V-Day is a global movement to end violence against girls and women. On or around Valentine’s Day, activists around the world annually launch creative events to raise awareness, fund raise, and to energize anti-violence groups. V-Day’s most ambitious campaign came in the form of One Billion Rising, launched on its 15th year anniversary on 14 February 2014. Today, a world class performing artist from the Philippines, Monique Wilson, serves as its global coordinator.
In a recent interview, Monique Wilson provided insight as to what drove her to be an activist for women. Like most, she grew up exposed to violence, primarily through her father’s abuse toward her mother. At the outset, I said that women empowerment involves more than just spotlighting the issue, it requires a celebration of women who have moved the needle in the the right direction in our effort to eradicate violence against girls and women. This entry is stepping out of flow and sequence to give specific thanks to women like Monique Wilson, Karen Vertido and several others who have used their talent and personal tragedy to do just that — bring us closer to ending violence against women.
Exposure to and experiencing emotional and physical violence affect individuals differently. Some get utterly consumed and destroyed by it. Others triumph. Oprah Winfrey comes to mind. She was brutally raped at 9 years old, sexually abused from 10 to 14, pregnant at 14, and lost her baby after two weeks. Despite that and the poverty in which she could have drowned, she got up, moved on, conquered and beat all odds. So for that girl or woman reading this, trapped in the debilitating aftermath of abuse, I want you to think of Oprah today. We may not have control of people we encounter, people who are abusive because they were and are most likely abused, but we have ultimate control of how the rest of our story plays out after the abuse.
Today, I am thinking of my constitutional law professor. She was my professor of my very first class in law school. She was a bit of a celebrity in our school and community because of her presence, established brilliance, and nationally-acclaimed work in women’s advocacy. She was also our advisor for our yearly production of The Vagina Monologues. I remember the first time I did the show with her. Backstage, there was no professor-student divide between us. She looked at you with searching eyes, not as someone above you, but someone who was looking to uncover what drove you to that spot. I was rather preoccupied with my upcoming performance to level with her and said a lot things that underscored the difference in our wavelengths. She didn’t push. She just let me go on and her parting words to us before the curtains rose was, “Be a star.”
Last year my, my beloved professor killed herself with a shotgun. It was jarring. It stirred a lot of conflicting emotions: sorrow, anger, regret, and numbness. It was like hitting a brick wall full force. It was difficult reconciling the fact that your beacon for the fight against violence against women and children committed the epitome of violent act against herself. I dealt with those emotions by pushing them aside, and simply chose to remember her for that beautiful woman in knee-high, red boots shimmying in our law school’s corridors whose voice on women’s issues is memorialized in radio shows and law journals. When I think of her, I think of a star.
Today, I recall my last memory of her. We were performing that year’s production of The Vagina Monologues. The students perform stock dialogues and she performs the special piece, usually a new piece released by the creator, Eve Ansler. That piece was about an eight year old girl raped by military men in the war zone of Bosnia Herzegovina. The little girl was so physically damaged from the brutal rape by several men. The piece recalls of a woman cradling this child on her lap, and her lap is all of a sudden wet because the child has lost complete control below. I watched my professor cry as she recited the words of the monologue. It wasn’t a theatric cry. It was restrained. It was a cry that flows from digging so deep I think she forgot we were in front of her watching. It was the kind of understanding of a situation that I have been spared to truly understand.
When we think of Oprah Winfrey, we don’t see a victim. We see an amazing woman who wields power of unbelievable proportions. She not only beat the odds against women in the media industry, the show industry. She also conquered the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of being black in a country with a very dark history and present of racism. She didn’t use her history of abuse and disadvantage as an excuse but she rose above them and defined her future. She isn’t angry when pushed to recall her misfortunes and the injustices against her. She humbly and genuinely says, “Everybody has a story and your story is as equally as valuable and important as my story. My story just helped define and shape me as does everybody’s story.”
