruled in the case of People vs. Agripa (130 SCRA 185) that "the crime of rape is not presumed. Consent and not physical force is the common origin of the acts between man and woman."

   Yet another male justice, Joshue Bellosillo, in what Ursua considered as "the most sexist statements in recent jurisprudence coming from the Philippine Supreme Court," in 1997, opined in the case of People vs. Salarza (277 SCRA 578), without even citing data, that: "Experience has shown that unfounded charges of rape have frequently been proffered by women actuated by some sinister, or ulterior, or undisclosed motive."

   Given such male orientation of the country’s legal system, it is not surprising then, that Beauvoir had to talk what she was talking about, and Vertido had to bear truth to her words in the process of living through the consequences of having been raped. And living to tell about it.

   Vertido was the executive director of the Davao Chamber of Commerce (DCC), which won the "Most Outstanding Chamber of Commerce" under her leadership in 1995. In March the following year, Jose Custodio, a very wealthy and politically influential man in Davao, who also happened to be the past president of DCC, raped her.

   It has been three years and eight months since the rape, and Vertido has come to realize that legally, it would have been a lot easier to prove her case if she had been killed that night.

   In her speech, Ursua talked of the classic rape victim doctrine in law: the "young-innocent-unfamiliar-with- the-ways-of-the-world-probinsyana," and the "struggle-until-you-die-scream-shout-at-all-costs-and-look- like-death-and-cry-all-the-time-after-the-rape" victim. In jest, Ursua said that all law students know these doctrines by heart while the practicing lawyers cite these all the time.

   Speaking before the forum, however, Vertido defies all imaginable stereotypes of what a rape victim should be, including the legal doctrines Ursua mentioned. Articulate, well-educated, and strong, she narrated her ordeal to the audience, during and after the commission of the crime.

   "As if the initial act of rape were not enough devastation, I was subjected to public ridicule, humiliation, psychological lynching. There was a lot of skepticism and incredulity about my charges of rape that led a lot of people to say all sorts of slander and calumny about me," she narrated.

   When she returned to work, the environment that seemed so much a part of her before suddenly became hostile. Within a month, she was asked to resign. But even before that, a man had been hired to replace her, with a starting salary offer double than hers.

   "Why was that?" she asked. "Again, the answer falls back on my ‘otherness’," she answered herself.

   "I could not have been raped because I was not the shrinking violet, the mahinhin lass, the Olive who’d cry, ‘Help Popeye, help!’ at every turn," she said between suppressed tears and sarcastic undertone.

   It didn’t help that Custodio’s three lawyers were all men. The hearings, Vertido said, generally last for about six hours each day, and on the average, for three consecutive days each week.

   "I was grilled for five hearing dates, by three men on the defense, one after the other in cross-examination. As if that were not enough, I was recalled to the torture throne to withstand another six-hour day as a hostile witness during the presentation of the defense," she recounted.

   Adding insult to injury, according to Vertido, is the Davao media who were very hostile to her. "There is something so perversely satisfying for some people to kick a dog when it has gone down," she said in analogy. "It seemed that journalists and broadcasters forgot about impartiality and objectivity when reporting. I was called a whore, an adulteress, and an extortionist in one breath."

   With all her brains, Vertido didn’t really have to go through all these. She didn’t have to suffer while Custodio is out on bail, free, and unmuddled, unridiculed. But she had to, because she desired to see a world that is more accommodating to ‘the other’.

   "For the sake of my daughter and yours, and their daughters," she said. "To me this is not an ideal situation with standards that can be scaled down with negotiations. It is a prerequisite to any kind of development that must be attained for survival. This is not negotiable," Vertido declared, the "othered" woman.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.11.18