Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has drawn sharp condemnation from politicians and women’s rights activists after he asked a woman to kiss him on the lips, as hundreds of his supporters watched and shrieked during a public event in South Korea.
Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros on Monday said what Duterte did during his visit to Seoul “was a despicable display of sexism and grave abuse of authority”.
“Even if the act was consensual, it was the president, possessed of awesome, even intimidating power, who initiated it,” Hontiveros said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera.
“President Duterte acted like a feudal king who thinks that being the president is an entitlement to do anything that he pleases.”
The incident took place on Sunday in the South Korean capital during the first day of his three-day official visit. He was scheduled to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday.
At Sunday’s event, which was also attended by several senior Filipino officials, including the Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Cayetano, Duterte spoke about his administration’s effort to protect Filipino workers abroad.
Towards the end of his speech, he invited two women from the audience to receive a copy of a book critical of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.
“This will cost you a kiss,” Duterte said in Filipino. “Are you ready for a kissing scene? You watch out.”
The two women then approached the president on stage, and as a sign of gratitude after receiving the book, both of them kissed the president’s right hand, before attempting to leave.
But Duterte called them back, saying he wanted another kiss. The first woman gave him a kiss on the cheek and he gestured to the second woman to kiss him on the lips.
“Are you single?” Duterte was heard as saying before kissing the woman, who at first hesitated and covered her face.
In a statement posted online, the Gabriela women’s alliance said the kiss was a “disgusting theatrics of a misogynist president who feels entitled to demean, humiliate or disrespect women according to his whim”.
Lorraine Marie Badoy, the undersecretary for New Media and External Affairs for Duterte, said in a Facebook post: “Factor in his humanity, his feet of clay into all that greatness and in the end, the sum total is how he moves our country forward. That’s the kind of love I understand. And appreciate.”
— GMA News (@gmanews) June 3, 2018
In an interview posted on social media by a Duterte supporter, one of the women involved in the incident later explained that “there was no malice” in the kiss, and that the president had asked if she is single or married.
She recalled telling that president that she is married to a Korean national, and that they have two children, adding that she agreed to the kiss to “amuse the audience”.
There are an estimated 65,000 Filipinos living and working in South Korea, while there are more than 100,000 South Koreans living in the Philippines.
Duterte’s supporters defended the gesture, saying the women were not forced to kiss the president.
But Duterte’s critics described it “the height of impunity against women and against all of us.”
“Women are viewed as weak and as objects. Men are taught that it is normal to be aggressive and force themselves to women. It is toxic, cowardly, and dangerous,” Justine Raphael Luis Balane, spokesman of the political party Akbayan, said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
THAT KISS (a thread)
It hurts to read tweets asking why the woman acted in the way she did. Some even outrightly blame her for agreeing to be kissed on the lips by the President.
I understand though.
We need to examine what happened within the context of power relations.
— elizabeth angsioco (@bethangsioco) June 4, 2018
The Gabriela women’s group said that as a public official, Duterte is bound “by rules of ethics to explain his unruly conduct”.
“His repeated acts of machismo is meant as entertainment to hide the reality of his rapidly slipping popularity,” Joms Salvador, Gabriela’s secretary-general said, listing the issues Duterte is facing, including the extrajudicial killings and corruption allegations against government ministers.
Gary Alejano, an opposition member of Congress, said Duterte’s latest “stunt” sets “a new low standard for people in public service”.
“Duterte opts to spread misconduct rather than use his position to encourage a brand of service centred on dignity and good Filipino values.”
He also called out Duterte’s supporters not to tolerate Duterte’s conduct.
“They should be able to criticise Duterte’s inappropriate and wrongful actions, because when people start tolerating a leader’s offences, it becomes blind fanaticism.”
An online campaign has recently been launched by Filipino activists to call out the president’s “misogyny”.
In recent months he had made “sexist” statements against IMF chief Christine Lagarde, two United Nations human rights officials and Filipino female rebels. He also made a rape joke about the Miss Universe winner.
Palace officials have defended Duterte’s remarks, saying his off-hand jokes were meant to “entertain” his audience.