How could her story of child abuse define her as Oprah Winfrey now? She said that her abuse taught her compassion. In my view, compassion goes beyond a warm understanding of a victim telling her story. It goes to those who are spreading the abuse as a defense mechanism for the abuse they are unable, for some reason, to talk about. On this day, instead of lashing out in anger toward people you perceive as abusive, see the victim struggling to survive in them, too. In so doing, it might help you in defining your story as one that conquers hurdles instead of one that languishes in an endless cycle of pain.
On this day, as you take your power to define your future, and you struggle to make sense of your abuse, remember to always aim to be a star, a beacon to someone despite your internal darkness.
Having Groundhog Day follow Superbowl Sunday is rather sobering for Friedrich Nietzsche fans. Every year, on February 2, Americans celebrate this day as a matter of tradition. Folklore has it that the behavior of a rodent, groundhog, on this day can forecast the timing of the arrival of spring. If the groundhog emerges from its burrow and it is cloudy, it will retreat and it will be another six weeks of winter. If it emerges and it is sunny, we will have an early spring. The traditional festivities live on despite the questionable meteorological accuracy of the rodent’s weather predictions.
While Groundhog Day is a day of celebration for Americans, it is sobering for Nietzsche fans because it brings to mind his concept of the “eternal recurrence.” It is the idea that time is circular, not linear; that while time is infinite, the possibility of events that could occur on that time circle is finite. Nietzsche writes on this idea, horrified:
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine”? If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.” (The Gay Science 341)
The 1993 Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day, somewhat captures this idea for mainstream consumption. There, we experience, through Bill Murray’s character, the misery of living a 24-hour cycle with nothing external of you ever changing despite one’s dramatic efforts.
As I try to piece this blog entry on Groundhog Day, I couldn’t help but apply Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” to the reality of women’s struggle worldwide. Is our struggle circular?
Is the feminist movement’s seemingly linear gains mere incidences of finite possibilities of events that repeat itself on a bigger circular orbit? It is not such an insane question when we view the persistence of the same issues and battles that have plagued women across all cultures despite battles won in certain fronts such as voting rights, criminalization of sexual violence against women, privacy rights such as rights to abortion and contraceptives, rights to hold public office, and rights to access to education. The question becomes, “How could an institution that works on a horizontal plane, such as the legal system that is about tipping a scale on two sides, ever succeed in a reality that moves in circles?” Certainly, giving up is not an option for women’s advocates, but if Nietzsche is right about the state of equilibrium being an impossibility, how should we strategize our energies to avoid the inefficiency of aiming for an unattainable permanent state of the universe?
I may seem to digress from prior entries but I do not. As I pored through the Karen Vertido legal briefs, I came across Philippine Supreme Court cases on rape and other crimes of sexual violence that were clear in its ruling and dicta, yet ignored by modern judges such as the presiding judge of the People v. Custodio case. With “eternal recurrence” in mind, I can’t help but view the reality of any legal system as a whole as a perfect evidence that the struggle could very well be circular, and not just the women struggle but the struggle for justice across all nations. I pause to ask myself out loud, “Will the public education on the Karen Vertido case contribute enough to push the scale in favor of real victims to make the circular struggle for justice less horrifying?”
Back to the Karen Vertido case for a moment. Atty. Ursua’s arguments to the United Nations was simple. Jose Custodio’s acquittal for the crime of rape was (1) discriminatory, and (2) rendered in bad faith. It was in bad faith, in part, because the trial judge found Karen Vertido’s testimony not credible because she did not try hard enough to escape or avoid being raped when, in fact, she did. Below, I list 13 moments asserted by Karen Vertido to disprove the trial judge’s conclusion that her attempts were “feeble” and therefore casting significant doubts on her claim that the sexual contact was not consensual:
(1) Karen Vertido “pushed him away” when Custodio mashed her breast.
(2) Karen Vertido “grabbed the wheel of the car” to stop it from going into the motel garage.
(3) Karen Vertido “pleaded with him to let her go” while parked at the motel garage.
The Motel Premise:
(4) Karen Vertido, having been dragged out of the car to the front of the motel room, ran inside to “look for another exit.”
Before the act
(5) Karen Vertido, having failed in finding an exit, “locked herself in the comfort room.”
(6) Karen Vertido, detecting no movement outside of the comfort room, stepped out to “look for a phone, or another exit.”
(7) Karen Vertido, “turned and fled” back toward the comfort room when she saw Custodio was in the room.
During the act
(8) Karen Vertido “resisted” Custodio as he tried to pin her down the bed.
(9) Karen Vertido parried his kisses by “moving her head sideways.”
(10) Karen Vertido tried to “push him away” as Custodio was penetrating her.
(11) Karen Vertido tried to stop Custodio by “scratch[ing] and dig[ging] her nails into his flesh.”
(12) Karen Vertido “pulled his hair away,” causing Custodio to react in anger, dislodging his penis from her vagina.
After the act
(13) Karen Vertido “ran out of the room” after washing up and finding Custodio masturbating on the bed.
I lack the arrogance necessary to attempt to disprove Nietzsche wrong. But I would like to attempt in swaying minds that our struggle for a certain state of the universe, a just state, is futile. I think that by highlighting what right things women have done for other women, we make each other stronger in the struggle, no matter how circular. Strength in existence is not a goal in futility.
Karen Vertido and the Women Legal Bureau have empowered victims of sexual violence. By drawing attention to the facts above in the Communication to the United Nations, Atty. Ursua pushed back against Judge Hofilena-Europa’s insistence of judging a rape victim based on her personal idea on how a woman confronted with rape should behave. Atty. Ursua basically said, “This isn’t about Karen Vertido not trying hard enough to avoid being raped because she clearly did. This is about your unwillingness to let go of an idea that is not anchored in reality.” This push back gave victims of sexual violence worldwide the powerful tool that is the landmark case, Karen Vertido vs. State of the Philippines. It is the kind of efficiently strategized energy that pushes the scale of justice in favor of victims of sexual violence. This educational entry on the Karen Vertido case is a hand, among many, to keep the weight on the right plate of the justice scale.
Nietzsche may very well be correct that sustained equilibrium may be impossible, but striving for and achieving moments that resemble equilibrium may be a goal in itself.
Last night, fans of the American Superbowl tradition participated in an annual custom of spectator sports fueled by beer and greasy food. It is a tradition that centers on a sport that excludes women. One could be consumed by that inequity or one could focus on the half-time entertainment where a woman, Katy Perry, roared in full command of a giant golden tiger, towering over millions, propelled by a makeshift shooting star as she belted words like, “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire ‘cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar louder, louder than a lion.” To be honest, because I do not keep up with pop culture last night was the first time I’ve seen Katy Perry’s face, let alone observe her perform. But I, along with every single spectator of the Superbowl that count in the millions, was captivated by her for however fleeting of a moment. She was ONE woman, doing the job of two, all-male football teams. You win some, you lose some.
In the film, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character grew miserable in the time loop and resorted to desperate means to break through the repetitive cycle. Things turned for him internally when he used the vast knowledge he gained by experiencing the day in predictable cycles to re-define his existence as that of a person trapped in a loop to a person who has the opportunity to improve at every lap. If as a whole, we are a gender trapped in an inevitable loop of struggle, perhaps we can redefine our existence from that of a prisoner to a liberator not just of ourselves from the miseries in our minds but as liberators of the likes of us.
On November 29, 2007, the Women Legal Bureau hosted a press conference for the submission of the historic Communication to the United Nations. It is the first Asian Communication to CEDAW. It is the first rape case under Op-CEDAW. Karen Vertido was absent, on advise of counsel, but she had her daughter read a statement that said,
“Why do I go on fighting, I am asked over and over again? I fight because it is I who has been given the opportunity to fight. It could have been anybody else. But it landed on my lap? I fight for the young woman who reads this to you now. I fight for her daughters, and her daughters’ daughters. I fight for you — everyone of you, and your daughters as well?”
As a victim of sexual violence, it is so easy to feel stuck in a seemingly hopeless, circular trap. But there are victims like Karen Vertido who use their personal tragedy to demonstrate to women all over the world that they are not just a victim. Karen Vertido is that ONE woman rising above a sea of people customarily gathered to watch a tradition that excludes women, roaring and captivating.